Artemisia Capella

Raphaella Aleotti: Le Monache di San Vito

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The music written by convent nuns remains among the least-investigated aspects of the tradition of Western concert music by women, and this disc of Italian music of the early seventeenth century hints at the riches still to be discovered, performed, and recorded elsewhere. Raphaella Aleotti was the "concert mistress" of a convent San Vito, near the musically rich city of Ferrara, and musicians there praised her compositions. She was of noble birth, probably named Vittoria Aleotti before taking religious orders, and she also is thought to have composed one collection of secular madrigals before that time. That gives a clue as to what these choral compositions are like: Aleotti was on top of the new styles that had roots in opera and the secular madrigal. Her music has hints of the older prima prattica (Italian for "old school"); she often favors strictly imitative phrase entrances, for example. But she tends toward dramatic expression of the text, and when the singers of the Cappella Artemisia (presumably named for the fabulous artist Artemesia Gentileschi, who favored Judith's decapitation of Holofernes as a subject) set the top line of one of these motets as an instrumentally accompanied solo, it's easy to imagine that you're listening to unknown Monteverdi. That is just one of the group's many ways of interpreting the printed notes; they use various vocal and instrumental configurations, offering possible sonorities in a spirit of experiment. That gives the music a discontinuity that probably wasn't intended, but it works well enough in this case: the convent, remarkably, is known to have used a variety of secular instruments, and most of them are deployed here. The music is accomplished and imposing, and the only appearance of the intimate quality one might expect from convent music comes in the length of the individual pieces -- they are mostly under three minutes long and have the quality of individual utterances. (One longer piece included is by a male composer, Giovanni Battista Mazzaferrata; though secular and even sexy, it was dedicated to one of the nuns at San Vito.) This disc certainly has something of an investigative quality, but it is more than competently performed and recorded. Notes are in Italian, English, and French, but texts are in Latin (or Italian) only. Recommended to all interested in music by women, and a nice source of an instant term paper for students.

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