A sea change occurred in music between 1584, when Palestrina wrote his Shostakovich-like renunciation of secular music in a dedication to Pope Gregory XIII ("I blush and grieve to think," he wrote, that he had been one of the composers who wrote spiritually lowly madrigals of love), and 1623, when Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (an Italian, despite the German name) wrote the spiritual solo madrigals that make up the Libro Secondo d'arie. Yet political and musical changes don't always go hand in hand, and the severe ideals of the Catholic Counter Reformation still carried plenty of weight as Kapsberger created these works for the Pope-producing Barberini family. Musically these are pieces in the Monteverdi recitative style, extended in a few intriguing directions by Kapsberger. What makes them unusual are the texts. You might call them anti-love songs, written to texts by Petrarch, Giambattista Marino, and other major poets of the era. The speakers in the texts are various: Mary Magdalene, Moses, Christ, or the Lord in a dialogue with the sinner's soul. The theme running throughout, however, is that of the rejection of the sphere of human love. Sample track 6, Pargoletto son io (I am a child), with its innovative structure of interlocking dual sections. "The spirit I have in my heart despises this false god, the futile richness of love," sings the human soul aspiring to the divine. Some of the songs, however, could be read as either secular or sacred -- sample track 10, T'inaspiri a miei lamenti (You become embittered by my laments), which could have come straight out of one of the later books of Monteverdi's secular madrigals. The overall impression is that the deployment of operatic devices in the service of Lutheran devotion that one associates with Bach has its ultimate roots in the earliest Baroque, and in the Catholic sphere to boot. Thus, the mainly Canadian group Il Furioso deserves credit for bringing this little-known music to light; Kapsberger has been known mostly to lutenists. The singers, however, only intermittently achieve the virtuosity this music demands -- Kapsberger's vocal music was written, in the words of one commentator, for "the best singers in all Italy." It is particularly soprano Janet Youngdahl, a singer with roots in medieval music, that is problematic -- sample one of the tracks on which she appears (tracks 3 and 6 are the first two) to see whether her style appeals to you. She often runs through a phrase almost baldly, with no vibrato, and then drops precipitously onto one of the complex ornaments at the phrase's end. Tenor Gian Paolo Fagotto is more powerful, but it may be that the strongest benefit of this release is that it might interest Rinaldo Alessandrini or one of the other musicians who has been revolutionizing Monteverdi performance in these very unusual mixtures of sacred and secular ideas.
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger: Libro secondo d'arie Review
by James Manheim