The material on this disc may be a footnote to musical history, but, as anyone who has read David Foster Wallace can tell you, the best stuff is sometimes in the footnotes. La tavola cromatica contains music that might have been associated with a viol academy of early seventeenth century Rome, established by Cardinal Francesco Barberini -- scion of a powerful Roman family, nephew to Pope Urban VIII, and apparently a patron of musical experimenters. The music is mostly for viol consort, with eight of the 18 works having texts sung by the divine early music soprano Evelyn Tubb. Composers represented range from the well-known (Carlo Gesualdo, whose madrigals are performed by viols or voice and viols), to the little-known (Pomponio Nenna), to the almost completely obscure (Ercole Bottrigari).
Those who know the heated, highly chromatic madrigals of Gesualdo have tended to think of them as unique experiments, as something of a historical dead end. La tavola cromatica shows that view to be incorrect. Gesualdo's musical language, and indeed the entire ultra-expressive turn the Italian madrigal took at the end of the sixteenth century, was bound up with the ideal of recapturing what well-educated courtiers saw as the vanished acme of text expression: the music of ancient Greek drama. Opera was born out of one experiment performed along these lines, but other inquiries persisted well into the seventeenth century. Some of the music here shows the influence of operatic monody, while others take the chromaticism of Gesualdo and push it to even greater lengths; the Sonata Stravaganze of Giovanni Pietro del Buono is written for a 16-tone scale (without, for example, the E flat/D sharp equivalence of equal temperament).
All of it is gorgeous, passionate, extreme, most of all the Canzonetta sacra sopra alla nanna, a Marian lullaby of heavenly length by Tarquinio Merula. This isn't typical music of the early seventeenth century, and very little of it sounds like Monteverdi. But anyone seeking to understand the era should hear it. La tavola cromatia makes a fine companion disc to Alpha's release featuring the keyboard toccatas of Michelangelo Rossi, one of which is heard here on the awe-inspiring Baroque harp of Marie Nishiyama. And there are plenty of people for whom Gesualdo represents the beginning and end of their seventeenth century Italian listening lists, having come to that extremist madrigalist because of long-held views of him as a proto-modernist spirit. They too will find profound hidden beauties here.
The oddly named The Earle and His Viols (named for Swiss-based viol maker Richard Earle, who constructed the replicas of historical instruments heard here) handles the intonationally treacherous far reaches of this music with aplomb, and Tubb achieves operatic ferocity in a remarkable monodic setting by Domenico Mazzocchi of a passage from Vergil's Aeneid. Germany's Edition Raumklang label, true to its name, provides resonant sound that immerses the listener in the music. There's very little to say on the negative side. Perhaps it might have been nice to hear the del Buono Sonata stravagante on the harp, as well, rather than on the viols, since it was originally a keyboard work, probably written for a 16-tone-to-the-octave chromatic keyboard instrument. The outer cover of the CD is beautifully designed, elegantly incorporating the flies featured on the Barberini family coat of arms (look closely at the strings of the viol on the central panel, Dixie Chicks fans). The liner notes, however, are text-packed and too dense for all but specialists. And it shouldn't just be specialists who get to enjoy this truly breathtaking recording.