May 13, 2021


Kassianí: Hymns. Cappella Romana conducted by Alexander Lingas. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

Francesco Rasi and contemporaries: Arias. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, tenor; Louise Pierrard, viola da gamba; Thomas Dunford, theorbo; Flora Papadopoulos, harp. Naïve. $16.99.

     Listeners tend to trace Western vocal music back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the time of Claudio Monteverdi and the beginning of opera; or somewhat further back, perhaps to Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century. But of course the roots of Western music go back considerably earlier: Gregorian chant, although not actually created by Pope Gregory I in the 7th century, has been around since the 9th or 10th. This early music has been explored at considerable length in recent years, and performers have learned historical performance practices that have made it possible to hear and enjoy the exceptional purity and beauty of these very early works. There are other pieces of that vintage, however, that are still very little known outside specific religious celebrations, largely because they were created for the Greek Orthodox rather than Roman church. One foundation of this form of music, which is in Greek rather than Latin, is the work of a 9th-century Byzantine abbess named Kassianí or Kassia, who is a saint in the Orthodox Church (her feast day is September 7). Kassianí wrote a considerable amount of music – about 50 of her hymns survive – and also wrote aphoristic non-liturgical poetry. The excellent and expressive voices of Cappella Romana are ideally suited to introduce the music of Kassianí to a wider audience, which is just what they do in a new recording on the ensemble’s own label. Under the sensitive and knowing direction of Alexander Lingas, the members of Cappella Romana present 10 selections of Kassianí’s music for Christmas, the Lenten Triodion, and Holy Week. Included is her best-known hymn, known in English as “Lord, the woman found in many sins,” which is chanted each year at matins on Holy Wednesday. Like other works on this revelatory SACD, this hymn requires a very wide vocal range as well as sensitivity to the slow and sorrowful mood it evokes. Several of the hymns offered on this disc are world première recordings, and the disc itself is the first in an ambitious series intended to make all of Kassianí’s surviving music available in recorded form. The grace, beauty and stylistic clarity of these works come through in genuinely uplifting fashion in these beautifully balanced performances. The disc is nevertheless one whose appeal is sure to be limited because of the focus of the material, the nature of sacred choral music in our secular age, and the unfamiliar language of the hymns (although English translations are provided in the accompanying booklet). The fact that there is a limited audience for music of such beauty and uplift says far more about modern society than it does about Kassianí and her works. For those willing to open their ears and spirits to this material, the recording will bring a high level of peace and contentment, and a feeling of connection to something beyond everyday experience – exactly as Kassianí surely intended nearly 1,200 years ago.

     It is only in contrast to music such as Kassianí’s that the works by Francesco Rasi (1574-1621) seem comparatively modern. A new Naïve recording that is just as rarefied as Cappella Romana’s, but in a different way, features tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro sensitively exploring arias by Rasi and his contemporaries – including a number of works written for Rasi or believed to have been performed by him. The best-known composers represented on the CD are Jacopo Peri, Carlo Gesualdo, and – most familiar by far – Monteverdi, the title role of whose L’Orfeo (1607) was explicitly written for Rasi. For the music on this disc to have its full effect, it helps to understand that Monteverdi wrote L’Orfeo and other works in whole notes (semibreves) and left it to Rasi and other singers to ornament what was essentially a bare outline. Thus, modern performances of Monteverdi’s music and other works of the same time period offer material that was essentially created by two people: the composer and the singer. Understanding this context makes it even more interesting to hear the six works on this disc that Rasi himself actually created and sang (accompanying himself on the lute or harp). Historical understanding and knowledge of performance practice are also helpful when listening to the one Monteverdi aria heard here (Quel sguardo sdegnosetto) as well as the pieces by Giuseppino del Biado, Marco da Gagliano, Giulio Cassini (two arias), Thomas Dunford, Andrea Falconieri (two arias), and Sigismondo d’India. The composers’ names will likely be unfamiliar to most audiences, although several will be known to listeners with a special interest in music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Collectively, these composers represent the crème de la crème of creators of florid, elaborately ornamented arias from the early days of opera: they are largely responsible for establishing a tradition that became so closely identified with Italian music that it was not until centuries later that Respighi and others were able to reestablish significant non-vocal music with an Italian accent. The highly idiomatic performances by Toro and his accompanists make this unusual recording a treat for listeners who want to explore the byways of early opera and 400-year-ago compositional and performance styles. The audience for the recording will inevitably be a small one, but those who find the material congenial will greatly enjoy this fascinating journey into secular vocal material of the distant past, just as those interested in the Cappella Romana disc will find themselves transported into the sacred compositions and performances of an even more distant time.

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