La Bella Minuta / Bruce Dickey
The cornett was one of the most celebrated instruments in the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century. It was played across Europe. In Italy it was held in high esteem, and here some of the best and most virtuosic players were active. When independent instrumental music emerged in the early 17th century the cornett experienced strong competition from the violin; the instruments were often considered alternatives. One of the reasons for the cornett's reputation was that it was considered closest to the human voice.
In the 16th century the cornett - like other instruments - was used in church to support or replace the voice. Towards the end of the century solo music for the cornett came into existence, in particular diminutions (or divisions) on one or more parts from sacred or secular vocal pieces. Girolamo Dalla Casa, who in 1568 founded the first instrumental ensemble in the San Marco in Venice, wrote an important treatise on the art of ornamentation, or - as he called it - la bella Minuta. In this book, Il vero modo di diminuir (1584), he laid down his esthetic ideals: "[Let] everyone strive to make a nice sound, lovely articulations, and beautiful divisions, and to imitate the human voice as much as possible". In the next decades numerous sets of divisions were composed, by the likes of Giovanni Bassano, Giovanni Battista Bovicelli and Francesco Rognoni. In his own divisions on Josquin's Mille regretz and Palestrina's motet Nigra sum Bruce Dickey makes use of ideas which were written down in treatises or demonstrated in compositions by several of these masters.
The programme of this disc includes only a small number of diminutions. The largest part is devoted to other genres of music, which were mostly not specifically written for the cornett or not even for treble instruments, but can be perfectly played on it. The pieces by Mayone and Trabaci are for keyboard, but here they are mostly performed with the cornett playing the often florid upper part. Considering the flexibility of composers of that time in regard to scoring there is no objection to this practice. Gioseffo Guami did not indicate any specific scoring for his canzonas, and here they are played by Dickey with either the organ or an ensemble of three gambas and harp. The combination of organ and cornett works particularly well and was frequently practised at the time. It was called "playing in the organ", and as the cornett and the organ are both wind instruments the cornett sounds like a stop of the organ. In these pieces Dickey has added some ornaments of his own, as was expected from performers.
That includes singers: they were supposed to add their own ornaments to the music as it was written down. Not every singer had the necessary skills to do so. This explains that Bartolomeo Barbarino published a collection of solo motets with ornamented and unornamented versions printed side by side. This way they can be sung by singers with various skills: the least-skilled can sing the unornamented versions, the better ones can perform the ornamented versions and the very best can sing the unornamented versions and add divisions of their own. By including various motets Dickey emphasizes the connection between the cornett and the human voice.
The programme is played in the basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua which has two balconies, one with an 16th-century organ. Both balconies are used. The pieces with cornett and organ are performed in the organ loft while the other loft accommodates the cornett with gambas and harp. Two pieces by Guami are set for two groups: L'Accorta and the Canzon XXV a 8. Here we get a nice dialogue between the organ and the other instruments at the opposing balcony. It has to be said, though, that a part of the music played here was very likely never performed in church; rather in the more intimate surroundings of the palaces of the aristocracy. In his liner-notes Dickey gives an interesting example of a player who played with a harpsichord which was completely closed and was still able to play so softly that the cornett didn't exceed the sound of the harpsichord. Luzzaschi's madrigal O primavera is played with harp only to give some impression of what it could have been like, but in this acoustic that doesn't really come off.
Let us not be too picky, though. This is simply a brilliant recording. I find this music endlessly fascinating and can listen to it for hours, because of its versatility, the huge variety in ornamentation and the gorgeous sound of the instruments. Moreover, Bruce Dickey once again proves to be the king of all cornettists. His technical prowess is astonishing, and in every piece he shows his thorough knowledge of the repertoire and of period performance practice. The extensive splendid liner-notes bear witness to that as well. Liuwe Tamminga is an expert in Italian organ music of the 16th and 17th century and displays the various colours of the organ in an undemonstrative way. The harp adds a special flavour to this recording and the three gambas produce a warm sound which blends perfectly with cornett and harp.
This disc impressively documents the art of the cornett and the brilliance of the cornettists of the time around 1600.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: PAS979
Composer: ["Antonio Brunelli, Ascanio Maione, Bartolomeo Barbarino ("Il, Cypriano de Rore, Gioseffo Guami, Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Giovanni Palestrina, Hippolito Tartaglino, Josquin Des Préz, Luzzasco Luzzaschi"]
Performer: Alberto Rasi, Bruce Dickey, Claudia Pasetto, Leonardo Bortolotto, Liuwe Tamminga, Maria Christina Cleary