Virtuoso Italian Vocal Music
In one of the most remarkable literary descriptions of early Italian virtuoso singing to have survived, an elderly Roman recalls the performances of the famous singers of his youth. ''They moderated or increased their voices,'' he wrote, ''loud or soft, heavy or light, according to the demands of the piece they were singing, now slow, breaking off sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again with sweet running passages sung softly.'' These words, while prosaic and sometimes imprecise, do convey the essence of early Italian florid song, its fundamentally rhetorical character. To perform such pieces convincingly requires not only technical mastery and a certain elegance of vocal delivery, but also an intimate understanding of the careful bond that exists between words and music that lies at the heart of the style; it is unfortunately only too common to encounter singers who regard ornamentation as surface decoration rather than an integral and potent element of the musical language itself.
This is not, it should be said, a misconception which is shared by Catherine Bott. For at her best on this record, as in the sequences of pieces by Caccini and Monteverdi and in the concluding Lamento in morte di Maria Stuarda by Carissimi, she displays a rich emotional range which projects the music to dramatic effect. Part of her success with this repertory is to do with the power and tonal flexibility of her voice, clear and bright at the upper end of the range and warm and evocative in its lower register. As to the ornamentation itself, this is negotiated almost effortlessly, and to literally breathtaking effect in a piece such as Exulta, filia Sion. This is singing of conviction of a powerful kind that is rarely heard in this sort of music. The New London Consort accompany with great sensitivity, exploring in the process extremes of timbre and effect ranging from a simple organ accompaniment in Luzzaschi's O primavera to the excitingly full and Percussive qualities of Dalle piu alte sfere, the opening aria from the spectacular 1589 internnedi. This is a remarkable record, not least for its brave exploration of unfamiliar repertory; no one with an interest in Italian music of the early baroque can afford to miss it.'