“The Italian Dramatic Lament,”
performed by the award-winning Catacoustic Consort, brings together assorted
laments by a trio of composers who figure prominently in any consideration of
early opera: Claudio Monteverdi, Jacopo Peri, and Giulio Caccini. While not
all of the works on the recording are operatic—there are some
“unattached” songs as well as instrumental music—the
collection richly evokes the highly emotional and highly stylized music that
comprised the stilo rappresentativo.
Soprano Catherine Webster is an impressive singer with a commanding
dramatic range, equally adept at impassioned verbalism and lyrical singing.
This range famously comes into play in works like Monteverdi’s
“Lamento d’Arianna,” a work that Webster handles with
notable vocal flexibility and a compelling sense of style. Throughout the
recording she sings with a mature understanding of the dynamics at play in
the works, and the result is unflaggingly convincing. That which ultimately
sets this recording apart, however, is the beguiling contribution of the
instrumentalists. The interplay of lirone (a chordal bowed-string instrument
with regrettably few modern practitioners), harp, and theorbo is unusually
rich here, adopting a freely improvisational approach, full of dynamism and
responsiveness. It is brilliant continuo playing, and the collaborative color
and spontaneity do much to make the performances wondrously alive.
Several instrumental works by Hieronymus Kapsberger give the ensemble a
chance to extend the lamentative theme. Tellingly, all are grounds, including
a large-scale Passacaglia. The ground bass form is often associated with
laments in the seventeenth century, where their descents became emblematic of
falling tears and their obstinate repetitions seem to embody the
inescapability of fate.
This is a stunning recording by a young ensemble well worth watching in
the future. The performances here dramatically underscore the degree to which
early seventeenth-century style is collaborative, and the
“Catacousticians” amply show the rewards of a heightened
collaborative approach. But moreover, the performances here remind as well of
the degree to which manner of performance lies close to the heart of
this repertory. And in this case, the heart is well served, indeed.