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EXPLORING MUSIC: Necks, Guts, Wires, and Notes --Italian Lute Music

The MHS Review 389 Vol. 11 No.11 1987

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Frank Cooper


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Breathing life back into 17th-­century music for plucked strings re­quires scholarly musicianship, talented fingers, and good instruments of several types. Here, in addition to some lovely old music, we have them all!

Konradjunghanel, one of Europe's most oft-recorded lutenists, has a field day of sorts with the polyphonic can­zonas and ricercars, free-wheeling toc­catas, and sprightly dances of his two composers using a lute, a chitarrone, and a theorbo. His lute is a 10-course, short-necked beauty (19 strings in all: nine in pairs plus a solo string) which would be no surprise in a painting by Caravaggio. The chitarrone is a Parmigianino-like long-necked relative with 13 courses (19 strings, too, but in a different arrangement). His theorbo, or archlute, is a 14-course giraffe-necked enormity (26 strings!) resembling those to be seen in the paintings by many early 18th­-century Dutch and English artists.

Both lutes are strung in gut--from sheep, not cats (as you may have thought)--while the chitarrone is strung in metal wire, so the sound dif­fers in timbre from one instrument to the next. Herr Junghanel alternates groups of the pieces among the three instruments, playing eight works by Kapsberger on the small lute, three by the same composer and eight by Pic­cinini on the chitarrone, and five by the latter on the theorbo.

The composers, whose names are hardly household items (but whose music is of surpassing charm and beauty nevertheless), spent their careers in that fountainhead of so much musical culture, Italy. Piccinini was born there and worked in Modena, Ferrara, and Rome. Those of his works which are heard here come from publications dated 1623 and 1639. Kapsberger, a German, found employment first in Venice, then in Rome. His pieces date from 1604, 1611, and 1640.

Although no documentary evidence exists to prove that the two men may have known each other, they wrote somewhat similarly. Their early baro­que style allowed for strong emotional feelings expressed through surges of melody and harmony, the contrast of strict part writing and free virtuosic passagework, and dance forms of somewhat more sophistication than those of the pre-baroque. The five gagliardas and four correntes, all light as air, strike these ears as particularly ingratiating. The dozen toccatas, fill­ed as they are with flights of im­aginative figuration, show us the more fantastical sides of their composers, while the more sober examples of can­zona, ricercar, passacaglia, and partite (variations) let us enjoy their intellec­tual sides.

A recording such as this Is a valuable document historically for libraries and scholarly persons. But it has an even more practical value for "just plain folks" who love elegant, refined music in their homes: it provides GREAT background music! You can play this music for any occasion. Its gentle sonorities will create a suave environment for conversation, food, and drink without competing for at­tention with your friends or family.

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