17th-Century Blossoms Strewn By The Handful: Music For Triple Harp

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Marie-Domitille Murez plays triple harp on her new CD of Italian music of the early 17th century.

Laura. Marie-Domitille Murez, triple harp. Gemelli Factory GEFA003/1. Total time 1:05:53.

As noble Laura, who graces the Mincio
Immortal lady, nay true Goddess
Plucked the Harp with her white hands,
It was as if dawn were scattering flowers in the sky.

DIGITAL REVIEW — These are the opening lines of a poem by Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso and the inspiration for Marie-Domitille Murez’s recording Laura, a solo turn on triple harp containing Italian music of the early 17th century.

On this recording, Murez is playing a triple harp, an instrument commonly use in the late Renaissance and early Baroque. A triple harp has two rows of strings (treble and bass) tuned diatonically and a row between them that fills in the missing chromatics. The result is a rich, almost orchestral sound that lends itself well to polyphony.

The “Laura” in question is Laura Peverara, a member of the Duke of Ferrara’s celebrity Concerto delle Donne, a group of female musicians who performed “secret music” in a small room for an elite, invited audience. As Mathilde Etienne explains in her fascinating essay in the booklet, the Donne were a brand and a marketing ploy, making Europe’s most important people vie for an invitation and inspiring copycat groups in Florence, Rome, and Mantua.

Besides their social cachet and rabid fan base, the Donne of Ferrara’s court had two other elements in common with rock groups of our era: The personnel changed over the years, and most of the group’s members ended up involved in scandal. The exception was Laura Peverara. The virtuous harpist inspired many, including Tasso, with “the virtuosity of her playing and singing, the beauty of her voice and her face, and her talent as a dancer,” as Etienne puts it. 

Murez is clearly inspired, too. She has amassed a collection of works as a tribute to Peverara. The connection of the music to the woman is not obvious, since the Donne disbanded when the Ferrara court dissolved in 1597; all of these pieces are from the following generation. A second essay by Etienne claims the recording is “a sort of family tree of the harp,” rather a different premise. Still, it’s a good excuse to hear some excellent harp-playing. Murez has performed and made recordings with various ensembles, including Canticum Novum, Pygmalion, and Ensemble Céladon. This is her first solo project.

Some of the repertoire Murez chose was originally written for harp. She opens with Giovanni Maria Trabaci’s 1615 Toccata Seconda & Ligature per l’Arpa. Her playing is passionate and intelligent, and the music itself rich in contrasts. Although Murez is an early-music specialist, she is highly fluid in her mid-phrase dynamics, not limiting herself to the “terraces” formerly believed to structurally limit the use of loud and soft. There are moments here that sound almost Romantic.

Another Trabaci work is his harp arrangement of 16th-century vocal music, a common practice at the time. His Ancidetemi pur is based on the madrigal of that name by Flemish innovator Jacques Arcadelt. It was not unusual for vocal polyphony to be assigned partly or entirely to instruments, but it’s a different experience to hear it all on one instrument. Trabaci has picked out the highlights of Arcadelt’s counterpoint, creating a multi-range challenge for Murez, who approaches the piece as if it were a fantasia, with strong rubato and much ornamentation.

The closest connection to the Donne themselves comes in the form of Luzzasco Luzzaschi, who wrote for the Ferrara women. Harp arrangements of three of his instrumental works (per sonare, as they called it at the turn into the 17th century, which meant “for playing” as opposed to per cantare, “for singing” — and often the same score could be used for both). His Fantasia a quattro sopra Ave Maris stella, developing a liturgical hymn, was published for either option. Under Murez’s fingers, the careful four-voiced counterpoint is clear and each phrase moves forward with purpose. 

Niccolò dell’Abbate’s painting (c. 1550) of Concerto delle Donne, a group of female musicians who performed “secret music” for an elite, invited audience.

Another major figure in abundant presence is Girolamo Frescobaldi, one of the inventors of the Renaissance keyboard toccata as a chromatic, exploratory warm-up that gives the sense of improvisation even when it’s composed. Murez adapts Frescobaldi’s work for harp, presenting his wildly complex Cento Partite sopra Passacagli with stately confidence.

The more important contributing factor to the record’s success is Murez’s playing. Her noisy breathing notwithstanding, her musicianship never flags; the listener does not tire of the unaccompanied solo harp because Murez offers such a wide range of textures, timbres, and stylistic ideas. While the connection of this music to the titular Laura may be tenuous, the program itself is entirely convincing.