Sfumato, Mignarda's 8th CD, is a profound and passionate interpretation of forward-looking music for solo voice and lute from 16th century Italy. With its crystalline clear sound, the recording presents a deftly wrought distillation of the artists' immersion into the art, literature and music of a people, place and period.
Sfumato describes a style of painting used by 16th century Italian painters. Derived from the word sfumare, it means to shade or cause to vanish, and the technique was typically used to create the impression that a veil of smoke filters between the image and the viewer. Leonardo da Vinci described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane," a description that aptly informs our approach to music of the period.
Turmoil and tribulation, disease and death, faith and fraud, passion and pathos describe life in early 16th century Italy. Empires were built and dynasties established by brazen bankers flaunting the Church's increasingly tenuous hold on the ambitious nouveau riche merchant class, with their voracious appetite for art and music. These new patrons of the arts commissioned and financed what we have come to call the Renaissance, the manifestation of a commercial response by artists, poets and musicians to meet an increased demand for the trappings of wealth and success.
Composers represented on this CD - from Tromboncino to Marenzio - were probably not interested in creating Art Songs to be recognized as classics in the 21st century. Musicians flourished based on their skill in setting passionate poetry in the present tense to music that contained a measure of art paired with the pulse of the heart. As with visual art of the period, the superficial meaning might be grasped by the casual observer, but these songs offer a richer, more nuanced experience upon closer examination.
"Harmony is not engendered until the proportionality of things is made visible or audible." Leonardo da Vinci
While a few pieces on this recording enjoy a measure of familiarity among early music specialists, we have forged our own interpretations through research into contextual evidence, embracing the conventions of functional music from the time with a slavish dedication to observing the clues that emerge from both text and music. We have made our own translations of the texts and have lived with each piece for a span of time in an attempt to understand the harmonic and rhythmic personality of each composer, using the information to bring poetry and phrasing into sharp relief.
A primary force driving our interpretation is the desire to understand each song's meaning and reception when it was new. This means sifting through the available clues to gain an understanding of the people, the place and the period in which they lived. The evidence left behind includes descriptive poetry, correspondence, manuals describing courtly behavior, treatises on music theory by delightfully outspoken writers such as Aretino, Castiglione, V. Galilei, Maffei, and Zarlino.
As an example of our approach, reading the letters of Pietro Aretino aids in understanding context of the music. In a particularly sardonic letter dated 22 November 1537, Aretino makes a mockery of an old man strutting down the street singing ‘O mia cieca e dura sorte.’ This description gave us some valuable hints toward an effective performance of the frottola by Marchetto Cara. First, the song was sung while walking down the street giving us the clue that the pulse of the bass line was meant to be regular and perhaps even a bit bouncy. At the next level, the ‘strutting’ aspect of the song helped inform the delivery of the text, suggesting we steer away from the more usual slow and mournful treatment of the frottola to that of a rather histrionic public protestation of ill treatment.
The music on this recording is arranged as a concert program, building upon an evolution of style from the frottole common to the early part of the century, a snapshot of the nascent form of the madrigal, a glimpse of the developing style of ornamented solo songs from the middle of the century, and ending with the harmonically adventurous madrigals by Luca Marenzio. The music of Philippe Verdelot is central to our recorded program, drawing on the settings of his madrigals for solo voice and lute from Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano (Venice, 1536).
The poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374) was a significant source of inspiration for composers of frottole and the early madrigal. Petrarch is represented on this recording in Bartolomeo Tromboncino's settings of Vergine bella and Che debbo far, Sebastiano Festa's setting of O passi sparsi, and Verdelot's Quando Amor i begli occhi. While many of the other texts are anonymous, identified poets include the famous Nicolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), whose pastoral Quanto sia lieto il giorno was set by Verdelot, as was the canzona Ultimi miei sospiri by Lodovico Martelli (1503 –1584), and Donna leggiadr' et bella by Giovanni Brevio (1480 - 1539).
Most of the instrumental interludes on the recording are titled 'recercar' (with one 'fantasia') spelt in an amusing variety of forms. Hundreds of 16th century Italian recercari survive both in manuscript and printed sources, and the function of the form is to establish and 'search out' the character of a particular mode, or to provide a sensitive transition to another. The lute book of Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507), the very first publication for lute, is the source for three rather free-form impressionistic recercari, with another three in the later imitative style of Francesco da Milano (1497 – 1543). Other noted Italian lutenists including Giovanni Maria da Crema (fl. 1546), Marco Dall'Aquila (c.1480 – 1538), and Antonio Rotta (c. 1495 – 1549) are represented by one piece each. The later 16th century setting of the anonymous villanella Orlando fa'che ti raccordi, is from a manuscript that has gone missing but was transcribed by Italian musicologist Oscar Chilesotti and published in 1890. Chilesotti's transcriptions were later orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi in his three suites titled Ancient Airs & Dances.