Over the last 25 years or so the solo lute works of Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c. 1580-1651) have garnered significant representation on disc. My introduction to this music was Paul O’Dette’s signal 1990 recording on Harmonia Mundi. Featuring a panoply of harmonic surprises and an often asymmetrical, improvisatory character, these works immediately caught the attention of lutenists everywhere. Kapsberger was active at a crucial moment in European musical history, that highly creative and innovative transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque eras. As a lutenist he was a celebrated virtuoso, but he also left us with a significant body of work across a number of genres, including madrigals, songs with continuo accompaniment and even a stage work. This music languished in obscurity for centuries, only seeing a resurgence of interest toward the end of the 20th century, possibly on account of a falling-out that occurred between the reportedly temperamental Kapsberger and his influential contemporary, musicologist Giovanni Battista Doni (c. 1593-1647) who subsequently published some scathing assessments of Kapsberger’s music.
Mr. Maiorana’s recording contains a representative cross-section of Kapsberger’s works for solo theorbo (chitarrone) drawn from three surviving collections. The pieces chart a comprehensive traversal of the composer’s career, beginning with Libro Primo (1604), continuing with Libro Terzo (1626) and Libro Quarto (1640). (Libro Secundo from 1620 has unfortunately been lost). We would expect to hear an evolution of style and technique across this three-and-a-half decade span, but on this CD the pieces jump between the three publications in way that, though it makes musical sense, is not chronological. Our perception of such an evolution, if it even existed (I couldn’t hear it), is therefore obscured. This does nothing, however, to diminish the quality and sophistication of the music, as Kapsberger was inventive, adventurous, and a technical master of his instrument.
Of course any collection of this music requires a performer of the highest caliber, and we certainly have one in Mr. Maiorana. His performance is elegant and polished, his technical and musical skills abundant, and he makes this often enigmatic music very enjoyable to hear. There is intimacy in the sound he elicits from his theorbo, but when called for, plenty of drama. He is equally at home with lyrical passages, toe-tapping dance rhythms, and the eyebrow-raising virtuosic cascades of notes that punctuate Kapsberger’s music. We hear these cascades pervasively in the Preludios from Libro Quarto of which this recording contains a healthy dollop. It’s a device that makes takes full advantage of the theorbo’s re-entrant tuning, wherein the instrument can evoke the character of a harp.
In these Preludios and also in the Toccatas, Mr. Maiorana emphasizes the rhythmic freedom inherent in this style, imbuing the pieces with a highly improvisatory character. While this is certainly in keeping with the composer’s intent, for me it raises the question of how these pieces were originally composed. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are notated versions of Kapsberger’s own improvisations, probably worked out over a number of public performances and finally intabulated for publication. I further suspect that subsequent performances of these pieces (if there were any) would not have slavishly adhered to the published versions. As if to illustrate this, Mr. Maiorana has added his own not-so-brief coda to Preludio IX (track 3) inspired by elements contained in Libro Terzo, which serves to extend the freewheeling character of the piece.
This is a beautifully recorded CD in which the engineers have captured the intimacy of Mr. Maiorana’s playing and rendered it very pleasingly. While the natural resonance of the theorbo is much in evidence, it is in no way muddied by excessive room ambiance. For those of us already familiar with Kapsberger’s music this disc is a welcome addition to the catalog, and for those to whom this music is new, an attention-grabbing introduction. Audiophiles should note that the CD was recorded in 48Khz/24-bit resolution (DVD-A standard), but of course for CD release it was mastered at 44.1Khz/16-bit, (CD standard). Austrian record label Fra Bernardo’s recordings are distributed in the US by Naxos, where the discs are available from their website (naxosdirect.com), and can also be purchased or streamed/downloaded from Amazon.com. Hopefully you can also find it at your local CD store. While I could not immediately find a source for this recording in its high-resolution format, I hope one will soon emerge.