Tuesday, July 20, 2021

"Song of the Courtesan", music of Barbara Strozzi and others performed at the "Witches?" Festival in Jerusalem, July 2021

Soprano Daniela Skorka (photo: Michael Pavia)


A dedication of Barbara Strozzi reads as follows: “I must reverently consecrate this ... work, which as a woman I publish all too boldly, to the Most August Name of Your Highness so that, under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.” Music of Barbara Strozzi and other Baroque composers made up the concert bill for “Song of the Courtesan”, an event which took place at New Spirit House, Jerusalem, on July 9th, 2021.  A chamber concert of the “Witches?” Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (artistic director: David Shemer), it featured Daniela Skorka-soprano, David Shemer-harpsichord and Eliav Lavi-theorbo.


The life story of Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) remains almost inconceivable for the times in which she lived. The illegitimate daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi and Isabella Garzoni, Giulio’s maid, her father ensured that she would be trained in composition. Francesco Cavalli became her teacher. Due to her father’s standing in artistic circles, Strozzi enjoyed more opportunities than other women artists, certainly more than most women composers of the time. A talented singer, also accompanying herself in performances, she was known to have sung at her father’s home and was heard by prominent musicians, this furthering her ability to compose high level music that would also be published during her lifetime. Of her eight volumes of vocal music, all except one are secular (she wrote no operas), most of her compositions being ariettas, arias and cantatas for solo voice and continuo. All but four of her vocal works were written for the soprano voice. Skorka’s performance left no doubt as to the fact that text was what constituted the driving force of Strozzi’s compositions, their most striking feature being a seemingly endless variety of moods, rhythms, tempi, and melodic textures, all perfectly suited to displaying the female voice to its best possible advantage. In “L’Eraclito amoroso” (Heraclitus in Love) and "Appresso ai molli argenti" (By the silvery waters), Daniela Skorka gave expression to the composer’s rich theatrical canvases evoking the anguish of lost love and betrayal. The singer enlisted her flexible vocal technique and expressiveness to convey Strozzi’s volley of extreme, changing emotions, with dissonances between the voice and accompaniment serving to increase dramatic potency. On a more whimsical note, Skorka tossed off the earthy banter of the tuneful, strophic arietta “Bando d’amore” with exuberant verve and the wink of an eye, to the enjoyment of both artists and audience. 

“Love is banished, lovers, move on. 

An edict has been made that love shall be no more. 

Finished are the love affairs; the deception and the fraud 

Ah, ah, no longer one hears of them, of torments and grudges: the case is resolved. 

Fancies in the brain in the heart, jealousies, passion, foolishness are gone to the brothel: the case is resolved…” (Translation: Martha Gerhart.)


Taking the listener into a very different genre, but one of no less daring, David Shemer performed two keyboard Toccatas of Girolamo Frescobaldi, the luminary of the early Baroque and the trend-setter who unleashed the keyboard’s potential to turn human emotions into purely instrumental sound: Shemer’s playing, emerging spontaneous in manner, alternated lively and slower sections, displaying Frescobaldi’s fertile and imaginative musical language for keyboard drama, the composer's inventiveness and his bold use of chromatics. Always riveting, surprising and fresh in sound, Shemer draws the audience into his own probing of the unpredictable. 


In the employ of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger worked alongside Frescobaldi. Kapsberger’s music, especially his toccatas, influenced that of Frescobaldi. Despite his Austrian name, G.G. Kapsberger was born and educated in Venice. Stemming from a rich tradition of Italian lute-playing, he was known as a brilliant lute virtuoso. Settling in Rome in 1605, he began to write and publish works for the instrument, ensuring the future of the lute, theorbo and chitarrone as solo instruments. In Eliav Lavi’s beguiling performance of Kapsberger’s “Toccata arpeggiata”, its weave a perpetuum mobile of arpeggiated chords with harmonic processes producing ravishing sonorities on the theorbo, the artist coloured the piece’s enchanting course with dynamic variation and subtle tempo changes.  


If the aim of the “Witches?’ Festival was to focus on strong women, Mary, Queen of Scots certainly came under that category. Giacomo Carissimi’s “Lamento di Maria Stuarda” presents the thoughts and emotions of Mary Stuart as she faces her death. To this end, Carissimi chooses the lamento form, a popular 17th century genre (a sequence of arias and recitatives, telling a story like a miniature opera and focusing on a single tragic event.) Skorka takes on the characterization of Mary Stuart and the conflicting emotions she must have felt as she prepared to die. She presents the work’s alternation of moods, from gentle, to sorrowful, to vehement and defiant. Separating sections with small breaks before moving into each new emotion, Skorka projects them with passion, femininity and noble dignity. A convincing theatre piece, leaving the audience moved and thoughtful. Shemer and Lavi accompanied sensitively and interestingly. Altogether, their playing throughout the event was closely interwoven with the gestures and meanings behind the texts and emotions of the various vocal works. 



Barbara Strozzi

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