Vincenzo Galilei: The Well-Tempered Lute (1584)

Vincenzo Galilei: The Well-Tempered Lute (1584)
Žak Ozmo
Hyperion CDA68017. 63’03

Unless you are a lutenist, or particular fan of lute music, you may not have heard of Vincenzo Galilei. But his eldest son might be more familiar – the physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Another son became a lute virtuoso and composer. Vincenzo was born around 1520 and moved to Pisa where he married into nobility and joined a group of influential humanist intellectuals. This led to Vincenzo Galilei making a range of important discoveries on the nature of sound, acoustics and musical physics together with far-sighted theories on music which hold good to this day, including the role of dissonance and the beginning of the style of recitative.

Amongst his musical works was the Libro d’intavolature di liuto of 1584, now in the Florence Biblioteca Nazionale. This CD focuses on the first two of the three sections of the Libro, with their emphasis on the ‘well-tempered lute’. There are sets of dances set on each of the twelve ascending semitones in an equal-tempered octave, starting with the lowest note of the lute. The first section includes passamezzos and romanescas ‘antico’ (in the Dorian mode) and saltarellos, the second section has passamezzos and romanescas ‘moderno’, in the Ionic mode. Žak Ozmo’s programme combines both genres in four sequences of pairs of passamezzos and romanescas, antico and moderno, separated by a saltarello, based on the first four tones, here starting on G, G#, A and A#. The little shift in pitch indicates the four separate sections. A subsequent volume or two would seem to be on the cards.

Vincenzo Galilei's Saltarello primo

Although it is possible that this work was theoretical rather than practical, and might never have been intended to be performed, they make attractively simple essays. Simple on the ear, that is, but apparently full of complicated technical issues for the performer, for example the fact that in practically all of the pieces the index finger of the left hand has to kept flat on the fingerboard throughout, while the other fingers actually produce the notes on the frets. Žak Ozmo uses authentic gut (rather than the later wound) strings on the bass notes, giving more clarity at the cost of an occasional intonation wobble – which I actually rather liked.

The lute is tuned in equal temperament, as proposed by Galilei, so there is no sense of ‘key colour’ as found in Bach’s exercise in writing in all keys, the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’, written nearly 140 years later. Galilei writes of the passamezzo as ‘quiet’, and the romanesca as ‘excited’, although the contrast in mood is not overdone. Extensive notes describe more of the technical issues involved in playing this music, but for the general listener, the CD makes for a very pleasantly subdued listen, the little shift in pitch up a semitone after each five-piece section being the only things to disturb the flow. The playing is sensitive with a delicate sense of touch.

It is released on 29 January 2016.  

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