Il Barbarino: Musica per Liuto e viola

Il Barbarino
Musica per liuto e viola da mano nel cinquecento Napoletano
Paul Kieffer
Outhere/Arcana AD 105. 59’54

As the title suggests, this recording focusses on the flourishing of music for lute and the viola da mano in early 16th-century Naples. The viola da mano is the Italian version of the Spanish vihuela, with the same tuning as a lute but in a guitar-shaped body, It has a slightly more delicate and resonant timbre than the lute, and is used for six of the 24 pieces on the CD. 15 of the tracks are premiere recordings with 11 taken from from the Barbarina lute book of the title, dating from around 1600 and now in the Kraków Biblioteka Jagiellońska (PL-Kj Mus. ms. 40032), having been removed from the Berlin Deutsche Staatsbibliothek during the war and lost to researchers until the 1980s.

The Barbarina lute book seems to have been compiled for an unknown patron called Alfonso by a castrato lutenist (and, presumably, a singer) named Barbarina whose first name has been deliberately obliterated in the manuscript. A detailed history can be found here.

The music ranges from the complex polyphony of the fantasias and ricercares and other intabulations to more musically relaxed forms, include pieces based on dances. Five other manuscripts are drawn on for the programme, the second most used being the c1590 Sienna lute book. The earliest manuscript is the 1536 manuscript (Intavolatura de Viola o vero Lavto) by Francesco Canova da Milano, the latest the Hainhofer lute books (Augsberg c1604). Other composers represented include Fabrizio Dentice, Palestrina, Giulio Severino, Francesco Cardone and Luis Maymón

Paul Kieffer plays two delightful gut-strung instruments, an 8-course lute and the 6-course viola da mano. I am not a lute player, but I wonder if a form of meantone tuning is used, as hinted at by the purity of the harmonies and the occasional hint of a distinct key. Paul Kieffer’s relaxed speeds give the music space to unfold. The very nature of music like this is that it can be used as ‘mere’ background listening – it is incredibly relaxing music that fits well into the ‘mindfulness’ category, perhaps of more relevance in current climes. But lute players will also be able to focus their listening on Paul Kieffer’s outstanding technique and musical interpretations.

The recording in the St. Leodegar Evangelische Kirche in Grenzach-Wyhlen, Baden-Wurttemberg, close to Basel and the Swiss border of Germany. The generous background acoustic adds an attractive bloom to the recorded sound without distracting from any of the detail. Even though the church seems to be in a quiet residential area, there is the occasional low rumble of what might be traffic or aircraft. But this is more made up by the occasional sound of bird song and the delightful plinkety-plonk of the lutenist’s fingers on the soundboard.

More information, and a link to the CD booklet, can be found here. And the is a video extract here