As the catalogues—and listeners’ shelves—become increasingly saturated with recordings of familiar mainstream repertoire, performers and large record companies have begun to explore the vast realm of other music that was previously the domain of more specialist labels. A recent example of this is Andreas Scholl’s Songs of Myself (HMC902051), which presents the superstar countertenor as just another member of an early music group performing the works of 14th century composer Oswald von Wolkenstein—and very beautiful it is, too. It often turns out that the performers are not new to the repertoire, and relish the opportunity to record it—as Magdalena Kožená says of her new CD, Lettere Amorose: “I grew up with this music, and wanted to come back to it”. The title comes from a song by Monteverdi (not recorded on the CD), and the material is mostly from his Italian and Spanish contemporaries in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, a period of remarkable musical richness as the Renaissance gradually gave way to the Baroque. Song, quite specifically: this is not the grand music of the court or church, these pieces are all intimate and secular in character. Because they were probably written for domestic use, they have the small-scale rhetoric of the personal. There are a number of relatively well-known pieces included here, including d’India’s Cruda Amarilli and Sanz’ Canarios, which make the program less forbidding, and the character of the music ranges from the playful to the serene.
Although Kožená declares in the liner notes that “It’s very much ensemble music, rather than about who is going to shine the brightest, and be the star”, the effectiveness of the performances rest largely with her unaffected and poised singing. In this repertoire it is normal for repeated material to be embellished in a improvisatory way—in fact, singers of the time were judged on the beauty of their elaborations—and Kožená has clearly done her research. The instrumental performances by Pierre Pitzl’s group Private Musicke, who Kožená apparently selected to accompany her on the disc, are elegant, understated where necessary, and convincing. Their ensemble playing has virtuosic flair, subtlety, and lightness of touch whether as accompaniment to the vocal works or in the instrumental numbers; for my ears, the Spanish pieces occasionally sound just a little bit too 20thcentury, but this does not lessen their attractiveness.
For me the high point of the disc is Merula’s Hor ch’é tempo, which Kožená admits is her favourite. Merula was one of the most original composers of his time, and the ostinato-bass repetitiveness of the song is perhaps closer to the modern sensibility than the rest of the repertoire. It is a work of particular poignancy, exquisitely sung. This may be an ensemble effort but, despite her protestations, there’s no doubt who is the star.