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Fanfare Magazine: 38:2 (11-12/2014) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

Within the last few decades there’s been a growing acknowledgement of the part traditional music (what we might call folk music, if we didn’t associate it instantly with tourist magnets, political movements, or cosmopolitan folk groups) has played in revitalizing classical content. This was never more so than in the Italian States during the 16th century, when learned polyphony was challenged in some quarters by monodic pieces; and monody itself brought with it the repetitiveness, expressivity, and cadence-oriented clarity of traditional song.

All of this was to influence the subsequent development of opera, but on this release, Vivabiancaluna Biffi is more interested in exploring opera’s origins. She turns in part to the declamatory songs—everything from sonnets to satires—whose texts were placed above some adapted works in Petrucci’s fourth book of frottole. Biffi believes that many of these pieces were performed by singers who accompanied themselves on the viol, and quotes from Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier: “Above all, singing to the viol seems to me the most pleasing way of performing; it adds such beauty and power to the words that it is a great marvel.”

What she doesn’t note is that Castiglione’s famous manual for the upwardly mobile late Renaissance youth of either sex was set as a series of artistically informed, often dramatic conversations, so that this passage is no more representative of the writer and diplomat’s true voice than those stated by various characters engaged in amicable disagreement. Still, the fact that voice-and-viol is endorsed at all (much less from words put in the mouth of the once-famous Federico Fregoso, who was by turns a bishop, general, and diplomat, and sometimes all three at once) says something of its popularity at the time.

Adopting the songs to suit this practice—what Biffi refers to as “developing and arranging” them—is not something the performer goes into at all, though surviving publications on playing the viol are numerous enough to provide a log of at least some stylistic authority. In any case, she is adept at singing and playing the viola d’arco simultaneously. Her technique as a violist is strong, and most apparent in the album’s four instrumentals. These sport everything from a beautiful bowed tone to feats of nimbleness that include numerous double stops and arpeggiandi. Biffi’s voice is a thin mezzo, poorly supported at the top, and of only moderate quality elsewhere. But she has excellent intonation, enunciation (you can easily follow her Italian without knowing the language), and good agility. She characterizes the music through dynamics and very rarely colors via consonants. Just occasionally, as in the anonymous piece that gives the album its title, something more is wanted, a voice with more resonance, more solid, assured power behind it. But Broco’s Per servirte perdo I passi is a good example of her vocal strengths, while Stringari’s Aria sopra Son più matti a questo mondo does the honors for her viol skills.

It’s a varied and attractive program in 27 selections, whose texts mostly follow the age-old complaints of a beloved’s scorn and love’s tortures. A few lighten the tone and are well known, such as Tromboncino’s Ostinato vo’ seguire, here sung pleasantly with the most trippingly delicate of runs. (Marco Beasley is more consistently accurate on Cypres 1643, but finds less charm and variety in the music.) Whether any of this leads to Jacopo Peri’s early operas and their preference for dissonant recitative is questionable, but the line to Giulio Caccini’s populist, folk-influenced vein is more feasible. In any case, with good sound and excellent balance, this release is definitely recommended.

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