Early Music America / CD Review: Heavenly Meeting Of Cosmology And Music
by Karen Cook, January 4, 2021
Bruce Dickey and Concerto Palatino perform works inspired by Johannes Kepler’s theories on their new recording.
Nature’s Secret Whispering: Music in the Cosmology of Johannes Kepler.
Bruce Dickey, cornetto; Concerto Palatino. Passacaille PAS 1073
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is best remembered for his numerous contributions to science. In his day, there was no hard and fast divide between astronomy and astrology, theology, or, on some level, music. Kepler believed that the harmonic organization of the heavens was mirrored on earth. As cornetto player Bruce Dickey succinctly explains in the excellent liner notes for his new recording, the more circular a planet’s orbit, the fewer tones it produced; therefore, Earth produces two pitches a semitone apart (mi-fa), while Mercury, as the most elliptical, produces many more.
Kepler thought that the sum total of these sonic permutations creates all of the harmonies heard in music, although in the heavens such sound was inaudible to the human ear. The best polyphony of his day was the earthly counterpart to this music of the spheres, compressed into a duration perceptible to humans. Such music was pregnant with both cosmological and rhetorical significance, since musical intervals not only reflected heavenly harmonies but also human passions.
For Kepler, no composer achieved such cosmological perfection better than Orlando di Lasso, and so this album includes five of his works. His double-choir motet Tui sunt coeli, which begins the disc, symbolizes the division between heaven and earth, while his In me transierunt revolves around the Phrygian half-step that symbolizes Earth. As Kepler was aware of only six planets, the number six was especially meaningful, and several works here are for six voices (see Andrea Gabrieli’s Emendemus in melius) or prominently feature an interval of a sixth (such as Lasso’s Si coelum et coeli coelorum).
All in all, the album includes 15 works by Kepler’s contemporaries, most of whom he knew personally; joining Lasso and Gabrieli are Annibale Perini, Lambert de Sayve, Erasmus Widmann, and Hans Leo Hassler. There is also one modern work inspired by Kepler’s theories: Calliope Tsoupaki (b.1963), the 2019 composer laureate of the Netherlands, contributed Astron, based on an Orphic hymn to the stars.
If I may be permitted a small pun, the renowned ensemble Concerto Palatino is in stellar form here. They simply glow in the all-instrumental selections, the warm acoustic perfectly highlighting their rich, graceful approach. When joined by the outstanding vocalists, it is occasionally difficult to distinguish between a long vocal melisma and Dickey’s supple cornetto — which, I suspect, is precisely the point. Listen, for example, to Andrea Gabrieli’s beautiful Deus misereatur nostri or to the concluding Regna triumphalem by Lambert de Sayve, a composer with whom I clearly need to spend more time, given his exquisite Miserere mei Deus, performed here a cappella.
While the tempo in Lasso’s Tristis est anima mea is much faster than I’m accustomed to, the ensemble wrings every drop of emotion from it with enviable conviction. Tsoupaki’s Astron, the album’s keystone, deserves special mention: The solos, both instrumental and vocal, are breathtakingly poignant, while the rest of the ensemble acts as a Greek chorus — foreboding, powerful, almost otherworldly. The album’s concept is innovative and exciting, its execution nothing short of superb.
The names Bruce Dickey and Charles Toet are practically synonymous with the modern revival of the cornetto and the Baroque trombone and are largely responsible for the enormous advances that have been made in the last 20 years in playing standards on these instruments. In a collaboration of some 25 years, they have together trained a whole generation of cornetto and trombone players, many of whom have become regular members of Concerto Palatino.
While the core group is comprised of two cornetti and three trombones, this formation is frequently augmented by the addition of brass players, strings, or singers as necessary. Inevitably, much of their repertoire is sacred, as these instruments were a fixture of musical chapels in both the Catholic south and the Protestant north, from the time of the first flowering of Flemish polyphony in the early 16th century through their twilight years at the time of J.S. Bach, one of the last composers to employ them in a serious way.
Concerto Palatino frequently collaborates with other leading ensembles, in
particular Cantus Cölln (Konrad Junghänel), Collegium Vocale Ghent (Philippe Herreweghe), Tragicomedia (Steven Stubbs and Erin Headley), the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman), and the Bach Collegium Japan (Masaki Suzuki).
Concerto Palatino places a high priority on unearthing neglected gems of music history and giving them a place in the concert hall and record catalogs alongside the works of established masters. Thus, in addition to highly acclaimed recordings of Schütz, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, they have made premiere recordings of the Marian Vespers of Francesco Cavalli, the Missa Maria Concertata of Christoph Strauss, and Palestrina’s Missa sine nomine preserved in a manuscript of J. S. Bach. Their numerous recordings for EMI Reflexe, Accent, and harmonia mundi France have received high acclaim. In particular, a major series of recordings together with Cantus Cölln (Vespers of Monteverdi and Rosenmüller, Schütz’ Psalmen Davids, the Selva Morale of Monteverdi) has won numerous prestigious awards.
Bruce Dickey was a trumpeter by training, but a contact with the recorder while still a student sparked an interest in early music which he pursued while earning a degree in musicology at the Indiana University School of Music. A year of recorder studies at the renowned Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel (Switzerland) turned into a permanent job as teacher of cornetto at the same institution. Many years of performing and recording with the leading figures in the field of early music (Jordi Savall, Andrew Parrott, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, Monica Huggett, Philippe Herreweghe, and others) provided the background for what has become his principal activity, the ensemble Concerto Palatino.
Bruce Dickey can be heard on more than five dozen recordings. His solo
recording ("Quel lascivissimo cornetto...") on Accent with the ensemble
Tragicomedia was awarded the prestigious Diapason d’or.
In addition to performing, Bruce Dickey is much in demand as a teacher, both of the cornetto and of seventeenth-century performance practice. In addition to his regular class at the Schola Cantorum he has taught at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and the Early Music Institute at Indiana University as well as master classes in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. He is also active in research on performance practice, and has published, together with Michael Collver, a catalog of the surviving cornetto repertoire. In 1997, together with his wife Candace Smith, he founded Artemisia Editions, a small publishing house which produces editions of music from17thcentury Italian convents. In 2000 the Historic Brass Society bestowed on him the prestigious Christopher Monk Award for "his monumental work in cornetto performance, historical performance practice and musicological scholarship".
In 1981, Bruce Dickey moved to Italy, partly to be closer to the origins and source materials for his instrument and its music. He currently lives in Bologna, home of the original Concerto Palatino and of the best pasta in the world.
Charles Toet was born in 1951 in the Hague. He received his musical training at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, where he studied modern trombone with Anne Bijlsma (senior) and where he began to specialize in early music and baroque trombone, which he now teaches at the same institution as well as at the Schola Cantorum Basliensis (Basel) and the Musikhochschule in Trossingen (Germany). He currently divides his energies between the seventeenth century (mostly with Concerto Palatino of which he is the co-founder) and the Classical and early Romantic repertoires, played on original instruments with such period orchestras as La Petite Bande (Sigiswald Kuijken), The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Ton Koopman), and the Orchestra des Champs-Elysées (Philippe Herreweghe).
He has performed and recorded extensively with Bruce Dickey and Concerto Palatino and with numerous other ensembles of particular importance to the history of early music, including, in addition to the ones mentioned above, Syntagma Musicum of Amsterdam, The Taverner Players of London, the Hilliard Ensemble, Hespérion XX, and the vocal ensemble Currende.