L’Arpeggiata – the word derives from the Italian arpeggiare, to play the harp – is the name of a Paris-based international ensemble which has specialised in 15th century Baroque music, in particular vocal music with instrumental accompaniment. Not a permanent ensemble, but rather a fluctuating group of Europe’s foremost Baroque musicians, it was founded in 2000 by the lutenist/harpist Christina Pluhar, who has been its musical director since its inception.
L’Arpeggiata has a broad repertoire, ranging from familiar works to totally unknown ones. For instance, their 2006 recording of several works by Claudio Monteverdi included an excellent standard performance of his well-known Vespro della Beata Vergine from 1610. However, on the same CD they also presented his madrigal Ohimè, Ch’io Cado, using rhythms more commonly associated with jazz than with the composer, and succeeded in doing so without it being to the detriment of Monteverdi’s music – rather to the contrary!
Like many other people who work with early music, they are not content merely to perform works by well known composers, even though they often do so in untraditional ways, making it sound new and unfamiliar. They are also constantly on the lookout for forgotten music. To do so they have dusted through mounds of material in old libraries to find music they believe may still be relevant. The results are impressive.
It is not merely a matter finding unknown manuscripts, although that is interesting enough. The music must also be performed, and how that should be done is not always obvious from the sheet music.
In this matter L’Arpeggiata has taken new, untraditional paths to find performance practice with roots in the Baroque. For instance, some songs they dug up in Italian libraries were still performed in Mexico but unknown in Italy. On closer scrutiny of the Mexican singing they observed a style known to have been used in Italian Baroque music, giving them a clue to follow up. It also occurs that they improvise on Baroque material, when they sometimes allow modern popular music to influence the result.
In this evening’s concert they have compiled a programme from their recent project Mediterraneo – the Middle Sea or Mediterranean. They perform music from a greater part of this Middle Sea, from Portugal via the coasts of Tunisia, Italy and Greece all the way to Turkey. A performance by L’Arpeggiata is not necessarily restricted to music, as they may surprise their audience with a dancer or an actor. Their aim is not only to delight the ear, but also in Baroque fashion to tickle and titillate all our senses. This is the very feature that distinguishes the Baroque from the Renaissance – in the Catholic 17th century, inspired by Jesuit education, the aim was to create holistic art that could be felt and sensed by the entire body. L’Arpeggiata promise that we will ‘feel both a sea breeze and sand between our toes’. I can well believe it, since they perform with a fervour and enthusiasm that can only be infectious.
Text: Gunnar Danbolt
English text: Roger Martin