Francesca Caccini: O viva rosa

Shannon Mercer (sop); Sylvain Bergeron, Amanda Keesmaat, Luc Beausejour (Analekta AN 2 9966)

23 April 2010 5 stars

Shannon MercerDespite the fact that this new release of arias by Francesca Caccini appears to be Shannon Mercer's sixth recording for the Analekta label, I had never previously encountered this superb soprano. A quick check of the catalog reveals that she has recorded Welsh songs and music by Bach, Vivaldi, Mondonville, and Marais. I now have keen interest in these other titles, because this new release – 'Francesca Caccini, O Viva Rosa' – is one of the finest discs I have heard in a long while. Mercer and her outstanding collaborators, Luc Beauséjour (harpsichord and organ), Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo and baroque guitar), and Amanda Keesmaat (cello), have assembled a superlative tribute to Francesca Caccini (1587 – c.1641) – one of the finest Florentine composers of the early Seventeenth-Century.

Caccini was an accomplished singer, and her performances attracted all the exposure (and financial support) she needed in order to pursue her other talents as a voice teacher and composer. She was so successful in the latter category, that she is generally recognized as the creator of the first opera written by a woman: La liberazione di Ruggiero, one of approximately fifteen stage works she completed or to which she contributed substantial music. Her famous father, Giulio Caccini, was a member of the Florentine Camerata, and the entire family was dedicated to the advancement of musical and humanist ideals. By the age of twenty, in 1607, Francesca had secured a position as singer and composer under the patronage of the powerful Medici family. Married twice in the ensuing decades, her brilliant career evolved from strength to strength, and her reputation and legacy grew far beyond the borders of her homeland.

Her vocal compositions show a strong penchant for sudden dissonance and harmonically challenging accompaniments. They are especially taxing in their demand for supreme breath-control: she often composed very long phrases, requiring all sorts of turns, trills, and melismatic passages. Additionally, the emotional underpinnings of her vocal lines are vividly illustrated, and run the gamut from delight to reverence to grief. She composed in a wide variety of forms and styles, and there is a fine mixture represented on this disc, including several stunning instrumental selections.

The striking qualities of Mercer's liquid, full-bodied lyric soprano are on display starting with the first canzonetta 'O viva rosa'. The clear, resonant, yet intimate quality of the recording itself allows the listener to hear and enjoy every detail of Mercer's immaculate singing as well as the playing of the instrumentalists. Her light soprano has a glowing core to the sound in which we hear her emotional connection to the music as she sings. Her use of legato is flawless, and she offers the exceptional breath control demanded by Caccini's music. She also negotiates an incredible variety of ornaments – turns, shakes, trills, melismas – all with utter security and the insouciance that comes from having a rock-solid vocal technique. The album, taken as a whole, is a tour-de-force of virtuoso singing and playing. I couldn't imagine better quality performances from any of the participants.

It is difficult to pick individual pieces to laud above others, and the choices would obviously depend on the personal taste of the listener. For me, I appreciated Mercer's versatility in 'Rendi alle mie speranze il verde', in which she displays seemingly every possible type of ornament, from straight tone to shakes to repeated tones and melismas. But perhaps her most astounding singing comes with 'Lasciatemi' – listed in the booklet as an aria, but sounding very much like a long, spellbinding lament. It is a marvelous piece of singing from start to finish. The instrumental selections feature the three 'accompanying' musicians and are every bit as gorgeous as the vocal tracks. 'Io veggio I campi verdeggiar fecondi' features Keesmaat on cello and Bergeron on theorbo – showing off both artists to perfection. Equally wonderful are 'Te lucis ante terminum' for Beauséjour on solo organ and 'Quattro Canzoni di mio padre' for Bergeron on solo guitar. These instrumental tracks serve to showcase the virtuosity of the accompanying musicians, of course, but also add variety to an already rich program.

I urge anyone interested in Early Music to give this disc a try. As a composer, Francesca Caccini should be heard much more often, and will surely make a strong impression. In addition, it is a rare occurrence that four musicians of superlative quality shine equally brightly in such a well-planned and satisfying program. As mentioned at the outset of this review, this disc is one of the finest I have encountered for a long while, and will provide many hours of pleasure and repeated listening.

By David Laviska