In Renaissance Italy, the term “frottola” applied to light, strophic songs, and with their flexible format they have provided material for early-music ensembles ranging from amateur recorder groups to high-level professional performers. The three or four parts can be sung or played in various combinations, and opportunities for improvisation abound. The Italian vocal quartet Ring Around, joined by five instrumentalists, takes a satisfying, lively look at this repertoire.
Ring Around Quartet and Consort showcases each of its members in imaginative readings, including a few versions for solo lute. Even in ensembles the voices retain individuality, blending gently for the sorrowful “Occhi miei, al pianger nati” and energetically intoning the “Tandaridondella” refrain of Sebastiano Festa’s “L’ultimo dì di Maggio.”
With its chord-based texture and straightforward rhythms, the frottola has little to do with the later madrigal, where musical gestures reflected actual words in a learned contrapuntal style, and by 1520 the frottola had died out completely. Beginning as court entertainment and spreading from Naples to Ferrara, the frottola quickly moved to the amateur sector when the pioneering printer Ottavio Petrucci brought out several collections in an easy-to-read format.
Most of the texts (unfortunately not given or translated here) are light, anonymous trifles, although two familiar poems of Petrarch are heard, both in settings by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (“Zefiro spiroa e’l bel tempo rimena” and “Vergine bella.”) The folksy arrangement of the same composer’s “Su, su, leva, alza le ciglia” brings out its sweet, hypnotic simplicity, and Adrian Willaert’s light “Vecchie letrose” receives a spiky performance with tambourine accenting the syncopated rhythms of this fun piece about “crazy, mean old hags.” Marchetto Cara’s “Per dolor me bagno el viso” showcases individual voices in various combinations — the tenor and bass sound particularly beautiful together — and soprano Vera Marenco shows delicacy and fine range in the anonymous “Ahimè sospiri.”
Tenor Umberto Bartolini is an engaging performer with an attractive, easy sound, and his drunken opening to Zesso’s “D’un bel matin d’amore” is amusing without exaggeration. The disc closes with “Lirum, bililirum,” where the voices imitate the droning of the bowed lira da braccio in Bergamasque dialect.
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