L’Arpeggiata with Christina Pluhar
Virgin Classics 2010, 18 tracks, 71 minutes
$9.99 on iTunes
It’s very difficult to review an album when the reviewer understands none of the languages in which the album is sung, nor the (different) languages in which the band writes its website. My brain is reeling from the attempt. But I’m going to give it a shot because Via Crucis by L’Arpeggiata is just beautiful.
I first discovered both the album and the band last year in the course of putting together my Playlist for the Stations of the Cross, which featured the song Maria (sopra la Carpinese). The moment I stumbled across that song, I was entranced. What were all those strange, beautiful instruments? Who were these people singing so poignantly about the Blessed Mother and the Passion of the Lord?
I had to buy the album.
Via Crucis (Latin for Way of the Cross) is a pastiche of Corsican folk music and Italian Early Baroque music loosely centered around the theme of Christ’s Passion. All of the works date from the seventeenth century, though L’Arpeggiata is not afraid to interpret them with embellishments borrowed from later periods, including jazz. But the music never devolves into the kind of flashy, incoherent mess that often results from trying to meld disparate styles and eras; rather, the deviations from true Baroque style are carefully chosen to heighten the intensity of the emotions in the Passion narrative. I cannot help but think Giovanni Felice Sances (ca. 1600-1679) would be as enthralled as I am by Nuria Rial’s vocal ornaments in his “Stabat Mater.”
When I grow up, I want to sing like Nuria Rial.
The album is not a literal journey through the fourteen stations of the Via Crucis, but rather a collection that illustrates the entirety of Christ’s life, from birth to resurrection, with the Passion serving as the focal point. The first piece, a beautiful violin solo, is called “l’Annonciation,” (which I am sure you can translate for yourself), and near the end we get Monteverdi’s “Laudate Dominum,” another Nuria Rial solo, which features a lengthy Alleluia. The music is sometimes sweet (the lullaby “Ninna Nanna,” sung by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky), sometimes heartbreakingly sorrowful (the other “Stabat Mater,” sung by vocal ensemble Barbara Furtuna), and sometimes even playful. The penultimate piece is titled “Ciaccona di Paradiso dell’Inferno,” or the “Dance of Heaven and Hell:”
The variety of different voices interspersed with instrumental pieces gives the album a kind of programmatic coherence that is too often missing in classical compilations. Via Crucis does not fall into the trap of believing that pieces from a single composer or era automatically create cohesion. The pieces have been carefully selected and arranged to create a loose narrative that moves the way a musical narrative should: with variations in tempo, texture, voicing, and intensity that correspond to the dramatic import of the moment. The only place where I find this cohesion lacking is in the final selection, “’Stù criatu,” which is the only piece sung by Neapolitan tenor Vincenzo Capezzuto. By itself, the song is as mesmerizing as all the others, but the introduction of a new voice – in a sense, a new character – in the very last track creates questions at a moment when the narrative ought to give answers. To me, it doesn’t feel like an ending; it feels like a scene transplanted from some other play. But at least it is a beautiful scene.
L’Arpeggiata – “a band like no other” – was created in 2000 by classical guitarist and lutist Christina Pluhar (the redhead playing theorbo in the video above.) The group is a Pan-European ensemble based in France with ten albums and countless concerts and programs to its credit. L’Arpeggiata’s recordings include both secular and sacred music from a variety of cultures, all of it focused around the early Baroque period. Yet within what seems a very limited scope, they have found a way to create a very diverse repertoire. Their website is written mostly in French, but if you don’t mind putting up with Google translate, it’s definitely worth exploring.
Back when I was a music student, the Baroque was my least favorite period both to listen to and to perform. L’Arpeggiata has changed my mind.