Is it fair for baroque to sound so sensual? An elegiac soprano voice wafts above an instrumental piece by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger. Flamenco rhythms underpin a passacaglia. Then suddenly we hear the typical harmonies and ornaments of Celtic folk music. Is that how this music really sounded in Italy in the early 1600s? Of course not. But what the Norwegian lutenist and guitarist Rolf Lislevand and his six colleagues bring off on Nuove musiche, their début album for ECM, has all the earmarks of a manifesto. Their vibrant and literally unheard-of readings of early baroque music from Italy are meant to grab the listener directly, as if it really were 'new music'.
'For years people tried to play early music as closely as possible to the way it was played at its time of origin', Lislevand explains 'But that's a philosophical self-contradiction. The first question is whether it's possible at all to replicate the performance of a musician who lived centuries ago. As far as I'm concerned, reconstruction is not really interesting at all. Do we really want to act as if we hadn't heard any music between 1600 and the present day? I think that would be dishonest. With this recording we say goodbye once and for all to early music's authenticity creed.'
This doesn't mean that anything goes - on the contrary. Lislevand, who learned his craft at the famous Schola Cantorum in Basle, has been professor of lute and historical performance practice at Trossingen Musikhochschule since 1993. He has turned out many prize-winning recordings, some of them with his Kapsberger Ensemble, which forms the core of the musicians on Nuove Musiche. He avidly scrutinises every available scrap of information on what he plays and how to play it properly. But those are only the preconditions for a convincing performance. After all, one vital element in baroque music was improvisation: 'Pieces were played to meet the needs of the moment', Professor Lislevand points out. 'To play strictly according to the notes on the page would be tantamount to lying, for the scores were written in a sort of shorthand. They presuppose a good deal of knowledge and self-assurance from the player.'
Take the percussion instruments, for instance. We know they were used, but nobody around 1600 bothered to write down the parts. So we have no way of knowing for sure how they were used. Did they only serve as timekeepers, or was their timbre exploited as well? Lislevand has very strong views on the subject: 'The idea that it wasn't until today that we could freely express our feelings is not only naive but arrogant. Personally I believe that the people of the 17th century were much richer and more self-aware than we assume today.' It is only natural, then, that the percussionist Pedro Estevan offers a huge range of expressive sounds and rhythms on Nuove musiche.
Lislevand searches for points of contact between the 400-year-old pieces on this recording (by Kapsberger, Pellegrini, Piccinini and others) and the musical horizons of today's performers. Usually the starting point is the passacaglia, a set of increasingly dramatic variations on an unchanging bass pattern. Passacaglias formed the core repertoire of the lute and guitar books of the 17th century. 'They thrive on chromaticism, harsh dissonances and offbeat rhythms. If the composers tried to get these effects, then we have every right to go even further. My idea is simply to develop and elaborate things already there in the material. Arianna Savall's melody really does come from the Kapsberger toccata itself. Everything there that smacks of echoes from current popular music is already contained in the pieces. I just coax it out.'
Unlike Lislevand's earlier recordings, Nuove musiche was produced at the Rainbow Studio in Oslo under the auspices of Manfred Eicher using multi-tracking techniques. Each musician wore a set of headphones. Acoustical space - sometimes a problem for unamplified string instruments - gave way to virtual space. 'The sound we heard there was very inspiring', Lislevand recalls. 'Having better control of the sound, we could grant ourselves much more license, not only in tempo but in dynamics and timbre.' Many things emerged spontaneously during the recording sessions. 'Once, we'd just played through a toccata and Manfred Eicher signalled us to go on playing in order to keep up our energy. At first we were at a bit of a loss: after all, the piece was over. But then one of us varied the rhythmic pattern, and suddenly we felt the freedom we needed to go on without an original model to play from. Normally we wouldn't have dared.'
The final balance and spatial placement of the instruments were only worked out later at the mixing stage by Lislevand, Eicher and the studio engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. Nuove Musiche: for Lislevand the term also means placing music in a new communicative context. The intimacy of the narrow rooms of old, where lute music was normally played, is a thing of the past. But the need for closeness remains: 'Things close to us, spatially and physically, also move us. When we speak of physical intimacy, we mean that the presence of the music must be felt. Otherwise it won't trigger our emotions. The artificial space of the studio can create this closeness. For far too long we made baroque music degenerate into a distant ritual, almost into a symbolic act. We're out to change all that!'
Born in Oslo in 1961 Rolf Lislevand studied the classical guitar at the Norwegian State Academy of Music before entering the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basle where he worked with Hopkinson Smith and Eugène Dubois. In the late eighties he started playing in Jordi Savall’s groups such as Hespèrion XX, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the Concert des Nations. Lislevand whose solo recordings have won numerous international prizes is now a professor at the Staatliche Musikhochschule in Trossingen.