In this inspiring album – his first solo disc for ECM – Norwegian early music performer Rolf Lislevand turns his attention to the music of two composers from the court of Louis XIV: Robert de Visée (c. 1655-1732) and the Italian-born Francesco Corbetta (c. 1615-1681), and plays their masterpieces with historical awareness and an inventiveness which belongs to the tradition. De Visée wrote about playing what the instruments themselves called for, advice Lislevand takes to heart here, adding improvised introductions to passacaglias from both composers.
On La Mascarade, Lislevand uses two contrasting instruments. He plays the theorbo, the dark-toned and earthy king of the lutes, and the Baroque guitar, with its sparkling, crystal-clear sonorities. The 17th guitar, smaller than its modern counterpart, had five pairs of strings, tuned in unisons and octaves. “Musicians of four centuries ago had already developed the instrument’s playing style to explore all the possibilities of surprising strummed rhythms and harmonies, often very modern-sounding to our ears. Moreover the instrument’s many different tunings prefigure the experimental tunings used by improvising musicians today… It seems that guitar players of the seventeenth century did exactly what guitar players have done ever since: compose music with the guitar on their knees by listening to the exciting new sounds that unexpectedly occurred when they put their fingers on new and unusual places on the fingerboard.”
Where the Baroque guitar had no bass register, the theorbo was effectively a bass lute: “Together these instruments create a chiaroscuro in music, an image in sound of the Baroque theory of that magic tension that exists between light and darkness.”
Francesco Corbetta’s virtuosity was first celebrated outside his native Italy. In his fascinating liner notes, Lislevand reports that Corbetta charmed Charles II in London, “and left a whole court strumming on small Baroque guitars.” Robert de Visée was Corbetta’s student In Versailles, and went on to become one of the Sun King’s composers, as well as his guitarist and theorbo player. “De Visée played his own music at court,” writes Lislevand, “occasionally in the king’s bedroom, while the monarch was taking supper. On request he would play his guitar walking two steps behind the king during the daily royal promenade of the gardens of Versailles – the first Walkman in musical history.”
La Mascarade was recorded at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, and produced by Manfred Eicher.
“I only develop what the material implies,” Rolf Lislevand has said. “Everything must be contained within the piece. Why then was it hidden until now? My usual reply is that we just change the proportions – a very Baroque technique.”
Lislevand was born in Oslo in 1961 and studied classical guitar at the Norwegian State Academy of Music from 1980 to 1984. He continued his studies with Hopkinson Smith and Eugène Dombois at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland and later played with several of Jordi Savall’s ensembles. Lislevand, whose recordings have won numerous awards, has been professor of lute and historical performance at Trossingen Musikhochschule since 1993.
He assembled a group of international early music virtuosi for his very successful ECM debut in 2006, tellingly entitled Nuove Musiche, which focused on early Italian Baroque songs from the late 17th century. “The expansion and contraction of arranged and improvised elements allows the original Baroque material to breathe authentically in our own time, resulting in a phantasmagoria whose haunting effects are only accentuated by ECM’s beautifully spacious recording,” wrote William Yeoman in Gramophone.
That album was followed by Diminuito, which once again put strong emphasis on improvisation, drawing on music from 16th-century Veneto. As with Nuove Musiche, press reactions were very positive. “The whole point is to reimagine these 16th-century chansons and dances in ways that wholly respect the originals, and that’s just what takes place here,” Robert Levine observed in Stereophile. “I can’t praise enough the playing, imagination, creativity, and what seems the utter spontaneity evident on this CD …This is a stunning, entertaining, elegant program.”