GALILEI: The Well-tempered Lute; Tones I – IV – Zak Ozmo – Hyperion

VINCENZO GALILEI: The Well-tempered Lute; Tones I – IV – Zak Ozmo, lute – Hyperion 68017, 63:03 (2/5/16) ****:

A long-neglected work of Renaissance musical investigation of equal-temperament as applied to the lute.

(Zak Ozmo – lute)

In this recording of VIncenzo Galilei’s Libro d’intavolatore di Liuto by Zak Ozmo, we are introduced to a musical work of great historical significance. This Hyperion release is titled The Well-tempered Lute, a weighty invocation indeed. It is, in fact, a theoretical demonstration of the principle of equal-temperament as applied to the lute. It is astonishing to consider that 138 years before Bach it would be possible for such a modest and restricted instrument as the six-course lute to involve itself in such difficult research. The organization of the pieces is intricate, but the basic idea is similar to the WTC. There are Italian dances Passamezzo, Romanesca and Saltarello, the latter in triple-meter played in contrasting modes, (Dorian and Ionian) in each of the key signatures in an orderly progression.  Subtitled Tones I-IV, it seems that we have just half of the famous book. Unlike in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, we don’t have clear key signatures, so we don’t really know where we are in the cycle. We do get the sense that we move from lute-friendly keys in Tone I to more difficult terrain. Fretted instruments are not happiest ascending the semitones of the equal-tempered scale. The sweet open notes must be replaced by fully-barred fingerings. There is a reason for the restricted use of the Dorian mode in open positions in the music of this period. We can guess that Galilei is accepting large technical challenges in pursuit of his theoretical project. But can anyone play this music?

Lutenist and musicologist Zak Ozmo is undaunted by the challenges involved. This journey of harmonic exploration starts off promisingly in a normal lute-friendly key. One can hear  from very close up the double strings, bright at the top and a bit softly-dampened at the bottom. There is a didactic tone from the start. Top speaks to bottom like a father addressing a son.  It is a sedate discourse. As we move from the dance Passamezzo to Romanesca, there is but slight difference in the feel. As the lute ventures to the aforementioned more heavily-fretted regions, there is occasionally a feeling of strain. However, I think only lute players will be able to appreciate the finger-breaking technicalities of this.

It doesn’t help that the composer does not display much genius for melody. Only in a few patches might this be mistaken for Francesco di Milano or one of his contemporaries. There are none of the surprising cadences or the kind of brilliant imitation we get in Dowland. Still, there is something compelling about the playing. Against insuperable difficulties, our scholar/player trots on, uphill and down, staying on the path, a cross between a Renaissance minstrel and an early modern scientist trying to arrange things in an orderly fashion in a Cabinet of Wonders.

Perhaps Paul O’Dette could bring more crispness and velocity to these tablatures, and perhaps Christopher Wilson would have a sweeter tone on his instrument, but I doubt that anyone has comprehended this strange piece of music like Zak Ozmo. He is a worthy exponent of the music and has given us an important view into a crucial moment of musical thinking. In the end, I decide to not judge it in purely musical terms. Perhaps it is better to see it as a work of musical science. Equal temperament, as an ideal of Cosmological Order, might be reaching in the same direction as the early modern science, with its assertion that the chaotic appearance of nature can be described in mathematical terms. It brings to mind the vision of Galileo.

And it should, because Vincenzo is the father of just that Galileo. Indeed, his composing might very well have been interrupted by his insistent son’s endless question. “What is that star, daddy, and that one?” In the end, it is a privilege to have heard this rare piece, which has hovered on the edge of the lute literature. I doubt I will bring it out often, unless a Renaissance lutenist knocks on the door and makes claims about the impossibility of equal-temperament. However, where should I file the disc? Perhaps with classic texts of music theory such as Gradus ad Parnassum. Or better yet, adjacent to Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two World Systems, to which it bears a double affinity.

—Fritz Balwit

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