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‘A brief introduction to a mighty colossus’ is how the author ends the first section, dealing with the rise of opera, of this concise book which also offers excellent initiations into the new developments in sacred and instrumental music that mark the dawn of the baroque in Italy, quite rightly orbiting around the genius of Claudio Monteverdi. It’s very far from being all about the Mantuan maestro, however, as one of the chief strengths of Lejeune’s analysis of the period c.1600-1680 is his careful, even-handed approach to ascribing each innovation, as far as can be ascertained, to the correct composer, inviting many fascinating minor characters into the limelight. For those just getting to know this era Lejeune provides essential information, explaining, for example, the continuing popularity and use of polyphony and the importance of the stile antico as well as major landmarks in invention. French readers may find the text more flowing than the English translation (there’s also a German version though, ironically, no Italian) but a clutch of pages, spattered with typos and spacing errors, seems to have missed the proof-reader.

As a musicologist and director of his own celebrated early music label, Ricercar, Lejeune was ideally placed to select the lavish illustrations in the eight accompanying CDs. One can read about and listen simultaneously to examples of secular, sacred, and instrumental performances from a wide variety of ensembles including Les Arts Florissants, La Fenice, La Venexiana and Cappella Mediterranea. There are multiple highlights, some worth buying the whole thing for, such as CD6 tracks 1 and 4, Hor che tempo di dormire (Merula) and Ave maris stella (Sances). Some obscure items may only be accessible through these recordings.

While all the performances are entirely apt illustrations of Lejeune’s discourse, a few fall short of the highest quality. Longer works are represented by extracts but the partial discography ensures that some complete performances may be sourced. While each disc is an entertaining anthology, it’s more of an academic resource than an artistic exercise. The only persistent irritation is the way that gear-changes in acoustics, recording levels and sound-quality require constant knob-twiddling.

The second volume in an ongoing series, this is a superb resource for the student and all who are interested in this dynamic period in music history. The author pleads with the reader to relate their musical studies to both visual art and social history and, for the enquiring mind, this should be as spell-binding as an ancient map marked ‘here be dragons’, with calligraphic sign-posts sending the intrepid off on fabulous adventures of personal discovery.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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