The Italian vocal ensemble Cappella Artemisia, directed by mezzo-soprano Candace Smith, is a chamber group devoted to recovering the rich musical repertoire of the 16th- and 17th-century Italian convents. The convents at this time were crowded, not only with women who truly had religious vocations, but with the daughters of aristocratic families, whose parents chose to save money on their dowries the better to dower a more marriageable sister. The nuns found innumerable creative ways to get around the restrictions imposed on them by religious life including using up the entire stock of convent flour to bake cakes for parties, maintaining cut-throat power struggles according to the ranks of their worldly families, forming transgressive relationships, and of course making music to an exceptional standard – not only singing, but also publishing their compositions and boldly playing instruments officially forbidden to them by the church. (For those who, like me, are fascinated by this feature of history, Mary Laven’s engrossing book Virgins of Venice provides a wealth of information on these and many other impressively subversive aspects of convent life.) Cappella Artemisia create their own editions from manuscripts and even printed editions published by the nuns, informed by treatises especially dedicated to the cloistered musicians, and by the many reports of their accomplishments provided by impressed contemporaries.
Smith’s ensemble, performing here at the Zuidervermaning in Westzaan, North Holland, consists of a flexible core of voices and continuo, with other instruments as appropriate. In this programme three singers, organ and viola da gamba were joined by Claudia Combs on violin and Bruce Dickey on cornetto, a choice that allowed for an enjoyable variety of colour and texture throughout, especially when the instruments took vocal lines in the multi-part motets Exurgat Deus by Raphaela Aleotti and Repleatur os meum by Andrea Rota. A major highlight of the evening was Dickey’s improvised passaggi on Ascanio Trombetti’s five-voice motet Emendemus in melius. The ensemble first sang the motet, with violin and gamba taking voice parts; then, Dickey played his own variations on it over a continuo bass. The cornetto sound was pure and creamy, played with a warmth of expression that made this piece an outstanding moment for me.