LEBRECHT LISTENS | Isabella Leonarda: A Fresh 17th Century Voice

Isabella Leonarda: A Portrait of Isabella Leonarda (Brilliant Classics)

★★★★☆

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In history’s never-ending search for women, Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) emerged from the mists of Novara as the most prolific female composer of the 17th century. Overshadowed by artists like Allegri, Albinoni, and Corelli, Leonarda was an Ursuline nun who dedicated every work of hers to the Virgin Mary—and to any rich man who paid to have them printed. She entered the convent at the age of 16 and remained there until she died at the age of 83, leaving more than 200 performable scores, mostly vocal and choral. The last for voice and violin appeared at the age of 80.

Don’t be fooled by looks, however. Leonarda was not a cloistered nurse or a shrinking violet. A member of a teaching order, she traveled throughout northern Italy and had family connections with some of the wealthiest houses. This might help explain their freedom to compose at a time when the church was consistently cracking down on innovation and women. Nevertheless, there are three barren decades in the middle of her life that remain unexplained. During her monastic career, she rose to consigliera and was clearly a force of nature.

These recordings of Candace Smith’s Capella Artemisia will not be classed as world premieres, but they are certainly the first Isabella Leonarda works that I have come across and I am very glad of them.

Amidst all the glorias and salves and glorias and dixits you can hear the distinctive sound of a creative musician with a spunky dose of fun. Her soprano solos in O flame might as well have been love arias in a Monteverdi opera, and their violin solos are every bit as good as Corelli’s, and he was the greatest of his time.

All of Leonarda’s vocal quartets are written for mixed male and female voices, which makes one wonder what happened after dark in the monastery at San Orsolo in Navarra. Be that as it may, Isabella Leonard demands attention from any serious music lover. It is fresh, sometimes original and challenging. Remarkable that a budget label like Brilliant should be the first to see their light.

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Recent posts by Norman Lebrecht (See everything)
Recent posts by Norman Lebrecht (See everything)

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