"A 'hill of beans' is how much the problems of three little people are worth in this crazy, mixed-up world." You may recall that famous quote from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. A "hill of beans" may amount to very little or nothing in most cases, but not in the case of I Fagiolini, whose Italian name translates as "little beans."
The ensemble's director Robert Hollingworth says this colloquialism is a play on words. "When I was at Oxford University, back in the 1980s, early music and period instrument performance was known as 'beanie music,' because most of the pro orchestras, The Academy of Ancient Music, English Concert, that seemed to come to up to Oxford to do concerts with the Choirs of New College and Christ Church and Magdalen, they seemed to be sort of yogurt knitting vegetarians, and indeed I was one myself." When it came time to choose a name on short notice for their first concert, someone said, "Why not beans?" Hollingworth decided to Italianize the name to class it up a bit and that's how I Fagiolini was born.
Since founding the ensemble in 1986, Hollingworth and I Fagiolini have earned a reputation for their inventive approach to early music, "I like to think hard about the context and that leads me with an open mind, I hope, to do some unusual things with the music," he explains. On their latest release titled 1612 Italian Vespers, they're marking two four-hundred-year anniversaries. "1612 is a nice date because it's the death of Giovanni Gabrieli so good to remember him in his 400th anniversary year, but it's also the date of the publication of Lodovico Viadana's, 'Four-Choir Vesper Psalms,' which have never been recorded before."
Lodovico Viadana had worked alongside Claudio Monteverdi, an inventive Italian composer of the late Renaissance. Echoes of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, are heard in Viadana's Vespers, yet Hollingworth says Viadana was considered to be even more forward-thinking.
"What Viadana has done is make a much clearer distinction between five solo singers and the accompanying choir. And then he has a third and fourth group which he says you can use or not use, depending on whether you have the right building for it, and whether you have enough money to pay the performer. And, he says if you have a lot of money, then you can double up those choirs and have another Choir Three and another Choir Four somewhere else in the church to make the thing even more splendid. So a main feature of this, apart from the multi-choir feature, is the dialogue between the solo group and the largerscale group." Another element that makes this music so colorful is their use of historical instruments. For this recording, I Fagiolini does what Viadana suggests; they go for a broken consort approach where different families of instruments are mixed together: "We have curtails or dulcians, these are old bassoons, cornets and sackbuts of course and the standard players these days is just fantastic. Lutes, three organs, oh yes, that was a pleasure having the three organs, that made a wonderful sound!"
While most of Giovanni Gabrieli's works have now been recorded, Robert Hollingworth explains there was a fragment of a Magnificat where only eight of probably 28 parts exist. Normally it would be too difficult to reconstruct this poly-choral piece, "But the scholar Hugh Keyte, who's worked with Paul McCreesh and Andrew Parrott for years and who's now working with us, had this idea. He noticed some telltale signs in the existing parts that really pointed the way to an amazing victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. And there are a lot of echo effects in the piece and sometimes you have just one of the eight voices which is clearly working as an answer to something that has already been sung. So there are lots of clues in the piece." Then, Hollingworth says, they let their imaginations run wild. "Venetians in their processions were very keen on use of fireworks and there's evidence that the Turkish banners were brought out for some of the celebrations, the captured Turkish banners. So we have bells and cannon explosions in the Magnificat as well. It's almost as much 1812 as it is 1612 at one particular point."
Robert Hollingworth clearly loves talking about this new recording, 1612 Italian Vespers, with zest and humor. He even cites Monty Python as an influence. "It's taken me 20-odd years to realize that having fun in rehearsals and on the concert stage is not a bad thing. But yeah, Monty Python — they should all have been knighted by now, I think."