Words were more important than music in the Italian 16th century and song was therefore a higher art form than instrumental music. Composers such as Cipriano da Rore who observed the natural speech rhythms were afforded the highest accolades.

Wordplay presents a collection of highly decorated vocal music in purely instrumental performance. The disc explores the role of the soloist in a period of music which has come to be defined by consort playing. In the two centuries that this repertoire covers the borrowing and reworking of the music of earlier composers was regarded as creative, original and even as an act of respect or homage.

The disc is structured around instrumental divisions on five famous songs of 16th century and one bass-dance tenor. The divisions are for recorder, bass viol or lute. In total 17 different instruments are used including three types of recorder, three types of lute, seven sizes of viol, and a chamber organ. All are precise copies of early Italian instruments including wide-bore recorders and sound-postless viols.

Central to Wordplay are the writings of Slyvestro Ganassi, a recorder and viol player in early 16th century Venice.  In La Fontegara (1535) and Regola Rubertina (1545) Ganassi defines the aim of the instrumentalist as being to imitate a good singer, and describes two distinct ways of doing so. 

The first is naturalistic – how to replicate the singer’s tonal and dynamic variety exactly (on the recorder with varied breath pressure and alternative fingerings, on the viol with bow and finger vibrato etc).

The second involves study of the text and using trills (from suave quarter-tones to vivace wide major thirds) and elaborate divisions (with notated syncopations and rubato) to express the sense of particular words and emotions. Fifty years later, Dalla Casa, Bassano and Rognoni have developed a more idiomatic instrumental style and have more polished and formulaic passaggi. 

All the pieces – though instrumentalists – use exclusively vocal originals, and all would pay more than lip service to Giovanni Bardi’s precept: "Words are the soul, music but the body"

WordPlay is one of the first recordings made in York’s newly opened National Centre for Early Music in the church of St Margaret, Walmgate.  

Musica Antiqua is one of England’s most celebrated early music ensembles and they have triumphed here with their third disc for Signum Records!


What people are saying

"… played dextrously by Philip Thorby … played wonderfully expressively by Alison Crum … in Jacob Heringman’s athletic rendering"

Gary Higginson, Ludwig Van Web

    "Word Play is the disc to buy…an outstanding recording."

Early Music Review October 2002


"high standard of playing … thoughtfulness of the programmatic choices, and the tasteful interpretations … the sound is excellent"


Musica Antiqua
Philip Thorby, director
Jacob Heringman
Alison Crum
John Bryan
Roy Marks
Andrew Kerr 

Release date:9th Jun 2001
Order code:SIGCD031
Barcode: 635212003121

Classical London

This unusual CD consists of instrumental performances of vocal music, mainly virtuosic settings of 16 C madrigals and chansons, from a time when song was thought a higher art form than instrumental music.  These are highly decorated versions, the versatile players of Musica Antiqua using 17 different sweet-toned instruments, recorders, lutes, viols and a chamber organ, all copies of early Italian instruments.  Silvestro Ganassi defined the aim of the instrumentalist as being to imitate a good singer, to replicate the singer’s tonal and dynamic variety, using trills and elaborate divisions, with syncopations and rubato, to express the sense of the text, and this tradition is served in this well researched and affectionate compilation of mainly short pieces. It is quite a different sort of virtuosity from the exciting, more exhibitionist music of, say, Biber. Worldplay was recorded at the York National Centre for Early Music, in the church of St Margaret, Walmgate, which provides a suitable ambience for this music, gentle and ideal for late night listening.


Peter Grahame Woolf

Artistic quality 9, Recording quality 9

Following a long tradition–one that thrives today–of re-setting original vocal works for various instrumental solos or ensembles, the early music group Musica Antiqua of London chooses six madrigals and chansons from 16th century Italy and presents them anew, applying as closely as possible performance guidelines spelled out in contemporary treatises. One such "instructional manual" is Sylvestro Ganassi’s La Fontegara. Published in 1535, it gives highly detailed directions specifically for recorder playing and how it should conform to the ideal expressive capacities of the human voice. Indeed, in certain exalted musical circles during this time, it was the voice–and the words it was capable of articulating–that was regarded as the most perfect vehicle for musical expression. Thus, director Philip Thorby and his colleagues apply lots of ornamentation, improvisatory runs and chordal flourishes, trills, vibrato effects, and timbral and dynamic variations to their multiple renditions of tunes such as La Spagna, Ancor che col partire, and Susanne ung jour. They also deliver a more or less straight reading of Adrian Willaert’s madrigal Cantai or piango in a setting for six viols–this followed by a brilliant improvisatory rendition of the same piece for solo recorder (played by Thorby) accompanied by lute. There’s a lot of variety among the arrangements as the players intelligently and with no small degree of musicological authority employ various viols, recorders, lute, and chamber organ. And much of the music is quite affecting, especially the two viol consort pieces, led by the outstanding Alison Crum. No, this probably doesn’t rank as an essential recording, even for early music specialists, but the high standard of playing, the thoughtfulness of the programmatic choices, and the tasteful interpretations make for satisfying entertainment and a worthy venture off well-worn traditional paths. The sound, from the National Centre for Early Music in York, England, is excellent, too.


David Vernier

Music Web – May 2002

In the summer of 2000, York opened its wonderful ‘National Centre for Early Music’ in the redundant church of St.Margaret, Walmgate. This recording is one of the first made there, and it is a beautiful recording in an ideal acoustic. Long may these recordings continue.

The CD has a slightly misleading title as we are only presented with instrumental works. The idea is to take instrumental divisions on five famous songs of the century and one bass-dance tenor. These divisions, or passagi, may be for recorder (for instance Bassano’s arrangement of Rore’s lyrical madrigal ‘Ancor che col partire’ played dextrously by Philip Thorby) or for bass viol (as in Rognioni’s ‘Ancor che col partire’ played wonderfully expressively by Alison Crum), or for lute (as in Jacob Heringman’s athletic rendering of Capirola’s La Spagna). The ‘La Spagna’ bass dates from the 15th Century as does, I believe, the piece by Ebreu. The last pieces on the CD date from some 200 years later.

Signum have taken as a starting point various treaties beginning with Sylvestro Ganassi’s ‘La Fontegara’ of 1535. This is on ‘the true art of recorder playing’ but contains instructions on ornamentation, also applicable to other wind and indeed string players. Ganassi was at pains to say that it was vocal music and therefore the expression of poetry that he so much admired and which he wanted instrumentalists to emulate in dynamic range, articulation and tonal variety. As a demonstration we are given Willaert’s madrigal ‘Cantai’ or ‘piango’ first played as written (Track 9), on viols then given a lengthy and, I’m sorry to say, tedious ornamented version based on Ganassi (Track 10). Ganassi’s next publication of 1542 ‘Regola Rubertina’ deals with the practical aspects to quote Thorby’s fascinating booklet notes of “stringing, tuning and playing” with various technical points elucidated. As an example of this listen to Bovicelli’s expressionist ‘affeti’ in ‘Ancor che col partire’. Ganassi’s 1535 treatise is primarily about composing and playing instrumental music. The other composers represented often put into print their own views on instrumental divisions for example Ortiz, Girolamo dalla Casa and Bassano. Their approach was to have copied examples of their own work for performers to play through. An example of this is track 12 – Bassano’s ‘Susanne ung jour’ and track 16 Dalla Casa’s ‘Vestiva I colli’.

To prove that the art of instrumental divisions continued into later times the disc ends with another variant of ‘Vestiva I colli’ by the Spaniard Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde. This is dated c.1638 and is entirely free of any anchor.

The seventeen instruments used on this CD are all recent copies of ancient ones. Philip Thorby plays four, three types of recorder and a bass viol. Jacob Heringman plays three types of lute and a bass viol. Alison Crum tackles five sizes of viol. John Bryan is on bass viol and chamber organ, which holds its own perfectly when virtuoso divisions swim around it. Roy Marks plays the great bass viol and Andrew Kerr a bass viol. The booklet also tells us who made the bows and who made the strings.

Talking of the booklet, it is up to the usual high standard of this company. The essay being translated into German and French, and with notes on the performers and their previous recordings. The back of the booklet should, in my view, give the composer’s full names and it would have been a helpful touch if someone had looked up their dates and printed them. After all these men are hardly well known figures and a little more detail is always of interest.

This CD can be enjoyed on three levels: Intellectually, following the melodic variations and contrasts in styles; secondly, admiration of the players and their versatility and virtuosity; and finally, in the late evening, with a glass of red wine in one hand and say, Castiglione’s ‘Book of the Courtier’ in the other.


Gary Higginson

Viola da Gamba Society

… a gem … a wealth of fantastic music and fantastic playing … one of the best CDs you will have heard for years … the ensemble is so close to perfect with a unity that still allows personal freedoms enough to give it life beyond the sum of its parts.

Early Music Review

…. a genuinely new and imaginative approach to 16th-century instrumental music. This is an outstanding recording


…. played dextrously by Philip Thorby … played wonderfully expressively by Alison Crum … in Jacob Heringman’s athletic rendering … a beautiful recording in an ideal acoustic

  1. La Spagna: – Anon – [0:29]
  2. – Ebreu – [1:09]
  3. – Capirola – 2:36]
  4. – Ortiz – [2:49]
  5. Ancor che col partire: – Bassano – [3:05]
  6. – dalla Casa – [2:56]
  7. – Bovicelli – [3:50]
  8. – R. Rogniono – [4:28]
  9. Cantai or piango: – Willaert – [6:03]
  10. – Ganassi/Thorby – [8:06]
  11. Susanne ung jour: – Lupi – [2:33]
  12. – Bassano – [3:54]
  13. – F. Rognoni – [4:30]
  14. – dalla Casa – [4:38]
  15. Petit Jacquet: – Terzi – [4:19]
  16. Vestiva i colli: – dalla Casa – [6:10]
  17. – Bassani – [4:33]
  18. – Selma – [3:12]