10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 54

A taste for the grand manner

Peter Phillips was asked to arrange a series of concerts around an exhibition in Italy The paintings of Dosso Dossi (1486?- 1542) were perhaps a slightly off-centre theme around which to arrange a series of concerts, but this series was what the Tallis Scholars, on the one hand, and Claudio Abbado on the other, launched in Ferrara last Friday. Since the Dossi exhibition — the first of its kind — is eventually to travel to New York and Los Angeles, the cultural world which surrounded this painter in northern Italy may soon become of general interest.

Although Dossi was employed through- out his career by the d'Este family in Fer- rara, he received much of his early inspiration as an artist in Venice, where he fell under the spell of Giorgione and came to know Titian well. Of all the artists who found the veiled meanings of Giorgione's most characteristic works seductive, Dossi persisted in trying to recreate them, so that one finds the reference in his paintings throughout his life. Sometimes it is a purely fantastical idea, like the representation of Jove painting butterflies on to a canvas above the clouds (in 'Glove, Mercurio e la Virtu); or something more generalised like 'Le tre eta dell'uomo'. This makes him at times seem quite out of the main- stream, far from the set-pieces of such Venetians as Giovanni Bellini and Cima. To choose music to accompany Dossi's vision is therefore unusually difficult, quite apart from the fact that at this period throughout Italy one is dealing primarily with Italians in painting and Flemish in music.

For a Belfini exhibition one could turn without fear of straining to the votive set- tings of any of the many Flemish com- posers who worked in Venice. Obviously the most appropriate would be Adrian Willaert, who was maestro di capella at St Mark's for 35 years, until his death in 1562. Although almost any Flemish polyphony of standing has a mystical quality to it, very little matches the purely secular mood of Giorgione's 'La Tempesta'. There is a con- templative vision of a quality which Willaert's six-part Ave virgo, for example, cannot quite convey. And Dossi's `Viaggia- tori nel bosco', which emulates the famous Giorgione, completely defeated me in the matter of finding a musical accompaniment relevant to it.

But there is more to Dossi than groups of rather inward-looking people inhabiting untraditional backdrops. From Titian he acquired a taste for the grand manner, which comes over most fluently in repre- sentations of the Holy Family or of saints in conversation (like 'Sand Cosma e Dami- ano', amongst many others). For paintings like these the equally grand style of Josquin's six-part Marian motets (like Benedicta es caelorum) serves well, with the added connection that both Dossi and Josquin were employed in Ferrara and may well have met there around 1503-4. In `Allegoria della Musica' Dossi quotes the mensuration canon which makes up the second Agnus Dei of Josquin's Missa L'homme anne 'Super voces musicales'. He also, for the record, quotes what looks very like an instrumental piece by Wlllaert else- where in this painting: so the music for this one was prescribed.

Part of Dossi's output is given over to classical themes, which can incorporate or run parallel with the more purely mystical inspirations. Many of these are quite early works, and one or two, especially those of young women representing either Circe or Melissa, are supremely beautiful. The cos- tume which Melissa is given has as much innate sonority in its colouring as Josquin has in the scoring of his six-voice Praeter rerum seriem. But there are several other antique scenes by Dossi which seem to be more experimental, like `Enea e Aeate sulla costa della Libia'. It was this canvas, in combination with the more straightfor- wardly Giorgionesca works described above, which put me in mind of Cipriano 'Witchcraft or An Allegory on the Choice of Hercules', c. 1535-40, by Dosso Dossi, Galleries degli Uffizi, FlorencelBridgeman Art Library, London/New York de Rore's astonishing, almost outrageous Calami sonum ferentes, written for Alfonso d'Este around 1552. Published also as a madrigal, this quasi-motet, with an extreme musical language put to the service of ref- erences to Catallus, Lesbia and the fields of Sirmio, wonderfully accompanies Dossi's chromatic classicising.

As I say, this was what we performed in the first half of the concert. In the second Claudio Abbado, directing from the harpsi- chord, encouraged a young soprano through 45 minutes of coloratura writing by Monteverdi. Why Monteverdi?

Dosso Dossi is in Ferrara at the Palazzo dei Diamanti until 14 December; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 14 January until 28 March; and in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum from 27 April until 11 July.