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.

The three singers displayed very different vocal characters, clearly chosen for the individual beauties of their voices rather than their conformity to a fixed ideal, and the result was generally charming. The soprano Pamela Lucciarini showed a pure, sweet and flexible voice, enriched by a shimmering vibrato that appeared as an embellishment rather than a constant feature. The performance of the solo motet Ecce annuntio vobis by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani showed a liquid flexibility in the graceful fioriture of the alleluia, and was clearly a highlight of the evening for the audience. Mezzo-soprano Elena Biscuola has an exceptionally lovely sound, rich and full. She sang with measured grace and refinement in the ensemble music, careful not to overpower her lighter-voiced colleagues. When it came to her solo sections, I longed for her to let that sound ring out in its full glory, but she maintained an understated approach. Smith herself has a delicate, silvery mezzo, quiet but impressively agile and precise in the fast passages.

The voices with their very different characters nevertheless blended well, finding unity in precision and delicacy of phrasing, ornamenting tastefully throughout. There were occasional inconsistencies of tuning and sometimes noticeable balance issues, with the light voices being overpowered by the instruments, especially in low pitched sections. Some pieces, such as Gasparo Casati’s Laudate pueri, called for extremely low singing. Smith talked to the audience about the music found for all-female convents with tenor and bass parts: the names of the nuns who took such parts at Ferrara are known. The ensemble approached this fascinating feature with a spirit of adventure which I salute; in performance, it still presented difficulties which were not entirely solved.

Among the nun-composers whose works were celebrated, Isabella Leonarda, Raphaela Aleotti and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani are probably the best known. Cozzolani indeed, as Smith informed us, stands out among her contemporaries as having published music which was widely known in her lifetime and found performance outside Italy. The discoveries of the evening for me were Maria Xaveira Perucona and Bianca Maria Meda. Perucona’s Cessate tympana was a exciting, dramatic piece in which crisp syllabic vocal writing imitated the rhythm of drums. Meda’s three-voice motet No, non tentate had some lovely moments of truly imaginative vocal writing, with playful interaction between the vocal and continuo lines. The ensemble made a compelling case for this unjustly neglected and often delightful repertoire.