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"San Marco di Venezia - The Golden Age"

Les Traversées Baroques
Dir: Étienne Meyer

rec: July 16 - 19, 2017, Sarrebourg (Moselle, F), Église Saint Martin de Hoff; Oct 19 - 20, 2017, Valvasone, Chiesa del Santissimo Corpo di Cristoa
Accent - ACC 24345 (© 2018) (71'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Bassano
Scores A. Gabrieli
Scores G. Gabrieli

Giovanni BASSANO (1551-1617): Ave Maria (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) [2]; Ave Regina a 12 [5]; Deus, qui beatum Marcum a 8 [5]; Hodie Christus natus est a 7 [6]; Nativitas tua Dei genitrix a 7 [6]; Quem vidistis pastores a 8 [5]; Veni dilecte mi (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) [2]; Viri sancti gloriosum a 6 [6]; Andrea GABRIELI (1532/33-1585): Eructavit cor meum a 6 [1]; Toccata del 9° tonoa; Giovanni GABRIELI (1557-1612): Canzon I a 5 (C 195) [7]; Canzon III a 6 (C 197) [7]; Confitebor tibi Domine a 13 (C 154) [8]; Exaudi Deus a 7 (C 12) [8]; Miserere mei Deus a 6 (C 9) [4]; O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C 56) [8]; Vox Domini super aquas Iordanis a 10 (C 64) [8]; Claudio MERULO (1533-1604): Canzon alla francese, dita la Benvenutaa [3]; Canzon alla francese, dita la Boviaa [3]

Sources: [1] Andrea & Giovanni Gabrieli, Concerti di Andrea, e di Gio: Gabrieli, 1587; [2] Giovanni Bassano, Motetti, madrigali et canzone francese di diversi eccellenti autori, 1591; [3] Claudio Merulo, Canzoni d'intavolatura d'organo fatte alla francese, 1592; [4] Giovanni Gabrieli, Sacrae symphoniae, 1597; Giovanni Bassano, [5] Motetti per concerti ecclesiastici a 5, 6, 7, 8 & 12 voci, 1598; [6] Concerti ecclesiastici a cinque, sei, sette, otto, & dodici voci, libro secondo, 1599; Giovanni Gabrieli, [7] Canzoni et sonatae, 1615; [8] Symphoniae sacrae, 1615

Anne Magouët, Capucine Keller, soprano; Paulin Bündgen, Pascal Bertin, alto; Hugues Primard, Vincent Bouchot, tenor; Renaud Delaigue, bass; Judith Pacquier, Sarah Dubus, cornett; Claire McIntyre, Abel Rohrbach, James Wigfull, sackbut; Monika Fischaleck, bassoon; Laurent Stewart, organ (soloa)

In the decades around 1600 Venice was one of the main musical centres of Europe. The list of performing musicians, as given by Denis Morrier in the liner-notes to the present disc, reads like a 'who is who' of the European music scene: Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Adrian Willaert, Gioseffo Zarlino, Giovanni Croce, Claudio Merulo, Claudio Monteverdi, Girolamo Dalla Casa, Giovanni Bassano, Dario Castello, Biagio Marini and Giovanni Battista Fontana. And that is just the top of the iceberg. It was a Golden Age indeed.

No wonder that performers of our time feel strongly attracted to the repertoire which was produced by these and other masters in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Les Traversées Baroques is just one of them. However, the recording under review here is a little different from most of its kind. That regards the choice of pieces as well as the way they are performed.

As one will have noticed in the header, Giovanni Bassano plays a major role in the programme. That is no surprise as he was one of the stars in Venice. However, he is almost exclusively connected to instrumental music, and more in particular the genre, known as diminutions or passaggi. He is even the author of one of the main treatises on the art of diminution, published in 1585 under the title of Ricercate, passaggi et cadentie per potersi esercitar nel diminuir terminatamente con ogni sorte d'istrumento. The programme includes two specimens of his own diminutions. Ave Maria and Veni dilecte mi are both passaggi on motets by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, one of the last and most important composers in the stile antico. Whereas the composer, in accordance with the principles of that style, treats the various voices on strictly equal footing, Bassano, in his passaggi, singles out the upper voice and adds ornaments to the line Palestrina has written down. The title of his treatise indicates that passaggi could be performed on any kind of instrument, and that possibly includes the human voice. The fact that the texts of Palestrina's motets are printed below the ornamented lines seems to suggest this; in Veni dilecte mi two voices are texted. Such passaggi are pretty hard to play, and to sing them is probably even more demanding. The singers who take care of them here deliver impressive performances.

Bassano's diminutions are mostly played rather than sung. The vocal performance is one aspect of this production which is different from the usual. However, we also get original vocal music from Bassano's pen. It sheds light on a part of his oeuvre which is hardly known. I can't remember having ever heard any motet by Bassano. His motets were published in two collections in 1598 and 1599 respectively. They are scored for five to twelve voices, which indicates that he adhered to the tradition of writing for cori spezzati, which had been established about half a century before by Adrian Willaert. Quem vidistis pastores and Deus, qui beatum Marcum are examples of motets for double choir. In addition we get pieces for six and seven voices, and the disc ends with the 12-part Ave Regina.

The most prominent composer of polychoral sacred music is Giovanni Gabrieli - that is to say: most prominent in our time. That has everything to do with the relative neglect of other composers who made use of the cori spezzati technique. Some of Gabrieli's motets are quite well-known; among them is O Jesu, mi dulcissime. Pieces for a more modest scoring are lesser known, but are of equal value. Therefore the inclusion of several of such pieces further adds to the importance of this disc.

It is also a demonstration of the various ways such music can be performed. As the ensemble includes seven singers, the pieces for eight or twelve voices are partly performed instrumentally. In such cases an instrument is used as a substitute for the human voice. Vocal pieces could also be entirely performed by instruments; that is the case here with Eructavit cor meum by Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni's uncle. In other cases the instruments support the voices, playing colla voce. However, the use of instruments was not as common as we are probably inclined to think. Most recordings of this kind of repertoire include cornetts and sackbuts, sometimes also strings. It is not possible to establish with any certainty for which occasions or which venue the motets by Gabrieli or Bassano were written, but at least in St Mark's instruments were only used at special occasions, in attendance of the doge and often connected to political events. Day-to-day liturgical practice was much more sober, and most pieces may have been performed a capella or with voices and organ. That is also the way some motets are performed here, such as Giovanni Gabrieli's Miserere mei.

This recording is also notable for the size of the ensemble. Often we get a large ensemble and many polychoral works are performed by a chamber choir or a larger vocal ensemble, with at least two voices per part. Morrier states that the choir of St Mark's comprised at least 36 singers, to which sometimes boys from the choir school and students from the seminary could be added. This suggests that a larger line-up is justified from a historical perspective. However, it is unlikely that the entire choir was used all the time. Moreover, as I already wrote, not all music produced in Venice was specifically intended for St Mark's or other large institutions. Therefore the more intimate approach which is taken here, is justified as well, and in fact offers a nice and meaningful alternative to so many other productions of this kind of repertoire. This approach does not only regard the number of singers, but also the way the motets are sung. The performance has a kind of intimacy which may also be the result of the acoustic. If this programme had been recorded in a large Italian basilica, such as the Santa Barbara in Mantua, the result would have been quite different.

I really like what I have heard here. The singers and players are excellent, and together they bring out the qualities of this repertoire to the full. The approach which the performers have chosen, sheds a somewhat different light on music which is often presented with pomp and circumstance. It is quite possible to perform them in a more intimate manner. The revelation of this disc is the oeuvre of Bassano. There is really no reason to ignore his vocal music, and I very much hope that this part of his output will be further explored. Laurent Stewart is responsible for fine performances of three organ pieces by two of the great Venetian composers of keyboard music: Andrea Gabrieli and Claudio Merulo. He plays a nice 16th-century organ, which is a prerequisite for a convincing interpretation of such keyboard pieces.

Unfortunately the booklet does not provide us with that kind of information. It falls a little short of the high standard of Accent booklets. The sources of the pieces are not given, and the booklet also omits the translations of the vocal items. French translations can be downloaded from the site of the ensemble, according to the booklet; I have not been able to find them. Lastly, the liner-notes are interesting, but Morrier confines himself to a broad outline of the musical developments and the music scene around 1600. There is no real connection to the programme presented here, and no comment on any specific piece that is performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Les Traversées Baroques

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