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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Gloria - Magnificat"

Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet

rec: June 8 - 9, 2015, Paris, Eglise Notre Dame du Liban
Alpha - 222 (© 2015) (50'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Gloria & Magnificat

Gloria in D (RV 589); Laetatus sum (RV 607); Lauda Jerusalem (RV 609); Magnificat in g minor (RV 610a)

Agathe Boudet, Sophie Landy, Hélène Richer, Gwenaëlle Clemino, Anne-Marie Jacquin, soprano I; Aude Fenoy, Melusine De Pas, Els Crommen, Alice Glaie, Marie-Pierre Wattiez, soprano II; Julia Beaumier, Lucie Niquet-Rioux, Marianne Byloo, Eva Zaïcik, Lucia Nigohossian, mezzo-soprano I; Alice Habellion, Caroline Marçot, Pauline Leroy, Violaine Lucas, Mélodie Ruvio, mezzo-soprano II

This year (2016) the Festival Early Music Utrecht was devoted to music composed or performed in Venice from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. Special attention was given to the sacred music by Antonio Vivaldi as this was considered the least known part of his oeuvre. Generally speaking that may be true but some of the works performed during the festival can be reckoned among the best known of the baroque period, such as the Stabat mater and Nisi Dominus, performed by Damien Guillon and Le Banquet Céleste, and probably even more so the Gloria and the Magnificat which were performed at the last concert of the festival by Le Concert Spirituel under the direction of Hervé Niquet. The programme of that concert was identical with that on the disc reviewed here.

It is not so much these two compositions themselves which deserve our attention but the way they are performed. Most of Vivaldi's sacred music was written for the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent/orphanage for girls and women. That includes the pieces performed here; the fact that the solo parts are for soprano and alto bears witness to that. However, the tutti are written for the conventional scoring of soprano, alto, tenor and bass (with strings and bc) and one wonders how the female singers did perform the lower parts. Mixed performances were certainly no option: it is inconceivable that male singers from outside the Ospedale could have taken part. There are generally two opinions. Some think that the parts have been performed as they are written. In the liner-notes to the present recording Michael Talbot states that the tenor parts are well within the alto range. That leaves the bass parts which according to some were sung at written pitch; apparently some women were able to sing very low, and modern attempts to reconstruct such a way of singing seem to prove that. However, others - including Hervé Niquet - believe that the lower parts were sung an octave above written pitch. In this recording the tenor parts also seem to have been transposed up an octave.

The result is that sometimes the lower parts rise above what we usually hear as the upper part. That is the part the human ear most naturally pays attention to and carries the melody which sticks in the listener's ear. If you listen to these works you will hear something you probably haven't heard before and you could even think of listening to an unknown piece. To a certain extent that is really the case. In this line-up these works appear to be very different, and that is something one has to become acquainted to. If this is in line with the practice in Vivaldi's time, could this be how he intended them to sound? That probably goes a little too far. The question is: if he intended them to be performed this way, why didn't he compose them accordingly? It would be interesting to know something about the dissemination of his sacred works and particularly the two large-scale works performed here. Vivaldi was a good businessman and may have taken into account that the performance practice in the Ospedale was different from what was common at the time. The conventional scoring for four voices would guarantee that these pieces could also be performed elsewhere. In his notes in the booklet Niquet refers to the habit of performing music with equal voices in France, which he has documented in several recordings. I don't know if any research has been done in this regard for Italy but even if there were other places where music was performed by equal voices it seems unlikely that this was a widespread practice.

This part of performance practice won't cause much debate; historically the case for a performance with female voices - whether in transposition or at original pitch - is pretty strong. That is probably different when it comes to the way the solo parts are performed. As I already mentioned these are for soprano and alto. You will probably have wondered why there are no names of soloists in the header of this review. That is because there are no soloists. Niquet decided to perform the solo parts with the whole section of sopranos and/or altos respectively. In the booklet he writes: "As regards the arias written for female voices, one can of course draw upon soloists, but it is equally possible to have those parts sung by the choir, that is, with the entire soprano section singing the soprano solos, and all the altos singing the alto solos, as was very frequently done in Vivaldi's day". We have to take his word for that statement as he doesn't come up with any evidence. I wonder whether there is any research which supports this view. I may have missed something but I have never heard this practice before. I remember David Willcocks once recording Handel's Messiah in which the soprano solos were sung by several boys from the Choir of King's College Cambridge but this clearly was a make-shift solution as no treble from the choir may have had a voice strong enough to sing them on his own. On TV I recently saw and heard a performance of François Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres by Le Concert Spirituel with more than one voice per part. I found it rather unsatisfying, and that is not any different here. It is notable that Michael Talbot, in his notes on Lauda Jerusalem, writes that "[in] his autograph score the composer wrote in the names of two singers for each solo part. These were probably alternative soloists, not singers intended to perform as a pair." Nowhere does he refer to a 'common practice' of performing solo parts with more than one singer. This doesn't prove that Niquet is wrong but gives reason to be at least a bit sceptical about his statement.

Whatever the truth, these are nice performances. Le Concert Spirituel is a fine ensemble and this disc bears witness to that. The singers are very good but it is regrettable that their singing is not free of a slight vibrato. Without it the sound would have been more transparent, even though the transposition of the tenor and bass parts inevidently results in a more dense sound fabric. The playing of the strings is energetic and dynamic. Musically there is much to enjoy and from the angle of performance practice this is a most interesting contribution to the debate on how Vivaldi's sacred music should be performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Le Concert Spirituel

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