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Handel, Vivaldi & Mozart: Sacred music

[I] Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Les orphelines de Venise" (The orphans of Venice)
Anna Reinhold, mezzo-sopranoab
Les Cris de Paris
Dir: Geoffroy Jourdain
rec: Sept 27 - 28, 2015, Ambronay, Abbaye
Ambronay - AMY047 (© 2016) (65'05
Liner-notes: E/D"/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto madrigalesco in d minor (RV 129); Credo in e minor (RV 591); Gloria in D (RV 589)a; Kyrie in g minor (RV 587); Magnificat in g minor (RV 610a)b; Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro in d minor (RV 169)

[soli] Victoire Bunela, Adèle Carlierb, Judith Derouina, Marie Picautb, Michiko Takahasib, Amandine Trencab, soprano

[II] "Dixit Dominus - Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel"
Marta Mathéuac, Hanna Bayodi-Hirtabc, soprano; Anthony Roth Costanzo, altoac; Makoto Sakurada, tenorabc; Furio Zanasi, baritoneabc
La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall
rec: June 1, 2015, Barcelona, Auditori
AliaVox - AVSA9918 (© 2016) (68'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S/Cat; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/I/S/Cat
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)a; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Dixit et Magnificat in C (KV 193 / 186g)b; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Dixit Dominus in D (RV 595)c

Score Handel
Score Mozart

Today Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most performed and recorded composers of the high baroque period. Especially his concertos frequently appear on concert programmes and on disc. In the last 15 years or so his operas have also been rediscovered. In contrast only a small part of his sacred music is really known. Two compositions from the programme Geoffrey Jourdain has recorded are among the best-known: the Gloria in D (RV 589) and the Magnificat in g minor (RV 610a), and - in the 'second division' - the Dixit Dominus (RV 595) which Jordi Savall included in his programme with three settings of this text. In comparison the two Mass movements in Jourdain's programme are little known.

One of the most debated issues in regard to the performance of Vivaldi's sacred music is the vocal scoring. Most of his choral works were written for the Ospedale della Pietà which was an orphanage for girls. However, the polyphonic works are all scored for the conventional forces of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The question then is how the girls performed the lower parts. There are several theories. Some believe that male singers from outside the Ospedale may have taken part. However, that seems highly unlikely, and Geoffrey Jourdain points out that this may have happened only at very special occasions and therefore must have been documented. The number of pieces with parts for low voices is such that it is highly unlikely that these were all sung with participation of tenors and basses. The other solution is that girls sang all the parts. It has been pointed out that the tenor parts are not that low and are within the reach of female altos with a good low register. The pitch at the time - according to Jourdain a=440', but he suggests that it may have been still the pitch of the previous century: a=460' - makes that even more plausible. There is a third option: the transposition of the bass part or of both lower parts up an octave.

Jourdain has opted for the latter solution: both the tenor and the bass parts are sung an octave below written pitch. He argues that sometimes the tenor line includes passages which are musically more interesting than the soprano part at that point. "It is worth noting, for readers who are acquainted with the rules of harmony, that this octaviation offers a solution to all those intriguing consecutive fifths that crop up from time to time in Vivaldi's Gloria." What is especially interesting is that this practice seems to be confirmed by a setting of the Miserere by Johann Adolph Hasse who for some time was also working at the Ospedale. He composed it in the 1730s specifically for female voices, not those of the Ospedale della Pietà but those of the Ospedale degli Incurabili. This setting is preserved in the archive of the Maîtrise de Radio France. This setting turns out to be identical with another Miserere in c minor by Hasse, but then for the conventional scoring for mixed voices.

This vocal line-up has been practised before, recently by Hervé Niquet. There is one important difference with this recording, though: in Niquet's recording the solo parts are performed by various voices singing in unison. In the liner-notes he states that "was very frequently done in Vivaldi's day", but I have not heard of any historical evidence that this was really common practice at the time. I also found it musically unsatisfying. Here the solo parts are sung by members of the choir, with the mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold as an 'external' soloist. They do a fine job, but unfortunately some of them use too much vibrato. As I noted in my review of Niquet's recording and is also observed by Jourdain, as quoted above, the tenor line sometimes lies above the soprano line. That is the part which one most easily remembers, and as a result one often thinks to listen to another piece.

On balance I find these performances more convincing than Niquet's.

There are no such experiments in Jordi Savall's recording of Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus. It is part of a programme with three settings of this text (Psalm 109/110) which was performed during three concerts in May and June 2015. The concert was part of the 6th Academy for Professional Training, Research and Musical Performance, directed by Jordi Savall. Several members of La Capella Reial de Catalunya are finalists of the academy. The line-up in Vivaldi's Dixit Dominus is in line with the conventional practice: the choir includes female and male voices. As this text is part of Sunday Vespers it was set numerous times during the renaissance and the baroque era. It includes some very dramatic verses which were not lost on composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is interesting to hear the settings by Vivaldi and Handel in one programme. Whereas Handel confines himself to an orchestral scoring for strings and bc Vivaldi adds a trumpet and a pair of oboes. The winds play a prominent part in the opening section. Handel emphasizes the opening word "dixit" with percussionistic figures and by returning to it a number of times. In Judicabit in nationibus Vivaldi opens with a section which features the trumpet which is then joined by the alto, singing the three first words (he will judge all the nations). This is a lyrical passage but then Vivaldi pulls out all the stops on the words "filling them with dead bodies; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth". Handel's setting is even more dramatic but in a different way, with a descending figure on "filling them with dead bodies" and a repetition of "conquassabit" (shatter) with staccato chords.

In between we hear a little-known setting of the Dixit et Magnificat in C (KV 193) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We know two complete Vesper settings from Mozart's pen but why he confined himself in this work from 1774 to the opening Psalm and the closing Magnificat is not known. These are very concise settings and through-composed; Josep Maria Vilar, in his liner-notes, compares this work with the missae breves in Mozart's oeuvre. It includes short solo episodes but most of this work is for the tutti. The orchestral score includes three trombone parts which are not played here. Edward Higginbottom did the same in his recording "Music for Salzburg Cathedral". In his liner-notes to that disc he stated that "[their] place in Mozart's church music of this period has everything to do with a centuries-old continental practice of bumping the alto, tenor and bass chorus parts. (...) In fact, some contemporary copies of Mozart's church music omit trombone parts. (...) I read the trombones as a means, which we simply did not need, of keeping the chorus in order." Savall may have followed that line of thinking as well, but the liner-notes omit the issue.

One could argue that Handel's Dixit Dominus doesn't receive the most dramatic performance here. I have heard performances which are more theatrical, but that doesn't imply they are also better. Savall has the advantage of excellent soloists; in particular the two sopranos deliver outstanding performances; their singing in "De torrente" is superb, not disturbed by an incessant vibrato. The alto also has a nice voice, but is a bit too restraint here and there. Choir and orchestra are outstanding, and the consistency of the interpretation is one of this recording's assets.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Anthony Roth Costanzo
Marta Mathéu
La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Le Concert des Nations
Les Cris de Paris

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