musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Alessandro GRANDI (1590 - 1630): "Celesti Fiori - Motetti"

Accademia d'Arcadia; UtFaSol Ensemble
Dir: Alessandra Rossi Lürig

rec: August 1 - 4, 2018, Mantua, Basilica Palatina di Santa Barbara
Arcana - A 464 (© 2019) (62'39")
Liner-notes: E/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Bone Jesu, Verbum Patris [6]; Date nomine eius [2]; Domine ne in furore tuo [5]; Factum est [3]; Heu mihi [2]; In semita [1]; Lilia convallium [7]; Nisi Dominus [8]; O bone Jesu [2]; O quam tu pulchra es [1]; Plorabie die ac nocte [2]; Salvum fac [2]; Surge propera [3]; Veniat dilectus meus [4]; Vidi speciosam [1]

[1] Il primo libro de motetti a due, tre, quattro, cinque e otto voci, 1610; [2] Il secondo libro de motetti a due, tre, et quattro voci con il suo basso, 1613; [3] Il quarto libro de motetti a due tre quattro et sette voci con il basso continuo, 1616; [4] Celesti Fiori: Libro quinto de suoi concerti a 2. 3. e 4. voci con alcune cantilene nel fine, 1619; [5] Il sesto libro de motetti a due, tre, et quattro voci, con il basso per l'organo, 1630; [6] Motetti a una, due et quattro voci con sinfonie d'istromenti, libro secondo, 16252; [7] Leonardo Simonetti, ed., Raccolta terza ... de messa et salmi del Sig. Alessandro Grandi et Gio. Chiozotto a 2. 3. 4. con basso continuo, 1630

[AA] Laura Martinez Boj, Alice Rossi, soprano; Sophia Patsi, contralto; Maximiliano Baños, alto; Roberto Rilievi, Riccardo Pisani, Leo Moreno, tenor; Renato Cadel, Alessandro Ravasio, bass; Giovanni Bellini, theorbo; Luigi Accardo, organ
[UE] Pietro Modesti, Jedediah Allen, cornett; Fabio De Cataldo, Susanna Defendi, Valerio Mazzuconi, sackbut

When around 1600 the stile nuovo emerged in Italy, it manifested itself first in secular music (and prepared the rise of opera) and in instrumental music. In sacred music, composers tended to be rather conservative. They mostly mixed the new monodic style with the stile antico. The Vespro della Beata Vergine by Claudio Monteverdi is a perfect example. He is also the dominating figure of the early 17th century, as far as today's performance practice is concerned. Not only this particular work, but also other sacred works, for instance from his collection Selva morale e spirituale (1640/41), are regularly performed and recorded. In comparison, the many other composers of his time, who wrote and published sacred music in the same style, are largely ignored. It goes a little too far to say that this also goes for Alessandro Grandi, as he is one of the better-known contemporaries of Monteverdi, and was for a number of years his colleague at St Mark's in Venice. However, the number of recordings entirely devoted to Grandi, is very limited. With a bit of luck, one may find some pieces from his pen in anthologies. Therefore every disc with his music deserves a wholehearted welcome.

By all accounts Grandi was a precocious talent. It has always been assumed that he was born in 1580, but recent research has revealed that the year of his birth was 1590. This makes the development of his career all the more impressive. The liner-notes in the booklet to the present disc rightly bear the title 'A Venetian genius'. He first intended to make a career in the church. In 1604, when he was just fourteen years of age, he had already obtained all four minor orders and became a junior singer in the chapel of St Mark's. In a document he is called "a good singer and composer". His entrance was unusual, as according to an order from 1587 nobody younger than twenty was allowed to sing in the choir. It seems that Grandi was a pupil of Giovanni Croce and that he, as part of his musical education, also studied the work of Giovanni Gabrieli. His collections of motets from 1610 and 1614 include some pieces which are more or less arrangements of pieces by Gabrieli.

In 1609 Grandi gave up his ecclesiastical career and moved to Ferrara, to become choir director of the Accademia dello Spirito Santo. During his time there, which lasted about seven years, he took almost every position of any substance. At this time he also composed madrigals in concertato style, which were published in 1615 in Venice. In 1616 he became music director of the cathedral. One year later he decided to return to Venice, where he entered the choir of St Mark's as a singer. Again, he got ahead quickly. "By September 1617 he was appointed head of the compagnia dei cantori di San Marco, a singers' union dedicated to private singing engagements. In March 1618 he was appointed singing teacher of the students of the Seminario gregoriano, and finally on 17 November 1620 he became vice maestro of the chapel." (booklet) He continued to compose and publish secular music.

At end of 1625 or shortly after the turn of the year Grandi left Venice again. The reasons are not entirely clear, but it is assumed it had something to do with the fact that his relationship with Monteverdi was not that good. Monteverdi may have considered Grandi a rival. He did not get the chance to compose any large-scale music for St Mark's. This partly explains why he concentrated on the composition of pieces for solo voices. In 1627 he was appointed music director of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. However, only three years later he died of the plague after travelling to Venice.

The recording under review here offers a survey of Grandi's sacred oeuvre for solo voices. They are taken from seven different collections of motets; one piece, Nisi Dominus, is included in an anthology, published in the year of his death. The latter is also different from the other items in the programme, in that it is scored for eight voices in two choirs. The scoring of the other motets varies from two to four voices and basso continuo. Some come with two instrumental parts, here played on cornets.

Composers of that time liked to set texts from the Song of Songs, about the love of a young man and a young woman. These sensitive texts were almost tailor-made for a style of composing, whose ideal was the expression of affetti. Moreover, in the tradition of the Christian Church, the young woman was identified with the Virgin Mary, and therefore settings of these texts perfectly fit into the veneration of Mary, which was widespread, and was an important element of the Counter Reformation. Lastly, the Song of Songs includes several dialogues between the two main characters, and that was not lost on composers in a time which saw an increasing popularity of opera. This is exactly the way Grandi treats two fragments from this book. Surge propera is for soprano and bass, representing the woman and the man respectively. They sing in turn, but join each other in the last verse: "Rise up, my fair one, and come away. I will rise now and seek the one I love". Comparable with this is Veniat dilectus meus. Again, this is a dialogue between soprano and bass, but halfway alto and tenor enter, as they represent friends of the woman: "Where has your beloved gone, most beautiful of the brides? (...) We shall seek him with you". This piece ends with the four voices singing: "Let us go to the vineyards, let us see if the vine has produced flowers". The Song of Solomon also includes some texts in which the man expresses his admiration for the woman, such as O quam tu pulchra es, which Grandi set for three voices and basso continuo.

A popular compositional device at the time was the echo. This could also be used to create a kind of dialogue, between a character and a voice from a distance. Grandi uses it this way in Heu mihi: "Alas, why do you cry? why do you consume yourself, my soul?" Halfway the protagonist says: "Have mercy, o God. Did you say not: 'Ask and I will answer [exaudiam]?'" Then the echo replies: "I hear you [audiam]". A piece with a text like this invites to illustrate the text. That is the case, for instance, at the opening quoted above, where Grandi uses descending figures to depict the crying of the soul. Dramatic rising figures are used in Salvum fac on the words "govern them and lift them up for ever".

The instruments are sometimes also used to highlight episodes in the text. Factum est is about the battle of the archangel Michael with 'the serpent'. First a solo voice (soprano) announces what is going on. When she has proclaimed that Michael has won, the cornetts enter, and then the tutti state: "The voice of a thousand thousand was heard saying: hail, honour, power and glory be to the almighty God". The participation of the cornets is also appropriate in Date nomini eius: "Magnify his name." Later the text refers to "songs and harps". No wonder that here the cornetts and the voices alternate, and join each other at the closing "Alleluia".

This disc is a perfect musical portrait of the art of Alessandro Grandi. One could probably say that he made a virtue of necessity. We can only be happy with the fact that he wrote so many pieces for solo voices. These don't require large ensembles of voices and instruments, and are tailor-made for small ensembles such as the one performing on this disc. I have heard some pieces by Grandi in the past, but more often than not I was rather disappointed about the way they were performed. That is entirely different here. I have very much enjoyed what the singers and instrumentalist are making of these motets. As far as I am concerned, I would have preferred stronger dynamic contrasts here and there, but overall I am quite impressed by these performances. The singers have fine and flexible voices and master the art of declamation. The text receives maximum attention. The voices blend perfectly, and in the pieces with instruments, the balance is exactly right.

This is probably the best disc with music by Grandi that is available right now, alongside an older disc with performances under the direction of René Jacobs. I hope that this ensemble or other performers will delight us with more treasures from Grandi's large output.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Accademia d'Arcadia
UtFaSol Ensemble

CD Reviews