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"Le Grazie Veneziane - Music from the Ospedali"

Maria Grazia Schiavo, Emanuela Galli, soprano; Jose Maria Lo Monaco, contralto
Vocal Concert Dresden, Dresdner Instrumental-Concert
Dir: Peter Kopp
rec: January 15 - 18, 2008, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.264 (© 2008) (72'45")

Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785): Dixit Dominus; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Laudate pueri; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): De profundis

There seems to be an increasing interest in the sacred music written for the women and girls of the various Ospedali in Venice in the 18th century. One of the characteristics of this repertoire is that the tutti parts are set for women's voices only. Vivaldi, of course, also performed his sacred music in the Ospedale della Pietą with women's voices, but he made sure they could also be performed by more conventional forces of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Johann Adolf Hasse was another one, who adapted his psalm setting Laudate pueri, originally written for the Ospedale della Pietą, for the different circumstances in Dresden.

Since the 14th century a number of large and small Ospedali were offering a home to the sick, the poor and to orphans. In the early 18th century there were four large Ospedali for girls and women, where they found not only a home but also a good education, in particular in music. During the century these developed into famous conservatories, and they always were able to attract first-class composers to act as maestro. The most famous of them was Antonio Vivaldi, but the three composers who are represented on this disc also were at some time during their career connected to one or some of the Ospedali.

Nicola Antonio Porpora, born in Naples, led an adventurous life which brought him to Dresden, Vienna, London and Venice. It was after his return from Vienna in 1725, where he didn't enjoy much success, that he took up the post of maestro at the Ospedale degl'Incurabili. He left for London in 1733, where he was Handel's main rival in the field of opera, but returned in 1736 to Venice. His old job had been given to Johann Adolf Hasse, but as he was on an extended leave in Dresden Porpora could return to his former position. In 1738 he returned to his native Naples to perform operas. It didn't bring him as much success as he would have hoped for, and in 1741 he went back to Venice and took up the post of maestro di coro of the Ospedale della Pietą. In 1744 he was appointed at the Ospedale dei Derelitti. It is here that he wrote a number of motets, one of which is performed on this disc. In his motets Porpora treats the text as if it was an opera libretto, with virtuosic arias for the soloists, full of coloraturas. The tutti parts are hardly less demanding and also contain passages with coloraturas. Even in a text like De profundis there is hardly any restraint, and that is something one has get to used to.

It is not quite clear when exactly Hasse was connected to the Ospedali in Venice. It is assumed he wrote his first work for the Ospedale degli'Incurabili during his visit to Venice in 1727 or 1728, and was also appointed maestro at the institution, but there is no certainty about that. But what is certain is that Hasse was in Venice between 1734 and 1737, and on the libretto of an opera of 1736 he is called maestro di cappella of the Ospedale degl'Incurabili. It is during these years that his psalm setting Laudate pueri has been composed. Here Hasse doesn't belie his credentials as one of the great opera composers of his time, but in comparison with Porpora he is more restrained and there is a stronger connection between text and music (for instance the contrast between "coelo" and "terra"). And in particular the tutti parts are less operatic than in Porpora's psalm setting. It is perhaps his German education which is shining out here.

Baldassare Galuppi, who was mainly active as a composer of operas and only towards the end of his life devoted himself to sacred music, was appointed as maestro at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti in 1740, a post he held until 1751, when he resigned because of his many other duties. In 1762 he was appointed maestro di coro of St Mark's and at the Ospedale degl'Incurabili. His setting of Dixit Dominus dates from 1774 and was written for the Ospedale. Whereas the two other pieces on this disc are scored for strings and bc only, Galuppi adds two horns, which are used quite effectively for the expression of the text, in particular in the verse 'Dominus a dextris tuis': "The Lord at thy right hand shall destroy kings in the day of his wrath". About Galuppi's sacred works Charles Burney wrote that "though some of the airs are in the opera stile, yet, upon occasion, he shows himself to be a very able writer in the true church stile, which is grave, with good harmony, good modulation, and fugues well worked". The second verse, 'Tecum principium', is a good example of an expressive 'grave' and the piece ends with a fugue on the closing part of the doxology ("et in saeculum saeculorum").

The compositions by Hasse and Galuppi have been recorded here for the first time. Porpora's De profundis has also been recorded by Jean-Marc Andrieu, directing his ensemble Les Passions and the Choeur Éclats. In comparison this performance is more restrained; the operatic character comes more to the fore in Andrieu's recording. On the other hand, the Dresdner Instrumental-Concert is considerably larger than Les Passions (17 strings to 5), and that is probably more in line with what was common in the Ospedali.

The orchestra plays very well, but could sometimes have been a bit bolder and more theatrical. The choir gives fine performances and deals admirably with the demanding tutti parts in Porpora's psalm setting. The soloists are doing a great job; they all have pleasant voices and show their impressive skills in the often virtuosic arias. I have to say, though, that a bit less vibrato hadn't been amiss, in particular from the sopranos.

Overall this is an interesting and captivating recording of repertoire which is still largely unexplored. The pieces on this disc show that there is every reason to regret this, and hopefully these performers and others will do something about it.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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