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Alessandro GRANDI (c1586 - 1630): "Vespro della Beata Vergine"

Deborah York, sopranoa; Daniel Taylor, altob; Ed Lyon, tenorc; Peter Harvey, bassd
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgarte; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
Dir: Matthew Halls

rec: Sept 12, 2010 (live), Stuttgart, Markuskirche
Carus - 83.367 (© 2011) (57'50")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D/F (abridged); lyrics - translations: D/E
Cover & tracklist

Deus in adiutorium meum intendeabcde [6]; O qual suave est nomen tuumac [2]; Dixit Dominusabcde [6]; O quam tu pulchra esbcd [1]; Laudate pueriabcde [6]; Vulnerasti cor meuma [4]; Laetatus sumabcde [6]; Laetamini vos, o caeliacde [3]; Nisi Dominusabcde [7]; O quam tu pulchra esc [5]; Lauda Jerusalem Dominumabcde [7]; Hymnus Ave maris stellabe [6]; O speciosa inter filias Jerusalemacde [3]; Magnificatabcde [6]

Sources: [1] Il primo libro de motetti, 16106; [2] Il secondo libro de motetti, 1613; [3] Celesti fiori … de suoi concerti con alcune cantilene, 1619; [4] Motetti con sinfonie, 1621; [5] Motetti con sinfonie, libro II, 1625; [6] A. Vincenti (ed), Salmi brevi, 1629; [7] Messa, e salmi, 1630

[Bach-Collegium Stuttgart] Gawain Glenton, cornett; Henning Wiegräbe, Michael Hufnagel, Max Bentz, sackbut; Eckhard Lenzing, dulcian; Walter Forchert, Odile Deutsch, Anne Roser, violin; Lena Thies, viola; Tim Ströble, cello; Albert Michael Locher, double bass; Stephan Rath, Andreas Arend, Michael Dücker, theorbo; Andreas Gräsle, harpsichord, organ; Christian Schmitt, organ

Alessandro Grandi was one of the most prolific and most celebrated composers of his time. But for many of today's music lovers he is still a largely unknown quantity. That makes any disc with his music very welcome.

What is presented here is strictly speaking not what the title suggests: there is no such a thing as a Vespro della Beata Vergine in Grandi's oeuvre. What we have here is a compilation of music for Vespers which Grandi composed during various stages of his career.

In his early years Grandi moved between Ferrara - his likely birthplace - and Venice. His first position was that of maestro di cappella at the Accademia della Morte, a charitable brotherhood in Ferrara. He was just 14 at the time. Between 1604 and 1608 he worked as giovane di coro at San Marco in Venice. He returned to Ferrara in 1610 in order to take the position of maestro di cappella of another brotherhood and then was appointed in the same position at Ferrara cathedral. Between 1617 and 1627 he was in Venice again, from 1620 as vice maestro di cappella at San Marco. But his relationship with Monteverdi seems to have been less than friendly, and Grandi moved to Bergamo where he acted as maestro di cappella in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore.

At least 16 collections of sacred music by Grandi were printed between 1610 and 1630. In addition many pieces were included in anthologies. The importance of Vespers in the Catholic liturgy is reflected by the number of pieces by Italian composers. Cohesive Vesper compositions were the exception rather than the rule. The only piece which is mostly considered to be meant as a unity is the by Monteverdi, and even in this case some musicologists believe it is meant as a source from which a maestro di cappella could make a choice. The Vesper liturgy on this disc has been put together from various collections of Grandi's music, published between 1610 and 1625, by the German musicologist Rudolf Ewerhart. The very fact that these pieces are from a period of 15 years indicates that in no way can this Vesper be considered a kind of 'reconstruction'. This is confirmed by the absence of the antiphons which were sung before and after the Psalms and the Magnificat. Here we get only sacred concertos which were often used as substitutes for the repeated antiphon.

Grandi's music is of excellent quality and shows the features of so much of the sacred music of the time, like a combination of prima prattica and seconda prattica and a very strong attention to the text and its affetti. The smaller-scale pieces mostly date from before his time in Bergamo. Here he had the forces available which allowed him to compose larger-scale works. The Psalms belong to this category, as they require solo voices, a favorite choir - either a group of solo voices or a small vocal ensemble - and a cappella. One of the notable aspects of Grandi´s music is that he often writes obbligato parts for instruments. The choice which instruments to use is often left to the interpreter, but sometimes he specifies them. In the concerto Vulnerasti cor meum he requires two violins, in Nisi Dominus three sackbuts. Two violins are also prescribed in the Hymnus Ave maris stella. Here a single voice sings the even-numbered stanzas to an instrumental accompaniment, whereas the odd-numbered stanzas were probably spoken. Here they are sung in plainchant.

The names of the performers may cause some surprise. On the one hand we have artists who are very much representatives of historical performance practice, in particular the director Matthew Halls. Singers like Deborah York, Daniel Taylor and Peter Harvey are also frequently appearing in recordings of early music on period instruments. But the Gächinger Kantorei is rooted in the traditional performance practice which is advocated by its director, Helmuth Rilling. Although he claims that he has been influenced by historical performance practice I have never been able to discover any real evidence of this. The Bach-Collegium Stuttgart plays on modern instruments. In this live performance there is a mix of period and modern instruments. On the one hand we hear cornetts and sackbuts, and in the basso continuo section three theorbos are used. But the strings are modern. It is possible that gut strings are used: they play with hardly any vibrato, and with metal strings this would sound differently. Even so, the contributions of the strings are rather unsatisfying as they lack the brilliance and penetration of real baroque instruments.

Looking at the list of performers I didn't expect great things, and the performances bear this out. With 36 voices the Gächinger Kantorei is rather large. That would be less of a problem if the choir would use less vibrato. Although it has been reduced in comparison to what we use to hear from it under Rilling's direction, it is still there. In combination with the size of the choir this results in a lack of transparency. The balance between the choir and the instruments is also unsatisfying. Even the soloists are only partly convincing. Deborah York makes by far the best impression as her singing is the most stylish. Daniel Taylor is disappointing, in particular in the Hymnus Ave maris stella where his voice is brittle and his singing is insecure. Ed Lyons has the perfect voice for this repertoire, and his ornamentation is mostly very good. It is a shame he hasn't kept his vibrato in check; there are several passages where it damages the communication of the text. Peter Harvey is alright, but unremarkable. The overall balance between the soloists is not ideal, and in particular he suffers in this regard.

As much as I am in favour of recordings of Grandi's music I wonder whether this disc has the qualities to promote his oeuvre. There are too many inconsistencies in the performances. This music really needs a good period instrument performance with specialist vocal forces. Despite the unmistakable qualities of choir and orchestra, it is simply impossible to turn them into specialist early music forces overnight. The treatment of dynamics is very unsatisfying. Some solo concertos and in particular the large-scale pieces are dynamically too flat. I wonder whether the efforts to make the ensemble sound as 'authentic' as possible are responsible for too much caution in this respect. Lastly, the Hymnus Ave maris stella contains the stanza "Virgo singularis": "Virgin, most distinguished, mildest of all, make us chaste and meek by forgiving our sins", performed here in plainchant. Singing this piano seems an odd relict of old romantic times.

This is a live performance and that has resulted in slips of the tongue from some soloists. Moreover, in a couple of pieces there are differences between the sung text and the lyrics which are printed in the booklet.

On balance this is a largely unsatisfying attempt to bring Grandi's music to the attention of a modern audience.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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