musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Sacred music

[I] "Gloria"
Julia Lezhneva, sopranoa; Franco Fagioli, altob
Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzeriac; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis
rec: July 12 - 15 & Nov 23 - 27, 2016, Lugano-Besso, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI
Decca - 483 3874 (© 2018) (59'16")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gloria in D (RV 589)abc; Nisi Dominus (RV 608)b; Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV 630)a

[II] "Stabat mater - Gloria"
Hanna Herfurtner, Joowon Chung, sopranoa; Andreas Scholl, altob
Salzburger Bachchorc; Bach Consort Wien
Dir: Rubén Dubrovsky
rec: April 6, 2017 (live), Basilika Stift Klosterneuburg
Gramola - 99165 (© 2018) (70'47")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in g minor (RV 156); Filiae maestae Jerusalem (Introduzione al Miserere) (RV 638)b; Gloria in D (RV 589)abc; Lauda Jerusalem (RV 609)ac; Sonata a 4 in E flat 'al Santo Sepolcro' (RV 130); Stabat mater (RV 621)b


Antonio Vivaldi is one of the most frequently-performed composers of the baroque period. Every year many CD recordings of his music are released. Most of them are devoted to his instrumental music, in particular his solo concertos and concerti da camera. In comparison, his vocal music is given less attention. There are a few exceptions, and some of them are included in the discs which are the subject of this review: the Gloria, the Stabat mater and Nisi Dominus.

The Gloria was one of the first vocal works that was performed as part of the Vivaldi revival in the 20th century. The first public performance took place 1939. In our time it is one of Vivaldi's most popular vocal works, especially because of the choral parts that make it attractive for choirs all over the world; it is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate their qualities. It is also well represented on CD, but unfortunately Vivaldi's intended line-up is ignored in almost all recordings. He wrote the work for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietŕ, which means that not only the solo parts - for soprano and alto - but also all tutti parts are meant for high voices. There are only a few recordings in the catalogue in which this work is performed in this original line-up. While in some recordings with a mixed choir the solo part for the alto is sung by a woman, we hear a male alto in both of these recordings.

On paper there is little difference between them. The choirs are the same size (25 and 26 voices respectively) and although I Barocchisti is slightly larger, the difference is not substantial. However, both ensembles in Dobrovsky's performance produce a considerably bigger sound and that has to do with the acoustics. There is much reverberation and it results in the sound of choir and orchestra being 'blown up'. This damages the artistic qualities of the performances. That is especially regrettable as Dubrovsky's interpretation is substantially better than Fasolis's. That is partly due to the contribution of the soloists. In the Gloria Julia Lezhneva sings her solo (Domine Deus) well, but Franco Fagioli is unbearable in his two solo contributions. His incessant and wide vibrato is unacceptable. It is not an artistic choice, which you may support or, as in my case, strongly reject. In his duet with Lezhneva (Laudamus te) he does not adapt his voice to that of his partner, as one might expect. While Lezhneva sings with hardly any vibrato, Fagioli does not hold back in that department in any way, and as a result the duet is a flop. Fagioli just can't avoid vibrato. From that we have to conclude that it is a technical shortcoming. Why he is so often invited for live performances and CD recordings is one of the great mysteries of our time.

In Nisi Dominus these shortcomings are expressed in full glory. It is one of the most horrible performances that I have ever heard. Not only is Fagioli's vibrato unbearable, his interpretation is also rather undifferentiated: his phrasing leaves something to be desired, there is little dynamic differentiation or colouring of his voice in the interest of expression. The ornamentation at the end of 'Sicut sagittae' is completely wrong. Ornamentation is also a problem in Nulla in mundo pax sincera, one of the perhaps lesser known works by Vivaldi. In the dacapo of the opening aria, Lezhneva is quite generous in her ornamentation. In my opinion she greatly exaggerates, and she also frequently goes beyond the range of her part, which is undesirable and highly debatable from a historical point of view. The same is the case in the second aria. Lezhneva almost completely avoids vibrato, and that cannot be appreciated enough. However, that in itself does not guarantee a good interpretation. I am not very fond of her voice, which I find rather cold; her trills are harsh and ugly. To my ears her singing is a bit mechanical, lacking warmth and sensitivity.

In fact, that goes for the entire recording. Fasolis' treatment of Vivaldi's music is rather one-dimensional. Fast tempi are mostly very fast, and too often the sound of the orchestra is rather harsh and almost aggressive. I miss flexibility and fluency in these performances. In that respect I prefer Dubrovsky's interpretation.

The playing of his orchestra is more differentiated, flexible and colourful. His choir also sings very well, and it is just a pity that the acoustics have a negative effect on the artistic level of this recording. Dubrovsky has by far the better soloists. The two sopranos sing their parts very nicely, both in the Gloria and in the short psalm Lauda Jerusalem. They produce a warm sound and deal with the coloratura with great flexibility, two things I miss in Lezhneva's performances. Andreas Scholl is in every respect superior to Fagioli. In the Stabat mater his phrasing is excellent and his interpretation is very differentiated. He is well aware of the expressive features of every single verse. There was a time that his singing was marred by an incessant and rather wide vibrato. That problem seems to have been overcome: in recent recordings he has strongly reduced his vibrato, and he does so here too. It is still present, but it is hardly disturbing.

That is not to say that his interpretation of the Stabat mater is ideal, but it is certainly one of the best parts of this recording. His performance of Filiae maestae Jerusalem is also pretty good. It is a bit unfortunate that this piece, which is intended as an introduction to the Miserere - which explains why it ends with a recitative - is performed here separately. It is immediately followed by the Stabat mater, but there is no connection between these two pieces.

I already referred to the acoustical circumstances. They also have a negative effect on the two instrumental works with which the CD opens. The first part of the Concerto in g minor (RV 156) is a bit too slow. But a more appropriate tempo would have gone at the cost of a good articulation and the whole piece would have become rather muddy. Obviously a piece like this is not intended to be played in such a large space.

In conclusion: the performance directed by Fasolis fails to convince, and cannot be considered a worthwhile contribution to the Vivaldi discography. Dubrovsky certainly has something to offer and is one of the better recordings of Vivaldi's sacred music. Unfortunately, the acoustics are a problem and no attempt is made to get closer to the performance practice of Vivaldi as far as the vocal line-up is concerned. For that we have to go elsewhere.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Franco Fagioli
Hanna Herfurtner
Julia Lezhneva
Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzeria
Salzburger Bachchor
Bach Consort Wien
I Barocchisti

CD Reviews