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"O Jesu Mi Dulcissime"

Coro; Camerata Antica (Matthew Manchester)
Dir: Mark Griffiths

rec: Oct 29 - 30, 2011, London, St Mary-At-Hill, Monument
Dal Segno - DSPRCD602 [2012] (62'37")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics in English translations
Cover & track-list

Nicolò CORRADINI (?-1646): O Jesu mi dulcissimeacde [4]; Prospera lux venitb [4]; Andrea GABRIELI (1532/33-1585): O sacrum convivium a 5 [1]; Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57-1612): Canzon II à 6 (C 196) [5]; O Jesu mi dulcissime a 8 (C 56) [6]; O magnum mysterium a 8 (C 3) [2]; Omnes gentes plaudite manibus a 16 (C 52) [3]; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Beatus vir a 6 (SV 268) [8]; Cantate Domino a 6 (SV 293); Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Alleluia! Lobet den Herren a 8 (SWV 38) [7]; Selig sind die Toten a 6 (SWV 391) [9]; Wie lieblich sind deine Wohungen a 8 (SWV 29) [7]

Sources: [1] Andrea Gabrieli, Sacrae cantiones, liber primus, 1565; Giovanni Gabrieli, [2] Concerti … continenti musica di chiesa, madrigali, & altro … libro primo, 1587; [3] Sacrae symphoniae, 1597; [4] Nicolò Corradini, Motetti alcuni concertati con instromenti, libro 1, 1613; Giovanni Gabrieli, [5] Canzoni et sonate, 1615; [6] Symphoniae sacrae … liber secundus, 1615; [7] Heinrich Schütz, Psalmen Davids sampt etlichen Moteten und Concerten, 1619; [8] Claudio Monteverdi, Selva morale e spirituale, 1640/41; [9] Heinrich Schütz, Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648

[soloists] Jo Goldena, Cat Patersonb, soprano; Camilla Fawkner, contraltoc; Joseph Denby, tenord; Tim Reader, basse
[CA] Russell Gilmour, Matthew Manchester, Nicholas Wright, cornett; Martyn Sanderson, Daniel Serafini, Hilary Belsey, Guy Morley, sackbut

The core of this disc is the repertoire for double choir, which is is inextricably bound up with Venice. It was Adrian Willaert who laid the foundations of the technique of writing for cori spezzati, which was then further developed by Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew Giovanni. Before Willaert music for two choirs was already written in other cities, and the very idea of juxtaposing two 'choirs' is much older. It goes back to the early stages of liturgical music, when the verses of a Psalm were sung in turn by two groups of singers. Whereas Willaert composed music for two groups of the same line-up - SATB - the Gabrieli's wrote also pieces for two choirs of different scoring, for instance a 'high' versus a 'low' choir. The collaboration of instruments was usually not indicated in the scores, but it was common practice to use in particular cornetts and sackbuts to either replace or support some or even all of the voices.

The cori spezzati technique quickly disseminated across Europe, and was enthusiastically embraced by, for instance, Michael Praetorius in Germany, and also someone like Mikolaj Zielenski in Poland. The main composer in 17th-century Germany was Heinrich Schütz, and he had experienced the polychoral style himself while studying in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli. He frequently used this technique in his own oeuvre, for instance in the Psalmen Davids of 1619. In the early decades of the century new elements of the Italian style were incorporated, such as the writing of independent instrumental parts and the more individual treatment of the human voice. This was called the concertato style, which again was quickly adopted elsewhere, especially in Germany. And again it was Heinrich Schütz who played a key role in incorporating this new style into the German contrapuntal tradition.

This disc offers examples of both styles. The pieces by the Gabrieli's and the two first works by Schütz, both from his Psalmen Davids, are polychoral. In the compositions by Corradini we have specimens of the concertato style. The latter is the unknown quantity on this disc. He was born and died in Cremona, where he worked as an organist and succeeded Tarquinio Merula as maestro di cappella of the Cappella delli Laudi. The two pieces on this disc are from a collection of sacred concertos in the concertato style. Prospera lux venit is for solo voice, two violins and basso continuo. The two violin parts are played here by cornetts, and that doesn't turn out to be a good decision. The lower notes of the soloist, the soprano Cat Paterson, are overpowered by the cornetts. Ms Paterson has a nice voice, but the performance is rather bland, with little dynamic shading and a complete lack of ornamentation. O Jesu mi dulcissime is for four voices and bc with passages for pairs of voices. The liner-notes state that particular lines are emphasized "with the return of the full choir". However, it is very unlikely that the tutti episodes were ever sung by a 'choir'. In the booklet of the Gabrieli Consort and Players' recording "A New Venetian Coronation 1595" Paul McCreesh states that "[Over] the years I have come to believe that one to a part singing was very common in major cathedrals (...)". In this recording we hear a choir with 29 singers which is largely responsible for this disc being generally unsatisfying.

Unfortunately things go wrong from the word go. In Schütz' Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen very little of the text is understandable. It isn't very helpful that the booklet includes only English translations of the lyrics, but omits the original texts. The size of the choir causes a lack of transparency. The articulation is not good enough and dynamic shading is largely absent. The declamatory passages in the second half don't come off very well. The pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, with their more linear texture, are receiving more convincing interpretations, but even here the size of the ensemble takes its toll. Omnes gentes plaudite manibus is for 16 voices in four choirs. Performing it with 16 singers and probably additional instruments is problematic enough as it is, a performance with an even larger ensemble makes it hard to discern the various lines, let alone understand any of the text.

Even more disappointing are the pieces which include elements of the concertato style and traditional polyphony. Selig sind die Toten is not too bad, but most of the peculiarities Schütz uses to express the text are not conveyed that well in a choral performance. Even less satisfying is Monteverdi's Beatus vir, one of his most popular pieces. The tempo is too slow, and the various passaggi can hardly be realized with a choir. In this piece Monteverdi often juxtaposes two pairs of voices, mostly soprano I and II versus tenor I and II, and these include many figurations which strongly suggest a performance with solo voices rather than a choir. The instrumental scoring is also questionable: Monteverdi has set the two upper parts for violins, and added three ad libitum parts for either viole da braccio or sackbuts. The very fact that he didn't offer an alternative for the upper voices seems deliberate. The balance between instruments and voices is less than ideal in this performance.

There is no doubt about the qualities of this choir, but it wasn't a particular good idea to choose repertoire which was not intended for performances with this number of singers. The Camerata Antica plays very well, and can be heard independently in a nice performance of Andrea Gabrieli's motet O sacrum convivium. On balance, however, this disc fails to convey the full glory of the chosen repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Camerata Antica

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