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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "The Great Venetian Mass" (ed. P. Agnew)

Sophie Karthäuser, sopranoa; Renata Pokupicb, Lucile Richardotc, mezzo-soprano
Les Arts Florissants
Dir: Paul Agnew

rec: March & Oct 2020, Paris, Église Notre-Dame du Liban
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8905358 (© 2022) (68'09")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Kyrie (RV 587); Ostro picta, armata spina (Introduzione al Gloria) (RV 642)a; Gloria (RV 589)ac; Credo (RV 591); Sanctus (after RV 597 & 807)ab; Benedictus (after RV 807)c; Agnus Dei (after RV 587 & 610)

Eugénie de Padirac, Maud Gnidzaz, Cécile Granger, Violaine Le Chenadec, Juliette Perret, Virginie Thomas, soprano; Alice Gregorio, Alice Habellion, Violaine Lucas, Mélodie Ruvio, mezzo-soprano; Édouard Hazebrouck, Thibaut Lenaerts, Jean-Yves Ravoux, Michael-Loughlin Smith, tenor; Justin Bonnet, Laurent Collobert, Sydney Fierro, Christophe Gautier, Julien Neyer, Matthieu Waldendzik, bass
Julia Boucaut, trumpet; Yanina Yacubsohn, oboe; Anaïs Ramage, bassoon; Tami Troman, Bernadette Charbonnier, Myriam Gevers, Augusta Mckay Lodge, Martha Moore, Catherine Girard, Sophie Gevers-Demoures, Guya Martinini, Juliette Roumailhac, Michèle Sauvé, violin; Lucia Peralta, Myriam Bulloz, Simon Heyerick, Georgina McKay-Lodge, Kayo Saito, Jean-Luc Thonnerieux, viola; Alix Verzier, Elena Andreyev, Magali Boyer, Gulrim Choi, Cyril Poulet, cello; Élodie Peudepièce, double bass; Marie Van Rhijn, organ

Antonio Vivaldi has written a substantial amount of sacred music. Most of it was intended for liturgical use in the Ospedale della Pietà, which explains why the solo parts are scored for high voices. Unlike most of his colleagues, he did not compose any mass. That is to say: no such work has been preserved. Paul Agnew, in his personal note in the booklet which accompanies the disc under review, refers to the report of a visit by Frederick IV to the Pietà where Vivaldi apparently conducted an Agnus Dei at Sunday mass. "If this were true it would be fascinating to attempt to recreate the 'missing' movements in a way similar to that used by Vivaldi when he 'constructed' his own music." He does not hesitate to admit that "the idea of 'completing' the mass is based on the very flimsiest of evidence." And he does not want to make "great claims for the authenticity of our finished mass". Any attempt to 'reconstruct' a mass which has not been written, has to be highly speculative. That is not a problem if it is done well, with respect to the historical circumstances. This mass leaves a mixed impression in this respect.

Vivaldi's extant oeuvre includes settings of the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo, but there is not much to choose from. The Kyrie included here is the only one in Vivaldi's oeuvre, and the same goes for the Credo. The Ryom catalogue mentions a second Credo, but that is considered not authentic, and attributed to Johann Adolf Hasse. There are two settings of the Gloria; the one included here is the best-known, and the most frequently-performed. One may regret that Agnew did not choose the other setting (RV 588), but his choice may have been inspired by the wish to include the Introduzione al Gloria, which is apparently intended to be performed before this Gloria, as there are thematic connections between these two works. However, the inclusion of this piece is rather odd. Vivaldi has written several such Introduzioni, which are sometimes performed separately. It is preferable to perform them together, and from that perpective this decision is praiseworthy. However, according to Denis Morrier, in his liner-notes, these pieces may have been written for a celebration of the patronal festival of the Pietà. It seems likely that at such an occasion the Gloria was performed separately, and not as part of a mass. However, that is exactly how it is performed here, and it is hard to see how the Introduzione could find a place within a mass liturgy. In that regard this recording is rather inconsistent.

It is not the only inconsistency in this project, I'm afraid. The five sections of the mass don't give the impression of being a unity. That is due to the proportions of the different sections. The Gloria is by far the longest of them all. That was not entirely unusual: I have heard other masses, where the Gloria was, relatively speaking, longer than the Credo. But here the difference is striking. The Credo is divided into four sections: the first and last take most of the text, and last two to three minutes. In the centre are two much shorter episodes: first 'Et incarnatus est', then 'Cricifixus etiam pro nobis'. These are in a slow tempo, and are full of expression. The lack of unity is also due to the difference in scoring. The Kyrie and Credo are entirely set for choir, whereas the Gloria has four sections with one or two solo voices. The latter is also different from the other sections in that it includes parts for a trumpet and two oboes, whereas the other sections are for strings alone.

Vivaldi's oeuvre does not include any music on the texts of the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. These pieces have been constructed here on the basis of material from other pieces. This means that we have to do here with contrafacta - specimens of a widespread practice in Vivaldi's time. He himself re-used material from his previous works, and that justifies the practice applied here. For the Sanctus, Agnew turned to the Beatus vir (RV 597) and the Dixit Dominus (RV 807); the latter is also the source for the Benedictus. The Agnus Dei is based on the Magnificat (RV 610) and the Kyrie with which the programme started. This way the mass comes full circle. The construction of the contrafacta is well done.

Performers of Vivaldi's liturgical music face one particular problem: how to deal with the fact that in the Ospedale della Pietà each work was performed by female voices alone? Vivaldi wrote for parts in the traditional manner, probably to make them useful for performance under different circumstances. However, if one aims at presenting a mass as it may have been performed at the Ospedale, there are basically two solutions: make some women sing the tenor and bass parts at their written pitch (it can be done, as some recordings show) or transpose the lower parts an octave upwards. The latter is not without problems, with regard to harmony. This aspect of performance practice is not discussed in the booklet.

And that brings us to the performance, which is not entirely satisfying, just like the concept of this project and the way it has been worked out. I have nothing but praise for the performance of the choral parts: the choir consists of 20 voices (6/4/4/6) and sings very well. The instrumental ensemble also leaves nothing to be desired. The problem is the contribution of Sophie Karthäuser. In her solos, and especially the Introduzione, her singing is marred by a pretty wide and incessant vibrato, which I find hard to swallow. In comparison, Lucile Richardot is her excellent self in her solos. She has a very peculiar voice, but I like it very much, and her interpretations are always highly expressive. That is not any different here. In the Gloria, the 'Laudamus te' is a solo for two high voices, as in so many mass settings of the baroque era. Unfortunately, it is Richardot who adapts her singing to that of Karthäuser, instead of the other way around. I find it hard to understand why Agnew accepts this way of singing from Karthäuser, and the fact that the two soloists have a completely different way of singing. It is a serious blot on this production.

As one may have gathered by now, I have mixed feelings about this disc, both with regard to the way the programme has been constructed and the way it is performed. However, musically speaking there is certainly much to enjoy, and especially lovers of Vivaldi's music are advised to investigate this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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