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Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626 - 1690): Motets

[I] Harmonia d'affetti devoti, Op. 3
Nova Ars Cantandi; Ivana Valotti, organ
Dir: Giovanni Acciai
rec: Sept 18 - 22, 2020, Mantua, Basilica Palatina di Santa Barbara
Naxos - 8.579123-24 (© 2021) (90'18")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Adoramus te; Albescite flores; Cadite montes; Ecce fideles; Hodie collaetantur caeli cives; Humili voce; O sanctissimum; Obstupescite caelites; Occurrite celestes; Quam amarum est Maria; Quid timetis pastores?; Salve Regina; Venite fideles; Venite omnes

Sources: Alessandro Carmignani, soprano; Andrea Arrivabene, alto; GIanluca Ferrarini, tenor; Marcello Vargetto, bass

[II] "Mottetti"
Concerto Italiano
Dir: Rinaldo Alessandrini
rec: July 11 - 14, 2019, Rome, Parco della Musica (Studio 3)
Naïve - OP 30579 (© 2022) (73'08")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Adoramus te [1]; Albescite flores [1]; Alma redemptoris mater [3]; Ave, regina caelorum [3]; Expergiscimini mortales [2]; Exultemus omnes et laetemur [2]; Lettanie [3]; Obstupescite caelites [1]; Qui ascendit in montem sanctum Sion? [4]; Qui non renuntiat omnibus [2]; Regina caeli laetare [3]; Salve Regina [3]; Venite omnes [1]

Sonia Tedla, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Valerio Contaldo, Raffaele Giordani, tenor; Salvo Vitale, bass; Ugo di Giovanni, Franco Pavan, theorbo; Rinaldo Alessandrini, organ

Sources: [1] Harmonia d'affetti devoti, Libro primo, op. 3, 1655; [2] Sentimenti devoti espressi con la musica di due, e tre voci, op. 6, 1660; [3] Compiete con le lettanie & antifone della B. V. à 5 voci, op. 7, 1662; [4] Sacri musicali concerti, libro terzo, op. 15, 1689


Giovanni Legrenzi was one of the most important composers in Italy in the second half of the 17th century. He played a crucial role in the development of instrumental music and is the link between the canzonas by composers of the 17th century and the sonatas which were written in the 18th. In particular his collection of sixteen sonatas, published in 1673 as his Op. 10 under the title of La Cetra, has received quite some attention. These sonatas regularly appear in concert programmes and recorded anthologies. However, a large part of his considerable output has been overlooked, and that goes in particular for his vocal music. In recent years, Giovanni Acciai has paid considerable attention to his oeuvre, and may now be considered his main advocate. This is his second recording of a collection of sacred works; the first included the Compieti op. 7 (Naxos, 2020).

Legrenzi came from a relatively humble background: he was born in the village of Clusone, near Bergamo, where his father was violinist at the parish church. His first post was that of organist at S Maria Maggiore in Bergamo where he restored the city to its former glory as music centre, which had fallen apart after the death of Alessandro Grandi during the plague of 1630. He left Bergamo in 1655 and became maestro di cappella in Ferrara the next year. By 1670 Legrenzi was living in Venice, where he worked at several ospedali. In 1681 he was appointed vice-maestro di cappella at St Mark's, and in 1685 he became maestro di cappella.

The collection of motets which is the subject of Acciai's recording, was published as his Op. 3, under the title of Harmonia d'affetti devoti, in 1655, which means that these pieces were written during his time in Bergamo. The edition includes fourteen motets for one to four voices and basso continuo. The pieces for two and three voices are scored for different combinations of voices, although the upper voice is almost always the soprano; only in two pieces the alto is the upper voice. The texts are para-liturgical; they may have been written by Legrenzi himself. The exception is the Marian antiphon Salve Regina.

The subject matter of these motets is different. As one may expect, some are about the Virgin Mary, apart from the Salve Regina. In Hodie collaetantur caeli cives she is called bride, mother and queen, in Humili voce "daughter of the eternal Father, mother of the eternal Son, spouse of the Holy Spirit". Several are about various saints, such as Saint Charles, canonized in 1610 and patron saint of bishops, cardinals, seminarians and spiritual leaders (Occurrite caelestes) and Saint Agatha, a martyr who died c251 and was canonized by Pope Gregory I (590-604) (Albescite flores). These pieces are very likely intended for the respective feastdays of these saints. O sanctissimum is about the Blessed Sacrament: "O most holy, o admirable Sacrament". Quid temetis pastores? is a piece for Christmastide: "What do you fear, shepherds? Come, look, rejoice, do not fear". Adoramus te is a veneration of the Cross: "We adore you, most holy Cross, guide for travellers, light for sinners, with all our heart, we worship you". Cadite montes is a dramatic piece about evil and the need for repentance. Obstupescite caelites is a song of praise for Jesus.

Given the scoring for solo voices and basso continuo, one won't be surprised that Legrenzi's motets are written in the declamatory style that established itself in the early 17th century. Giovanni Acciai, in his liner-notes, points out that Legrenzi was influenced by Claudio Monteverdi and especially his Selva morale e spirituale. There is quite some connection between text and music in these motets. The dissonances at the end of Quam amarum est Maria depict the words "miserere nobis" (have mercy on us). I already mentioned that Cadite montes is a dramatic piece; the opening is scored for a solo bass, which is quite effective, given the text: "Fall, mountains, strike heavens, sink earth this desperate man". The soprano enters on "Repent you, please, return you to the Lord.". The two voices then come together on the text "Oh, how miserable it is to be poor and in need". Quite effective is the scoring in O sanctissimum: after solo episodes the three voices join on the phrase "O admirabile sacramentum", which is homorhythmic for a reason. The same happens later on the phrase "O most clement God, absolve and save us". And the words "have pity on the wretched" Legrenzi has set to a chromatic descending figure. Quid timetis pastores? opens in the manner of an exclamatio. In the baroque era it became the custom to single out the words "suspiramus", "gementes" and "flentes" in the Salve Regina; here each of them is followed by a pause.

The collection of motets that is the subject of this disc is a fine specimen of Legrenzi's art and his skills in setting texts in a meaningful way. According to Acciai, these motets were "intended for daily liturgical performance to meet the demands of the many provincial churches that had modest financial resources." From that angle it is a bit surprising that the recording took place in a large church, the Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua. I assume that the intelligibility of the texts would have taken advantage of a smaller venue and more intimate acoustic. It has to be said that especially Alessandro Carmignani's diction is not the best. One can only admire his ability to sing parts in soprano pitch, and I like his voice, but the text is often hard to understand. The lower voices are better in that respect.

However, this does not take anything away from my appreciation of this recording. It is another step in the process which should lead in Legrenzi's music being more frequently performed and recorded. There is still much to discover in his oeuvre.

The second disc is another contribution, although it is a little disappointing that for the most part it includes pieces from the two collections that Acciai also recorded. That is not anybody's fault, it seems: it was recorded in 2019, and at that time Acciai's recording of the Op. 7 may not have been released, and the Op. 4 had not even been recorded. The performances are different enough, and Rinaldo Alessandrini included several pieces that are not part of one of the above-mentioned collections. It offers a nice survey of what Legrenzi has written.

The liner-notes by Esteban Hernández Castelló are interesting in that he makes clear why it was not so easy for composers to decide how to write sacred music. He mentions that Legrenzi applied for the post of maestro di cappella at Milan Cathedral. The examination board "judged his compositions to be too long, not very varied stylistically and lacking characteristic elements such as the finale a capriccio; in short, they observed, Legrenzi composed 'as is customary in Ferrara, Venice and other cities, being ignorant of the usages here'." The reference to Venice is relevant here, because that is where Legrenzi worked for a substantial part of his career. And he focused on writing for solo voices rather than in the stile antico. The latter still played a substantial role in the liturgy in Italy, but "the fact is that in the world of publishing, and more specifically among the influential Venetian printing presses, it had been virtually ostracised by 1630, and extant sources for this older style, largely manuscript, are few and far between, as is the case, for example, with most of the motets composed by Legrenzi for the cappella of St Mark's Basilica."

The programme includes the four pieces for four voices and basso continuo from the Op. 4. The Op. 7 is the source of five pieces, the Lettanie and four Marian motets. One of them is a setting of the antiphon Salve Regina; it is different from the one in the Op. 4, but no less expressive. Three pieces are taken from the Op. 6, which was published in 1660. Especially interesting is Qui non renuntiat omnibus; it is a motet for three voices, but could also be considered an oratorio, as we find it in the oeuvre of Giacomo Carissimi (some of whose oratorios were also called 'motet'). It is a dialogue between Christ (bass) and two of his disciples (tenors). It opens with the former's announcement that "whoever does not renounce all that he possesses, cannot be my disciple". The disciples point out that they have done so and have followed him and are even willing to go to prison and to death. They and Christ conclude: "Rejoice, then, and be glad, for great will be our/your reward in Heaven". Expergiscimi mortales is similar in content to Cadite montes from the Op. 4; a key phrase is "servire mundo sudare est" (to serve the world is to toil), which is set to a descending chromatic line. Exultemus omnes et laetemur is set for two voices, soprano and tenor.

The latest piece in the programme is Quis ascendit in montem sanctum Sion?, which is included in Legrenzi's Op. 15, which was published in 1689, one year before his death. It is scored for soprano, bass and basso continuo, and it is notable that it is a sequence of solos and duets. Some episodes have the character of a recitative, others have the traces of an aria; in the booklet they are marked as such.

Concerto Italiano is a top-class ensemble with a vast experience in Italian music of the renaissance and baroque periods, and that shows here. The performances are expressive, dynamically differentiated, and dramatic where it should be. The voices blend very well, and the text is given much attention. In a different way as Nova Ars Cantandi's disc, this one is a very good case for Legrenzi.

Whereas Giovanni Acciai focuses on single collections, probably part of a project to record Legrenzi's sacred oeuvre (I certainly hope so), Alessandrini rather offers a survey of the composer's oeuvre which has the virtue of showing the stylistic developments and variety it comprises. Even though parts of the programme have been recorded by Acciai, I rather consider their respective recordings as complementary rather than as competitors. Moreover, the performances are different enough to make the two recordings interesting propositions for anyone with a liking of this kind of repertoire. I appreciate both performances, each of which has its virtues.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Concerto Italiano
Nova Ars Cantandi

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