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Giovanni PRIULI (c1580 - 1626): "Sacrorum concentuum - Geistliche Musik der Grazer und Wiener Hofkapelle Ferdinand II." (Sacred music at the court chapels of Ferdinand II in Graz and Vienna)

Ecce Grex!

rec: Feb 2006, Vienna, Lutherische Stadtkirche
ORF - SACD 3007 (© 2008) (64'49")

Adoramus te, Domine; Canzon I a 8; Canzon II a 6; Canzon IV a 6; Canzon IV a 8; Deus, in te speravi a 10; Hei mihi, Domine a 12; Hodie exultat jubilis a 10; Inter natos mulierum; Jubilate Deo a 8 Magnificat a 12; Magnus Dominus a 5; Missa sine nomine a 14: Kyrie; Pascha nostrum a 12; Peccavi super numerum a 10; Salve, o clemens, o pia a 8

(Sources [not specified]: Parnassus musicus Ferdinandaeus, 1615; Sacrorum Concentuum, Pars Prima, 1618; Sacrorum Concentuum, Pars Altera, 1619; Ghirlanda sacra, 1625; Ander Theil geistlicher Concerten, 1641)

Terry Wey, Jakob Huppmann, alto; Erik Leidal, Alex Braun, Tore Tom Denys, tenor; Benno Hüttler, baritone; Karl-Johannes Vsedni, bass; Krisztian Kovats, cornett; Kuniko Ueno, cornett, cornetto muto; Michele Party, Johannes Frisch, violin, viola, tenorviolin; Christina Hess, Catherine Motuz, Keal Couper, Bernhard Rainer, sackbut; Florian Wieninger, violone; Anne Marie Dragosits, Merit Eichhorn, organ

The Habsburg family were the most powerful dynasty in Europe from the 13th to the early 19th century. As in those times political power was expected to be reflected in the state of the arts the Habsburg rulers paid much attention to attracting the best and most prestigious musicians and composers. Until the early 17th century the top positions at the court were taken by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. But in the early 17th century a turnaround took place.

In 1614 Ferdinand II appointed Giovanni Priuli as Kapellmeister at his court in Graz, and when in 1619 he was elected emperor he took along his chapel and replaced the musicians of the court in Vienna. It was with Priuli that the Viennese court came under Italian influence which would last until the early 19th century, when the Habsburg dynasty came to an end. This doesn't mean that from that moment on the most modern Italian music was performed. During Lent instruments were forbidden, and as a result music in the stile antico, whether music of past masters or newly composed music, was performed.

Giovanni Priuli was born in Venice, where he was a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli. The Venetian master had a strong and lasting influence on his pupils, and Priuli was no exception. Therefore it doesn't surprise that he wrote a number of pieces in the Venetian polychoral style. On this disc we find pieces for up to 14 voices. In some pieces the choirs are equal in structure, but sometimes Priuli divides the parts into high and low choirs. Some sources give information about the way Priuli's music was performed, and that is reflected in this recording. Mostly the parts are divided between voices and instruments. A 4-part choir, for instance, can be scored with tenor and three instruments.

Priuli is a typical composer at the intersection of stile antico and stile moderno or stile concertato. He seems equally at home in both styles: the polychoral works are mostly written in the stile antico, whereas he also composed pieces in the modern monodic style for one or two voices and bc. Examples of both are brought together here. But there is no watershed between the two styles. Even in the works in the stile antico one finds examples of text expression which reflect the fashion of his time. There are also traces of a shift from the old modal system to the modern major-minor system.

Pieces by Priuli have been recorded before but to my knowledge this is the first disc entirely devoted to his oeuvre. He was a key figure in the history of music making at the Habsburg court in Vienna, and his music is of excellent quality as this disc shows. In regard to the performance practice, it is stated in the booklet that there were only eight singers at the court in Ferdinand II's time, and among these was only one castrato, whereas other top voices were falsettists. In this recording all pieces are performed with one singer per part. It is added that it is almost certain that in large-scale pieces a choir with boys' voices was used. Among the pieces mentioned in this respect is the Magnificat which ends this disc. Nevertheless such a choir is absent in this recording. This may be understandable but I think it had given a wider-rainging picture of the performance practice under Priuli.

On paper all this looks really great, and I started to listen with high expectations. But the performances fall short of the expectations. There are several reasons for this.
One of them is the recording: for music like this, and in particular the polychoral pieces, the spatial acoustics of a larger church is needed, with the reverberation which comes along with it. It sounds like the church where this recording has been made is rather small, as the acoustics is pretty dry. The recording is also very direct, with the microphones apparently close to the performers. As a result the splendour of Priuli's music is never really coming off. The balance between the voices and the instruments is largely unsatisfying as well. The voices have been put too much into the forefront, reducing the instruments to mere accompaniment. But when in a four-part choir one voice is sung and the others are played, all participants should integrate and none of the parts should stand out. There is just a lack of ensemble here.

But that is not the only reason: the voices - in particular the tenors - and the instruments don't blend very well. There is too much difference in colour and sound between them. I am generally disappointed by the singing on this disc anyway, and especially that of the tenors, as they play the main role here. They also sing the monodies, and these don't come off really better. There is a lack of declamation and a lack of ornamentation, and the singers hardly make use of the messa di voce, which had made the long notes less static than they are here. As a result of this the level of expression is limited.

The instrumental pieces are played well, but they also suffer from a lack of atrmosphere. The sense of rhythm in both vocal and instrumental works on this disc is underexposed. Only in some instances one gets a hint of what might have been, like in Pascha nostrum.

It is a big shame such an interesting project fails to explore the strength of Giovanni Priuli's music. I can only imagine what someone like Roland Wilson with his ensemble Musica Fiata might have made out of this repertoire. As I don't think another disc with Priuli's music is very likely I recommend this one, but only to those who have a more than average interest in this kind of repertoire and who are able to listen through the shortcomings of these performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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