musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Ex tenebris ad lucem - Venetian music of penitence from a time of plague (1575-77)"

Concerto Palatino
Dir: Bruce Dickey

rec: Nov 14 - 17, 2022, Antwerp, AMUZ
Passacaille - PAS 1135 (© 2023) (65'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Scores A Gabrieli

Giovanni CROCE (1557-1609): [Miserere mei] a 6 [4]; Andrea GABRIELI (1532/33-1585): Beati quorum remissae sunt a 6 [1]; Deus, Deus meus, respice in me a 10 [2]; Domine ne in furore tuo [1]; Eructavit cor meum a 6 [2]; Nativitas tua, Dei genitrix virgo a 7 [2]; O crux splendidior a 8 [2]; Usquequo Domine a 7 [2]; Giovanni GABRIELI (1557-1612): Deus, Deus meus, ad te de luce vigilo a 10 (C 4) [2]; Jubilate Deo a 8 (C 16) [3]; Giovanni Battista GRILLO (?-1622): Exaltabo te Domine a 8 [5]; Robert KYR (*1952): Vigil: From Darkness into Lighta

Sources: [1] Andrea Gabrieli, Psalmi Davidici qui poenitentiales nuncupantur, 1583; [2] Andrea & Giovanni Gabrieli, Concerti di Andrea, et di Giovanni Gabrieli, 1587; [3] Giovanni Gabrieli, Sacrae symphoniae, 1587; [4] Giovanni Croce, Septem Psalmi poenitentiales sex vocum, 1599; [5] Giovanni Battista Grillo, Sacri concentus ac symphoniae, 1618

Hana Blažíková (soloa), Barbora Kabátková, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Benedict Hymas, Adriaan De Koster, tenor; Jaromír Nosek, bass
Bruce Dickey, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Claire McIntyre, Charles Toet, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Veronika Skuplik, violin; Miriam Shalinsky, violone; Kris Verhelst, organ

The COVID-19 pandemic which hit the world from 2020 to 2022 has been the inspiration for several recordings which have been released in the last two years. At least two of them were devoted to the plague which struck northern Italy, and in particular the Veneto, in 1630/31. Several composers whose music is often performed and recorded, died in one of those years. The disc under review here also focuses on such an epidemic, but then about 50 years earlier, and again in Venice and the surrounding region.

From 1575 to 1577 between a fourth and a third of the population of Venice fell victim to the plague. The actions taken by the authorities were not dissimilar to those which were used for the fight against the dissemination of COVID-19, such as quarantines and a 'plague check' among those arriving from outside. The rich inhabitants stayed in their palaces or moved to their estates on the countryside, whereas the poor had no place to go; among them the number of victims was especially large.

In those times epidemics were usually interpreted as a divine punishment, and this explains why "the Venetians made a grandiose penitential gesture, vowing to build a huge church named for the Redentore (Redeemer) to which the Doge and the Signoria would pay a visit to give thanks in each year that Venice remained free of pestilence. In this way, it was hoped, the Divine wrath which had brought the plague upon them would be placated. Thus were founded the Chiesa del Redentore, that magnificent Palladian temple which looks across the waters of the lagoon toward the Dorsoduro and further toward Piazza San Marco, and the Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer), still commemorated every July with a procession and fireworks" (booklet).

As in most cases, little specific is known about what compositions were written in connection to the epidemic and the ceremonies taking place at the time. Therefore the programme that Bruce Dickey put together is evitably speculative. However, the choice of works from the pen of Andrea Gabrieli makes much sense, as he was one of the organists at St Mark's, and one of the leading composers of Venice. Given the way the epidemic was interpreted, the performance of two of his penitential psalms is a logical choice, even though such works were intended for the period of Lent, and in particular Holy Week, in the first place. A motet referring to Jesus' Passion, O crux splendidior, is a fitting opening of the programme. It is followed by Nativitas tua, Dei genitrix virga, which commemorates the birth of the Virgin Mary. This has been chosen because during this feast, on 8 September 1576, the official proclamation of the vow of building the Chiesa del Redentore was made.

After the first of the two penitential psalms, Beati quorum remissae sunt (Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins be covered), we get two further pieces of a penitential content. Usquequo Domine is a setting of Psalm 13: "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?" Deus, Deus meus, respice in me is a work on verses 2 to 4 from Psalm 21 (22): "O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me" - the phrase that Jesus partially cited at the Cross.

In the centre of the programme we hear a contemporary work, commissioned by Concerto Palatino for this project, with the aim of making a connection between the plague of 1575/77 to the COVID-19 pandemic. The composer, Robert Kyr, writes in the booklet: "The chorus sings transformed excerpts of Latin psalm settings for the entire ensemble that are based on pieces by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, which are heard throughout the concert in their original versions. This sixteenth-century music, increasingly transformed through instrumental interpolations and modifications, is juxtaposed against the soprano soloist singing brief arias in English, accompanied by cornetto, violin, violone and organ; this haunting music is exclusively my own, a cry of anguish amidst our ongoing universal tragedy."

Then we return to the time of the plague, with a piece by Giovanni Gabrieli, Andrea's nephew, which may well have been written years after the epidemic. However, as Deus, Deus meus, ad te de luce vigilo was included in a collection of pieces by the two Gabrielis published in 1587, it must be an early work. It is a setting of verses from Psalm 62 (63): "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee. My soul thirsteth for thee". This is followed by the second penitential psalm by Andrea Gabrieli, Domine ne in furore arguas me - "Lord, rebuke me not in thy fury".

A lesser-known master of the Venetian late Renaissance is Giovanni Croce. He was born in Choggia in 1557 and moved to Venice around 1570, probably at the instigation of Gioseffo Zarlino, also a native of Choggia, who was maestro di cappella of St Mark's from 1565 until his death in 1590. In 1574 Croce was hired as a boy soprano at St Mark's, and ten years later he published his first collection of music. This was the start of his career, which resulted in his being appointed maestro di cappella of St Mark's in 1603, as successor to Baldassare Donato. Between 1591 and 1610 he published fourteen collections of sacred music; compositions of his were also included in anthologies. Miserere mei is a setting of verses from Psalm 50 (51), another of the penitential psalms. However, he did not use the text in the Vulgata, but rather a paraphrase in Italian by the poet Francesco Bembo. For this recording Bruce Dickey decided for a Latin translation by a German author, which was published in 1599 in Nuremberg. I find this rather odd, as in this form it was not known in Venice in the years immediately after the epidemic.

The selection of Exaltabo te Domine by Giovanni Battista Grillo is also questionable: his presence in Venice is documented from 1612 at the earliest: in that year he was appointed organist at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. This work is a setting of verses from Psalm 29 (30): "I will magnify thee, O Lord". This is a psalm of thanksgiving, and the fourth verse is especially relevant here: "O Lord my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me". The programme closes with Psalm 99 (100), Jubilate Dei, omnis terra by Giovanni Gabrieli: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands", which closes with the phrase: "For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endureth to all generations". These two pieces document the title of this disc: "From darkness into light".

Although the subject of this disc is not Andrea Gabrieli, he takes a central place in the programme, and that is one of the enjoyable features of this production. He certainly is a household name, but in modern performance practice he is overshadowed by his nephew Giovanni. His penitential psalms have been recorded several times, but other parts of his oeuvre are lesser-known. In most pieces the voices are supported by instruments. Only Croce's Miserere mei is performed a capella. It is an interesting question whether pieces of a penitential nature were performed with instrumental participation. I don't have an answer, but I could imagine that services which are dominated by such music are rather subdued and instruments lend the music some splendour which was not required. Moreover, it seems that the participation of instruments was not common practice, but rather reserved for special occasions. This production seems to focus on such a special occasion. Putting those considerations aside, one expects outstanding performances from Concerto Palatino, and that is exactly what we get here. Dickey has brought together an excellent team of singers, and the result is a top-class production, which nobody who likes this kind of music should miss. I don't give any assessment of Robert Kyr's piece: this is outside my field of expertise and interest. I did not find it too problematic, but when I play this disc another time, I certainly will skip this track. It takes a little over 12 minutes; it should not withhold those, who have no ear for modern sounds, from investigating this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Concerto Palatino

CD Reviews