musica Dei donum
"Gaude, Plaude! - Psalms and Motets from Italian Convents"
Ania Wegrzyna, Lena Kutznerb, soprano;
Katharina Sternberg, mezzosopranoc;
Mareike Braun, mezzosoprano/contraltod;
Mareike Morr, contraltoe
Mädchenchor Hannover; Hannoversche Hofkapelle
Dir: Gudrun Schröfel
rec: Jan 31 - Feb 3, 2008, Hanover, Großer Sendesaal
Rondeau - ROP6020 (© 2008) (58'44")
Chiara Margarita COZZOLANI (1602-c1677):
Beatus vir qui timet Dominumabcde ;
Confitebor tibi Domineacde ;
Dixit Dominusabde ;
Gloria in altissimis Deocd ;
Laudate pueriabe ;
Quis audivit unquam taleacd ;
Maria Xaveria PERUCONA (1652-1699):
Gaude plaudee ;
O superbi mundi machinabce 
 Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Salmi a otto voci concertati, 1650;
 Maria Xaveria Perucona, Sacri concerti de motetti a 1,2,3 e 4 voci, 1675)
"Mulier tacet in ecclesia" (A woman must keep quiet in church) - this verdict by the apostle St Paul was the rule in Christian churches in Europe for many centuries. The apostle meant that women should not exert authority in church but in the course of history it was extended to a general prohibition of music-making by women in liturgy. This has had its effect on our view of music history: only recently have ensembles given some attention to sacred repertoire which was sung by women during the renaissance and baroque eras.
This disc pays attention to the music which was composed and performed in women's convents in Northern Italy, and in particular of St. Radegonda in Milan. The convents were constantly stuck between their own musical ambitions and the negative attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities. In the first half of the 17th centuries the leading clerks in Northern Italy called for the resolutions of the Council of Trent to be implemented. Among these was the prohibition of performing polyphony in convents.
This conflict is clearly demonstrated in the life of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Not only was she an ambitious composer, but also abbess in the late 1650s and the early 1770s and prioress in the 1660s. At that time her production of music seems to have stopped, as the collection from which all her compositions on this disc are taken, has been her last which was printed.
It wasn't just a conflict between the musical ambitions of the convents and the ecclesiastical authorities, though. The civil authorities in Northern Italy were on the side of the convents, and the musical performances in the convents found wide admiration.
Cozzolani is the only composer on this disc who is pretty well-known. Several discs have been devoted to her oeuvre. In the collection of 1650 all music is written in eight parts, divided over two choirs. Here she links up with the antiphonal tradition in plainchant. But she also uses it for dramatic reasons, like in Gloria in altissimis Deo, which is a dialogue between angels and shepherds in the night Jesus was born. And in Confitebor tibi Domine the two choirs join as representation of the congregation: "In the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation".
A masterpiece of text expression is the setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, in which every opportunity to illustrate the text is used. It is certainly not less dramatic than Handel's setting of this text, written about 60 years later. Not less effective is the repetition of "iucundus homo" in Beatus vir.
Hardly anything is known about the life of Maria Xaveria Perucona. She doesn't have an entry in New Grove, and the booklet also has nothing to tell about her. A collection of music which has been preserved in the Ursuline convent of Galaite is all we have of her oeuvre. The first piece, Gaude plaude, is written in honour of St Ursula: "Saint Ursula, mirror of virtue, guide to glorious salvation, solace to the sinners". The second piece is a kind of memento mori, warning of the vanity of worldly things: "I have said enough, I do not wish to hope any longer, indeed, earthly happiness gives only torments".
All compositions of Cozzolani and Perucona on this disc contain short solo passages. They are written in the style of the time, and that means they are mostly demanding in regard to ornamentation and coloraturas. They also ask for a wide tessitura, and it is understandable that for these parts professional soloists have been invited. They mostly sing them quite well; Mareike Morr is the least convincing as she uses a bit too much vibrato and has some trouble with the lowest notes of her part.
Both in the tutti and the soli there is too little dynamic shading. Sometimes the use of the messa di voce had been most appropriate, but that is generally ignored. Questionable is the use of a choir as the Mädchenchor Hannover. It seems more plausible to perform eight-part pieces with just eight voices. Because of this and the use of external soloists the coherence between soli and tutti is not optimal.
All pieces are written for voices and basso continuo. In some of them instruments play colla parte, whereas in Cozzolani's Dixit Dominus the instruments replace the voices in some passages. This is all in line with the contemporary practice. The booklet doesn't give the members of the choir or the instrumental ensemble. The latter uses only string instruments. The choir is called a 'girls' choir', but the pictures in the booklet show mostly women in their 20s and 30s. It is quite possible that younger singers had not been able to sing this music anyway.
Those who heard the nuns sing were thrilled by what they heard, and their singing was associated with the singing of angels, partly because of the extremely high range. As good as both choir and soloists on this disc are, they don't really create the same kind of excitement as the singing nuns in the Italian convents of the 17th century. Still, this disc gives a fairly good impression of a rich musical tradition which is only partially explored yet.
Johan van Veen (© 2010)