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Orazio VECCHI (1550 - 1605): Mass & Motets

Cappella Musicale del Duomo di Modena
Dir: Daniele Bononcini

rec: May 7 - 9, 2006, Modena, Duomo
Tactus - TC 552201 (© 2008) (57'30")

Ave virgo gratiosa a 5; Cantate Domino a 4; Domine quando veneris a 5; Lapidaverunt Stephanum a 5; Missa in Resurrectione Domini a 8; O Iesu Christe, miserere mei a 5; O vos omnes a 6; Omnis virtus a 5

(Sources: [1] Motecta, 1590; [2] Sacrarum cantionum liber secundus, 1597; [3] Missarum liber primus, 1607)

Some composers suffer from the popularity of specific compositions which overshadow the rest of their oeuvre. That is certainly the case with Orazio Vecchi. Today he is almost exclusively known for his madrigal comedy L'Amfiparnaso. In his own time he felt already the burden of the popularity of his canzonettas. He tried to become more widely known as a composer of 'serious' music, like masses and motets. This did happen to some extent when Caspar Hassler, brother of the composer Hans-Leo Hassler, published a collection of motets by various authors in 1598, which included four pieces by Vecchi. Another 'success' was the publication of four masses by Pierre Phalèse in 1612, but at that time he had already died. But it is an indication of the growth of his reputation that his masses appeared in one collection with compositions of Monteverdi.

Orazio Vecchi was born and died in Modena. At some moment in his early years he took holy orders. He stayed in Brescia and Bergamo and became well-known in Venetian circles. He contributed to a collection of music which also included pieces by Claudio Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli. In 1584 he was appointed maestro di cappella at Modena Cathedral. He didn't stay there very long, and moved to Reggio nell'Emilia and some months later to Correggio to take up the same position in the cathedrals of these cities. In 1593 he returned to Modena, and in 1598 was appointed maestro di corte by Duke Cesare d'Este. The last stage of his life was marred by ill health.

Vecchi's sacred oeuvre is a typical example of music on the brink of renaissance and baroque. On the one hand he sticks to the stile antico, and even makes use of the cantus firmus technique, which had already gone out of fashion in the second half of the 16th century. On the other hand in some pieces one finds a stronger connection between text and music than was common in the past. In particular the mass which has been recorded here contains some striking examples of madrigalism. And there are also passages of homophony, which is another reflection of the time to come. Lastly in the mass an organ is involved. It does not play a basso continuo, though, but rather a basso seguente which just follows the vocal bass line.

The disc begins with one of the most traditional pieces of the programme, the motet Ave virgo gratiosa which is based on the Gregorian hymn which the title refers to. The second part of this motet - which curiously enough doesn't follow immediately but is allocated to track 6 - is Omnis virtus which "is built upon a cantus firmus also based on the same hymn but proposed in the form of an 'enigmatic canon'. In the 1590 print, the part of the quintus is reduced to a mere ten notes (which in the Gregorian chant set the words "atque semper virgo"), preceded by the motto "Vado et venio ad vos". The solution to the enigma lies in the repetition of the sequence, forward and backward, for a total of six times", Giovanni Indulti writes in the programme notes. Such intellectual games were old-fashioned at the time and are reminding of the heydays of the stile antico.

An example of the newer style is the motet O vos omnes for 6 voices "in Tempore Passionis". This text has always inspired composers to write some of their most expressive music, and that is not different here. The content is clearly reflected by the dissonances Vecchi has included in his setting, one of the means of expression he makes use of.

The four masses I already referred to are divided into two groups: two are parody masses and written for six voices, the other two are for eight voices in two choirs. One of them is a Requiem, the other - recorded here - is a Mass for Easter. The remarkable thing about it is that Vecchi didn't only set the Ordinary, but also the Propers. The Mass begins with an Introitus, 'Resurrexi', and its second part, 'Domine probasti me'. After Kyrie and Gloria we hear the Graduale, 'Haec dies quam fecit Dominus'. This is followed by the Credo, and then comes the Offertory, 'Surgite populi'. Here we find striking examples of madrigalism, for instance trumpet-like figures on the words 'clangite buccina super montes", whereas the sound of drums is depicted on the words "in tympanis laetitiae". After the Sanctus follows the Elevation: 'O dulcis Jesu'. This is followed by the Agnus Dei and the Mass closes with 'Loco Deo gratias'.

This is a most impressive portrait of Vecchi as a composer of sacred music. It should change our view on the man who is mainly known for his lighthearted music. He was also a composer of music with substance, as the motets and the Mass on this disc prove. The ensemble is doing a great job here. It consists of really excellent singers. The motets are sung by male voices only. The booklet mentions five singers, but how they can sing the 6-part O vos omnes is anybody's guess. In the Mass only one of these singers participates; the others are all different. The blending of the voices is outstanding, and the sopranos are very impressive in their often very high parts. The organ playing the basso seguente gives nice support to the singers.

There are just two points of criticism to make. Firstly, the lyrics are not translated in English or any other modern language. That is a shame as in particular the Propers of the Mass are not very common. The second remark concerns the recording. After the first track the position of the singers to the microphones seems to have changed, and not for the better. In the tracks 2 to 7 there is some serious overmodulation now and then. This is really a big shame as this undermines the enjoyment of these performances. In the Mass everything is alright again.

Despite these shortcomings I am strongly recommending this disc because of the quality of music and interpretation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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