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"From Monteverdi to Vivaldi"

Emma Kirkby a; Emily Van Evera b; Nancy Argenta c, soprano; Alison Place d, mezzo-soprano; Margaret Cable e, Catherine King f, Randi Stene g, contralto; Rogers Covey-Crump h, Nigel Rogers i, Jeffrey Thomas j, tenor; David Thomas k, bass; Chiara Banchini l, Alison Bury m, John Holloway n, Elisabeth Wallfisch o, violin; John Toll p, organ
Taverner Consort, Choir & Players
Dir.: Andrew Parrott

rec: Dec, 1982, London, Temple Church (CD 1); March, 1990, London (CD 2); Feb., 1991, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University (Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall) (CD 3); March, 1990, London, St John-at-Hackney (CD 4); Nov., 1992, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn (CD 5)
Virgin Classics - 5 62167 2 (5 CDs) (62'57"/72'45"/57'28"/59'44"/67'45")

CD 1: Claudio Monteverdi: "Venetian Vesper Music" (from Selva morale e spirituale, 1640)
Beatus vir (I) a 6 ahk; Confitebor tibi (II) a 3 aik; Deus tuorum militum a 3 hik; Dixit Dominus (II) a 8 ahk; Jubilet tota civitas a voce sola in dialogo a; Laudate Dominum (I) a 5 aik; Laudate pueri (II) a 5 a; Magnificat a 8 (completed by Andrew Parrott) ahk; Salve Regina a 3 ahik

CD 2: "Venetian Church Music"
Dario Castello: Sonata II [1]; Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon VIII a 8 [2]; Fuga del 9. tono p; In ecclesiis a 14 [3]; Intonatio del 9. tono [4] p; Magnificat a 14 [3]; Alessandro Grandi: O quam pulchra es [5] j; Giovanni Legrenzi: Sonata da chiesa a 3, op. 8,8 'La Bevilaque' [6]; Antonio Lotti: Crucifixus a 6 & a 10; Claudio Monteverdi: Adoramus te, Christe a 6 [7]; Christe, adoramus te [7]; Currite populi [5] j; Exulta filia Sion [8] b; Antonio Vivaldi: Clarae stellae, scintillate, motet (RV 625) g

(Sources: [1] Sonate concertate, libro secondo, 1629; [2] Canzoni e sonate, 1615; [3] Symphoniae sacrae, II, 1615; [4] Intonationi d'organo, 1593; [5] Leonardo Simonetti, ed., Ghirlanda sacra, 1625; [6] Sonate, libro III, Opera 8, 1663; [7] Giulio Cesare Bianchi, Libro primo de moteti, 1620; [8] Lorenzo Calvi, ed., Quarta raccolta de sacri canti ... de diversi eccellentissimi autori, 1629)

CD 3: Claudio Monteverdi: Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638 (sel.)
Altri canti d’amor; Altri canti di Marte; Chi vol haver felice; Hor ch’el ciel e la terra; Lamento della ninfa; Ninfa che scalza il piede; Su, pastorelli vezzosi; Vago, augelletto; Volgendo il ciel (ballo)

Emily Van Evera, Judith Malafronte, soprano; Simon Berridge, David Echelard, Jeffrey Thomas, Andrew Tusa, tenor; Simon Grant, bass; John Holloway, Marc Destrubé, violin; Steve Lehning, bass viol, violone; Tina Chancey, Rosamund Morley, Martha McGaughey, bass viol; Jakob Lindberg, theorbo, guitar; John Toll, harpsichord, spinet

CD 4: Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto alla rustica for strings and bc in G (RV 151); Concertos for violin, strings and bc, op. 8, 1-4 'Le quattro stagioni' (Concerto in E, op. 8,1 'La Primavera', RV 269 l; Concerto in g, op. 8,2 'L'Estate', RV 315 m; Concerto in F, op. 8,3 'L'Autunno', RV 293 o; Concerto in f, op. 8,4 'L'Inverno', RV 297 n); Concerto for 4 violins, viola and bc in B flat (RV 553) lmno; Sinfonia for strings and bc in G (RV 146)

CD 5: Antonio Vivaldi: Religious music
Plainchant: Ave maris stella, hymn; Missa cum jubilis: Kyrie; Salve Regina, antiphon; Vivaldi: Gloria in D (RV 589) bde; In exitu Israel (RV 604); Laetatus sum (RV 607); Laudate Dominum omnes gentes (RV 606); Magnificat in g minor (RV 610b) bcdef; Sinfonia 'Al Santo Sepolcro' for strings and bc in b minor (RV 169); Sonata 'Al Santo Sepolcro' in E flat (RV 130)

This set of five CDs contains an overview of Venetian music from the late 16th to the early 18th century. Much changed during that time. Although Venice had long passed the zenith of its political power, from the 16th century onwards it became a cultural and musical centre, not only for Italy, but for Europe as a whole. The foundations were laid by Adrian Willaert, considered the father of the ‘Venetian school’, one of whose characteristics was the technique of cori spezzati. This practice of splitting up vocal and instrumental forces was encouraged by the unique architecture of Venice’s main cathedral, San Marco. Another feature of Venetian music was the high value the authorities placed on musical celebrations in praise of the political status of the city and its rulers, which resulted in the performance of ceremonial music with pomp and circumstance.
The Venetian style was developed by uncle Andrea and nephew Giovanni Gabrieli. In the first half of the 17th century Claudio Monteverdi was the towering figure in Venetian music, which unfortunately put a highly skilled composer like Alessandro Grandi on the sidelines of musical history. In the first decades of the 18th century Antonio Vivaldi was the figurehead of Venetian music. At that time Venice had become what it is now: a tourist attraction.

The recordings presented here were all made around 1990, with the exception of the first CD, recorded in 1982. They all date from the time the interpretation of Italian music was still firmly in the hands of Northern European musicians and ensembles, among which the British in many ways set the tone. Since then, a number of vocal and instrumental groups from Italy have started to take control of their own musical past. It has resulted in performances of Monteverdi, Vivaldi and others which are very different from most performances from north of the Alps.
The question is: where does this leave these British recordings from the 1980s and early 1990s? Are they still worth having? I would say yes and no. If someone is interested in the history of the performance practice – as I am – this is a good opportunity to grab some remarkable examples of British interpretations of Italian music. If not, the quality of Andrew Parrott's ensembles is still such that there is much to enjoy, even when one prefers a more passionate and more idiomatic approach to this kind of music. But there are differences between these recordings: some have more chance of surviving the ‘Italian flood’ than others. So let me say something about the five CDs in detail.

One of the strengths of Andrew Parrott’s ensembles is their inner coherency. Some of the soloists are regular members of the Taverner Consort, which is closely connected to the Taverner Choir. This makes them ideally suited for music where soli and tutti are closely interwoven. There is no place here for large solo voices. Monteverdi’s music needs first and foremost ensemble voices that blend well and have the same approach to the music. And since this selection from the Selva morale e spirituale on the first CD is sung by some of the very best British singers of the early music scene, this is still a very enjoyable recording, even though the tempi are a little too slow and the whole is somewhat short on passion.

The third CD, containing a selection from Monteverdi’s 8th madrigal book, entitled Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, is different in this respect. Here, the shortcomings outweigh the merits. The pronunciation is not very idiomatic, the tempi almost always too slow and, most of all, the lack of passion seriously undermines the character of these works. The stile concitato, the ‘agitated style’ that Monteverdi employs here, is severely underplayed in this performance.

The fourth CD consists of instrumental works by Vivaldi, most of them very well known, in particular the Four Seasons. This is the least convincing recording of the set. The playing is simply too stiff and colourless, the ornamentation not very imaginative, and the orchestral sound lacks depth and warmth. The solo violin is too prominent: in baroque concertos the solo instrument is a primus inter pares, which seems to have been overlooked here. And the tempi are on the slow side here as well – which is the common feature of all recordings in this set.

The fifth CD is much better, and also very interesting as far as the interpretation is concerned. The problem with Vivaldi’s sacred music is that in the Ospedale, for which he wrote these works, only girls were singing, but the scores contain parts for tenor and bass. How were these parts sung? The Ospedale has been visited by many people from Italy and abroad, but nobody mentioned girls singing tenor and bass, which should have been a most remarkable phenomenon. But names of girls have been found with the addition ‘tenor’ or ‘bass’. So the theory – followed in this recording – is that these parts have been sung an octave above written pitch. This practice takes the tenor line regularly above the soprano line, altering the whole appearance of the music. At first hearing these works – of which the Gloria and the Magnificat are among the best-known vocal pieces by Vivaldi – seem totally new. Since the vocal lines are much closer together, the sound is denser than in a performance with men’s voices. An additional plus of this recording is the inclusion of some plainchant settings, which underlines the liturgical function of Vivaldi’s sacred works, and of some instrumental pieces intended for liturgical use, as the title Al Santo Sepolcro suggests. The performance is very good and since others haven't followed this approach – as far as I know – this is certainly a recording to have.

That leaves the second CD, which offers a picture of about 150 years of Venetian music. When it was first released, most pieces were little known and hardly ever recorded. That has changed: a composer like Dario Castello now regularly appears on concert programmes and Lotti and Grandi are not neglected anymore, even though there is still much to discover. That also applies to the music of Giovanni Gabrieli. The pieces recorded here belong to the better known, though. Most performances here are enjoyable, even if one would like to hear a more dramatic approach. But Randi Stene’s singing in Vivaldi’s solo motet is quite convincing, and Jeffrey Thomas does a good job in the solo pieces by Grandi and Monteverdi. Best of all are the works by Gabrieli. Here the qualities of the ensembles as mentioned above are evident and result in fine performances of this brilliant music.

This set is a mixed bag. I would recommend CDs 1 and 5 without hesitation, and CD 2 with some reservations. CDs 3 and 4 are not up to today’s standards.

As much as one can be thankful that recordings of this calibre are available again at a bargain price, Virgin Classics should do a better job in the technical field. It is a capital blunder that on the tray inlay (and on the back of the set) Monteverdi’s name is misspelled as ‘MonteRverdi’ (twice!). There are other printing errors as well, like the title of the 8th book of madrigals ('e guerrieri' instead of 'et') or the name of Nigel Rogers (spelled as ‘Nigels’). The plainchant setting of the ‘Salve Regina’ on the fifth CD is listed as the last section of Vivaldi’s Magnificat. There are also omissions in the list of performers: no soloists are mentioned for Monteverdi’s Jubilet tota civitas (one of them is Emma Kirkby), one of the bass viol players on CD 3 has been left out (Tina Chancey) and the members of the ensembles are not listed; only the names of the soloists are given. And it is a pity that the original programme notes have been dropped. There is a short essay about the history of Venetian music but no details about the compositions. And the buyer of this set really needs to be aware of the characteristics of Andrew Parrott’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s sacred music. Compilations like these should be taken just as seriously as new recordings.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

Relevant links:
The Venetian style
Giovanni Gabrieli
Alessandro Grandi
Dario Castello
Giovanni Legrenzi
Antonio Lotti
Antonio Vivaldi
Taverner Consort
Andrew Parrott
Virgin Classics

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