musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): Sacred Works

[A] "Motetti Sacri"
Susanne Rydén, Gemma Bertagnolli, sopranoa; Massimiliano Mauthe von Degerfeld, altob
Harmonices Mundi
Dir: Claudio Astronio

rec: August 14 - 16, 2006, Bolzano, Kloster Muri-Gries (Haus St. Benedikt, Radiokapelle)
Stradivarius - Str 33798 (© 2008) (53'46")

[B] "Dixit Dominus"
Monique Zanettic, Emanuela Gallid, soprano; Susanna Moncayo von Hase, contraltoe; Ian Honeymanf, Mario Cecchettig, tenor
Ensemble vocale Il canto di Orfeoh; Ensemble Pian&Forte
Dir: Francesco Fanna

rec: March 2006, Vigevano (Pavia), Chiesa di San Carlo
Stradivarius - Str 33812 (© 2008) (65'39")

[A] Kyrie a 8 (RV 587); Lauda Jerusalem (RV 609)a; Laudate pueri Dominum (RV 602 & 602a)a; Salve Regina (RV 618)b
[B] Ascende laeta, Introduzione al Dixit Dominus (RV 635)c; Canta in prato, ride in fonte, Introduzione al Dixit Dominus (RV 636)d; Dixit Dominus (RV 595)cdefh; Dixit Dominus (RV 807)cdefgh

The sacred music of Antonio Vivaldi is one of the lesser-known aspects of his oeuvre. Only some of his compositions of this kind are popular among choirs. The largest part was written for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. These sacred works date from between 1713 and 1719 and from between 1737 and 1739 when Vivaldi was replacing Francesco Gasparini and Giovanni Porta respectively as maestro di coro. In his programme notes Claudio Astronio writes that he has selected pieces which "include all the aspects of which we have spoken: the influence of opera in the use of solo voices, the relation of the stringed instruments in the modern concertato style as in his most famous instrumental works, the double choir and the couble orchestra, almost as if he whished to recall the ancient Venetian practice of antiphonal psalmody". All pieces on this disc are for two choral and/or orchestral groups.

Although Vivaldi wrote most of his sacred music for the Ospedale where only girls were singing, the tutti are always in four parts, in the conventional distribution of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. He could have written them for women's voices only, but he probably decided not to, in order to make them usable for other occasions, with the conventional forces. This means that there is nothing wrong with performing these works with a choir which includes tenors and basses. But recently experiments have taken place with performances using only women's voices. Sometimes the tenor and bass parts are sung one octave above the original pitch, on other occasions some women sing at least the tenor parts at the original pitch. It is a bit of a shame Claudio Astronio hasn't done the same, and just links up with tradition in using a mixed choir. Or, rather, a mixed vocal ensemble, as he performs these works with one voice per part. I don't know how many singers were usually taking part in sacred performances in the Ospedale, but I wonder whether this practice is historically justified.

Whereas Vivaldi wrote the tutti for the common 'mixed' voices the soli are exclusively written for sopranos and altos and there can be no doubt that these solo parts were meant to be sung by the girls of the Ospedale. From that angle the use of a male alto, like here in Salve Regina, is certainly unhistorical. But let us not be too critical. Because the performances are rather good, and as this disc brings some pieces which are seldom performed, we should be thankful that Claudio Astronio has recorded them, and enjoy the performances. I quoted Astronio writing about "the influence of opera in the use of solo voices" in Vivaldi's sacred music, and the settings of Psalms 112/113 (Laudate pueri Dominum, RV 602) and 147 (Lauda Jerusalem, RV 609) are good examples of this. There are alternative settings of two of the sections of Laudate pueri Dominum and these are added as a bonus at the end of the disc (that is what the RV number 602a refers to). A somewhat mysterious piece is the setting of the Kyrie: Vivaldi has never had any position as church musician, and therefore it isn't known for what occasion it was written. It is for two choirs and orchestras without any solo passages. Stylistically it is also a work one doesn't expect from Vivaldi. The first Kyrie begins with an orchestral introduction, and then the choral section is full of strong dissonances. The Christe is set to a vivid tempo, after which the second Kyrie begins with a slow instrumental section followed by a fugue with the tempo indication 'allegro'.

The vocal soloists leave nothing to be desired and don't have any problems with the virtuoso character of their respective parts. Choir and orchestra also give very fine performances. It is a shame the disc is rather short; in addition the programme notes could have been more informative, and the lyrics are not available in an English translation. In this case that is not that much of a problem as the lyrics are rather common.

A large part of Vivaldi's sacred oeuvre is simply ignored, even though it is easily available. But not long ago a new composition was discovered, the Dixit Dominus (RV 807). Or, to put it more precisely, its authenticity as a work by Vivaldi was only recently established. Until then it was considered a composition by Baldassare Galuppi. That had a reason: when the court in Dresden, where Italian music was much loved, ordered some of the newest sacred music in Venice, it received a collection of pieces by Galuppi, then the most fashionable composer in Venice. But one of the pieces in the collection was in fact written by Vivaldi, but deliberately presented as a work by Galuppi as well. Listening to this piece one may be surprised that the musicians in Dresden - and today's musicologists - fell for it, because it really does sound like Vivaldi. Some solos sound as if the voice is just a replacement of the violin. The tenor solo 'Dominus a dextris tuis' is hardly singable, and one immediately understands why Giuseppe Tartini was so critical about Vivaldi.

There are remarkable similarities with the other setting of the same text, the Dixit Dominus (RV 595) which is also rather little-known. It is considered an early composition, in particular because in some contrapuntal passages Vivaldi makes use of music by older contemporaries. The 'Amen' in the later setting, for instance, is far more complicated than in the earlier setting. It is in particular in the structure that there are similarities between the two settings. In both the 'Virgam virtutis' is set for soprano, the 'Tecum principium' as duet (for two sopranos and two tenors respectively), 'Dominus a dextris tuis' for solo voice (soprano and tenor respectively) and 'De torrente' as solo for alto. In both settings 'Judicabit in Dominus' begins with a solo for the trumpet.

The scoring suggests that the first setting was written for the Ospedale della Pietà, because all solos are for soprano and alto; only the trio 'Gloria Patri' contains a tenor part. From this one may conclude that the work was originally sung by women's voices only; one of the girls of the Ospedale must have been able to sing the short tenor part. Like in Astronio's recording it is regrettable that no attempt has been made to perform this setting with just women's voices. We get a mixed choir here, but it is a very good choir that produces a beautiful open sound and masters the dynamics especially well - there are some nice crescendi, for instance on "implebit ruinas". The orchestra is doing an excellent job too. The duet 'Tecum principium' is introduced by a duet of two cellos, without any doubt written for the girls of the Ospedale.

The later setting was obviously written for some other occasion, considering the prominent role of the tenors. Not long ago this work was already released on Archiv. This recording, made just two months after the Archiv recording, is of the same level as far as the performances of choir and orchestra are concerned. But the soloists Peter Kopp had at his disposal are difficult to surpass. That is especially true for Roberta Invernizzi and Sara Mingardo. Monique Zanetti and Susanna Moncayo von Hase can't really compete with them. Ian Honeyman sings his part very well, but not all notes are really understandable, which is the result of the large reverberation. The Archiv recording has an overall better acoustics.

In addition to the two settings of Dixit Dominus we get here two short motets which precede the Psalm settings. These are so-called Introduzioni, introductions to Psalm settings. They are treated as such: the Psalms follow the motets without any interruption. Monique Zanetti and Emanuela Galli give excellent performances. Ms Zanetti admirably is able to add some ornamentation even though the motet is performed at high speed.

In the booklet the Vivaldi expert Michael Talbot has written an interesting introduction to the programme on this disc. In particular his comparison of the two settings of Dixit Dominus is very illuminating. Like in the first production the booklet only contains the original Latin text of the compositions. In the case of the Psalms that is surmountable. One may hope people have a Bible at home to turn up a translation in their own language. But the motets have far less common texts, and translations may be difficult to find. The lack of an English translation in the booklet has therefore to be considered a serious omission.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

CD Reviews