'It is a rare thing to reach the end of a long program like this wanting more, yet that’s exactly what happened to me in this instance. All readers are urged to investigate a remarkable disc that is assured of being an exceptionally strong contender for the Want List' (Fanfare, USA)
'Robin Blaze has justifiably moved quickly into the elite of counter-tenors. Not only is he convincing vocally but his interpretative instincts are sound' (Cathedral Music)
'In its subtle way this disc will add to our understanding and love of this treasure-house as surely as the first [Sacred Music of Monteverdi] did' (International Review)
'Robin Blaze’s clear, pure countertenor is the ideal voice for these pieces, and he sings them with impressive authority. Pick of the month' (BBC Music Magazine)
'I would recommend this disc to anyone with a love for baroque vocal music' (www.musicweb)
'An appealing concert of Venetian sacred music … as always with Hyperion, gorgeous sound' (Early Music Society News, USA)
'An excellent release' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Blaze is at his most impassioned and convincing … this disc will add to our understanding and love of this treasure house' (International Record Review)
'The intrinsic qualities of this little-explored repertoire and Blaze’s musicianship mark this as an important release' (American Record Guide)
Sacred music underwent drastic and sudden change in the 1620s. The polychoral style of Giovanni Gabrieli was replaced. Instead of lavish writing for divided choirs, the emphasis was now on a few solo voices, while Gabrieli's opulent groups of cornetts, violins and trombones were replaced by much smaller groups usually consisting just of strings. At the same time, there was much more emphasis on virtuosity, and the grandeur of the Gabrieli style was replaced by much more intimate one based on the idioms of secular music. Monteverdi, maestro di capella at St Mark's in Venice from 1613, used this new concerted style extensively in his later church music, but it was developed to its fullest extent in the 1630s and 40s by his colleagues and followers, such as Alessandro Grandi, Giovanni Antonio Rigatti and Giovanni Rovetta, and it was still current in the 1680s, when Giovanni Legrenzi was working at St Marks. (Works by all can be found here.)
This recording is a survey of this rich and still little-known repertory, concentrating on music for a solo male alto voice with strings. Venetian churches, like their counterparts elsewhere in Italy, seem to have used castrati or falsettists rather than boys to sing the upper parts of church music, and so there is a wealth of material from the period suitable for modern countertenors.
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Venetian sacred music underwent drastic and sudden change in the 1620s. The polychoral style of Giovanni Gabrieli was replaced by a new and startlingly different idiom. Instead of lavish writing for divided choirs, the emphasis was now on a few solo voices, while Gabrieli’s opulent groups of cornetts, violins and trombones were replaced by much smaller groups usually consisting just of strings; the ‘trio sonata’ ensemble of two violins and continuo with or without added viola parts now became the norm. At the same time, there was much more emphasis on virtuosity, and the grandeur of the Gabrieli style was replaced by a much more intimate one based on the idioms of secular music, including opera. Monteverdi, maestro di capella at St Mark’s in Venice from 1613, used this new concerted style extensively in his later church music, but it was developed to its fullest extent in the 1630s and 1640s by his colleagues and followers, such as Alessandro Grandi, Giovanni Antonio Rigatti and Giovanni Rovetta, and it was still current in the 1680s, when Giovanni Legrenzi was working at St Mark’s. This recording is a survey of this rich and still little-known repertory, concentrating on music for a solo male alto voice with strings. Venetian churches, like their counterparts elsewhere in Italy, seem to have used castrati or falsettists rather than boys to sing the upper parts of church music, and so there is a wealth of material from the period suitable for modern countertenors.
Alessandro Grandi seems to have been largely responsible for establishing the new style at St Mark’s. It is likely that he was born in Ferrara, and he joined the St Mark’s choir in 1617; he worked there for a decade before leaving for Bergamo. Grandi seems to have invented the motet for solo voice with violins, drawing on secular idioms. For instance, Amo Christum uses the walking bass associated at the time with the canzonetta and sets a text that is a barely concealed secular love lyric; he also turned the plainsong tune of the hymn Ave maris stella into a catchy triple-time dance – as Monteverdi had done in his 1610 Vespers. Monteverdi set all the verses of the hymn, but Grandi only set the even-numbered verses, apparently expecting the odd-numbered ones to be represented by the string ritornello.
We know virtually nothing about Francesco Maria Marini except that he was working in San Marino in 1637, though the style of his music suggests that he had Venetian connections. His fine setting of the hymn Jesu dulcis memoria is unusual in that it is through-composed, which allows him to represent the contrasted emotions of each verse vividly in the music.
The setting of Exultate Deo is the only known vocal work by Dario Castello, a Venetian wind player and important composer of sonatas. Its rather unpredictable mixture of duple and triple time is typical of the 1620s.
Monteverdi’s Pianto della Madonna is a strange and problematic work. It is a contrafactum of the famous ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ from the otherwise lost opera Arianna of 1608, and was published in 1641 with most of Monteverdi’s later church music in the large collection Selva morale. It is not clear who made the adaptation: the Latin text, the lament of Mary at the foot of the Cross, is sometimes closer to Italian than Latin, and shows signs of having been written to fit the existing music – a common procedure at the time. It is difficult to envisage a liturgical function for the piece, though if it was performed in church it would have been sung by a man, as in this recording. We know from a description of Arianna that the original lament was performed with strings, which I have taken as a hint that a string ritornello articulated the main sections. Unfortunately, the ritornello does not survive, so I have taken the liberty of borrowing a suitable one from Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse.
Giovanni Antonio Rigatti and Giovanni Rovetta were the most important composers at St Mark’s in the period immediately after Monteverdi’s death in 1643. Rigatti was a Venetian, and served at St Mark’s for his entire career apart from a short time at Udine in the 1630s; he died in 1649 while still in his early thirties. His settings of Psalm 4, Cum invocarem, and the Nunc dimittis come from a collection of music for Compline, published in 1646. As these pieces show, Rigatti was a master of the Monteverdi style, and, like Monteverdi, used instrumental ritornelli in a creative way to articulate and give shape to often disparate and diffuse vocal sections. In Rovetta’s setting of the Salve Regina the instruments have a more modern role, accompanying the voice as well as alternating with it, creating rich and sensuous textures. Not surprisingly, this fine piece found its way to northern Europe: a version of it wrongly ascribed to Franz Tunder was copied for the Swedish court as ‘Salve mi Jesu, pater misericordiae’ – a text suitably purged of Marian sentiments for Protestant sensibilities. Rovetta was a Venetian, and spent his entire career at St Mark’s, succeeding Monteverdi as maestro di capella in 1644.
The two instrumental pieces recorded here exemplify the changes in the Italian sonata between the 1620s and the 1650s. Marini’s Sonata ‘per sonar con due corde’ is cast in a single large movement, and is essentially a recital of the virtuoso and expressive devices associated with the violin, including double stopping (hence the work’s title), written-out ornamentation, expressive writing in an idiom derived from vocal music, and rapid passage-work. Marini came from Brescia, and worked at St Mark’s under Monteverdi between 1615 and 1620, though he spent much of his later career in Germany. By contrast, Legrenzi’s Sonata ‘La Pezzoli’ is in clearly defined sections and is relatively unadventurous in its technical demands; it makes its effect with suave and melodious writing and the central section has successive solos for the string players – a typical mid-century device. Legrenzi’s charming Christmas motet O mirandum mysterium has the same virtues of clarity, order and sweetness, though its second section is in the lament idiom of contemporary opera, and hints at deeper things.
In Rosenmüller’s Ascendit Christus in altum the process of simplifying and clarifying the musical thought is taken a stage further. It consists of a joyful triple-time passage that encloses a brief recitative and a duple-time strophic aria. Though a German, Rosenmüller qualifies for inclusion on this CD by virtue of the fact that he worked for more than twenty years in Venice, an exile from his native Leipzig as the result of a homosexual scandal. It is pleasant to record, however, that in old age he returned to his native land to become the honoured Kapellmeister of the Wolfenbüttel court. Although Ascendit Christus in altum only survives in a German source, it was almost certainly written during his time in Venice.
Peter Holman © 2001