Movement 1: Nisi Dominus
Movement 2: Vanum est vobis
Movement 3: Surgite
Movement 4: Cum dederit
Movement 5: Sicut sagittae
Movement 6: Beatus vir
Movement 7: Gloria
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), The King's Consort, Robert King (conductor), Katherine McGillivray (viola d'amore)
Movement 8: Sicut erat in principio
Movement 9: Amen
It has long been known that the Pietà produced excellent players of the six-stringed viola d’amore. Among them were the celebrated Anna Maria (1696–1782), for whom Vivaldi composed two viola d’amore concertos, and her successor as principal violinist, Chiaretta (1718–1796). Only recently did the first testimony to Vivaldi himself as a virtuoso of that instrument turn up: in 1717, en route from Bologna to Venice, he celebrated a stopover in the small city of Cento with an impromptu performance on the viola d’amore in a local church, which was packed so full that the overspilling listeners had to jostle for space outside in the road. So the intended soloist in the Nisi Dominus could well have been the composer himself.
The nine movements are as varied in style and scoring as one could imagine. Two (‘Vanum est vobis’ and ‘Beatus vir’) are simple continuo arias, while one (‘Sicut sagittae’) has a string accompaniment in unison with the voice, and two others (‘Nisi Dominus’, with its abridged and retexted reprise ‘Sicut erat in principio’) are church arias in a lively concerto style. ‘Cum dederit’ conveys drowsiness by being set in a slow siciliana style and employing a distinctive motive with chromatically ascending lines that the composer often introduces in association with the idea of sleep (as in the second solo episode in the first movement of his ‘Spring’ Concerto, RV269); for this movement leaden mutes (piombi) are prescribed.
The most original movement is the third (‘Surgite’), which is cast as an accompanied recitative, counterposing rapid ascending figures expressing the act of standing up to slow, reflective passages for the ‘bread of sorrows’. The final ‘Amen’ imitates the style of an ‘Alleluia’ in a motet. But the spiritual fulcrum of the Nisi Dominus lies in the ‘Gloria’, which instead of being the usual expression of simple joy, is a brooding, dark-hued movement full of solitude.
from notes by Michael Talbot © 2000