The art of 'Cori spezzati'
(‘divided choirs’) first flourished
in Venice in the 16th century, and more
specifically in St. Mark's, Venice.
It was here with its galleries and vast
open spaces that composers were able
to explore the possibility of what we
might now call stereophonic sound. Each
choir in a different part of the church,
probably with its own continuo to sustain
tuning, could answer each other in musical
phrases which tossed the text around
the main dome and choir area giving
the effect of heavenly choirs singing
their never-ceasing praises to Almighty
God; all aided by the capacious acoustic.
I have read, but I
can't recall where, that it was not
a Venetian but a Dutchman, Adrian Willaert
(c.1490-1562) who was appointed to St.
Marks in the 1540s. It was Willaert
who came up with the idea of dividing
the choir around the church. It must
be remembered however that his choir
consisted of no more than seventeen
singers, so his experiments were limited.
Willaert is represented
on this CD as are his successors who
took the style and technique to far
greater heights and who extended the
choir. Thus we hear from Andrea Gabrieli
(c.1510-1586), Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612),
and Claudio Merulo (1533-1604); the
latter officially appointed master of
the organ. His successor Claudio Monteverdi
is not included in this survey, which
is particularly interesting because
it concentrates on the earlier, lesser-known,
repertoire, for example Striggio who
is more famous for his 40-part motet.
We also have a few rare pieces by some
pupils of Giovanni Gabrieli; Grabbe
(fl. c.1610) from Germany, Nielsen (c.1585-1626)
and Pederson (c.1585-1623) from Denmark,
the latter sent over by that most musical
of Kings, Christian IV.
It is a little curious
and indeed a pity that Willaert is represented
by a madrigal and not a motet or a movement
from a mass in the polychoral style.
In fact Eva Lichtenberger's booklet
notes almost apologize for it. Having
said that 'O bene mio' is often-anthologized,
a delightful little piece and a good
example of the early Italian madrigal.
The other madrigals
are also performed by smaller groups
drawn from the choir but using, as far
as I can tell, differing singers. This
mostly works well. Tuning can be a problem
in the often stratospheric soprano parts
as in Gabrieli's challenging 'Fuggi
per se sai' or his 'Amor dove'.
The sacred works recorded
here make the best impression. First
because the acoustic of the German Romanesque
Cathedral at Speyer is ideal for this
music at it is the first known structure
to have had galleries built. These exist
still, although not the originals, and
this has enabled the choir to 'spread
their wings' in the use of them. The
excellent effect is also aided by the
strong overall sound of the choir, much
needed in this music (and if the photograph
on the back of the booklet is anything
to go by there are approximately 34
voices) even when divided into upward
of twelve parts as Giovanni Gabrieli
demands in his Kyrie (track 9, sample
it if you can). Thirdly, like St. Marks,
Speyer Cathedral is cruciform in floorplan.
The Chamber Choir of
Europe is young and enthusiastic. They
were founded as recently as 1998 when
former members of the World Youth Choir
got together under Nicol Matt to continue
to sing professionally. They won the
'Internationaler Chorwettberdorf' 2001
and changed their name the following
April. They have now made several CDs
and have a broad repertoire. Apart from
slight tuning problems they are a fine
group, but do not expect a Tallis Scholars
or a 'Sixteen'; they are not yet in
that class. On the other hand the freshness
of tone and blossom of youth are strong
factors which I find quite captivating.
I must end though by
challenging Brilliant Classics on their
short-sighted policy of not giving the
text translations in English. These
are in Italian and German only. The
accompanying essay sometimes gives a
brief résumé of the text
but this is small consolation.