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
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, 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.
Johan van Veen