Alessandro Grandi might have been a pupil of Giovanni
Gabrieli. He spent the initial part of his musical career singing (falsetto
soprano) and directing music at establishments in Ferrara, culminating
in his appointment as director of music at Ferrara cathedral in 1616.
In 1617 he moved to Venice and became a singer, under Monteverdi's direction,
at St. Mark's, going on to become Monteverdi's deputy in 1620. He and
Monteverdi are reputed to have been in open rivalry and Monteverdi is
supposed to have prevented Grandi from presenting large-scale works
of his own. Grandi seems to have made a virtue of necessity and produced
a ravishing string of solo motets and concerti spirituali. In 1627 he
moved on to become director of music in Bergamo. He published 11 volumes
of motets, many of them very popular, 3 volumes of psalms and 5 masses.
His motets with symphonies, involving obbligato violins, had an influence
In the 1620's sacred music underwent a significant
change, out went the polychoral techniques of the Gabrielis and in came
the new concerted style. A more intimate style with a few solo voices
and instruments, with a greater emphasis on virtuosity. Monteverdi used
this style in his later church music, but it was fully developed by
his colleagues and followers such as Alessandro Grandi.
Grandi had an advantage over colleagues such as Monteverdi
and Gabrieli in that he was a singer. His art revolves around the expression
of the text, using the music to bring out the prosody of the words.
His earliest motets were published in 1610 and they are admirably lacking
in youthful inexperience. 'O quam pulchra es' uses three voices in an
almost madrigalian setting of words from the Song of Songs.
Grandi's works crop up in the catalogue mainly in surveys
of Monteverdi's contemporaries. Despite his importance in early 17th
century Italian music, record companies have mainly cast him in Monteverdi's
shadow, so it is pleasant to welcome this CD back. It has an enviable
line up of singers with the young Andreas and Elisabeth Scholl alongside
René Jacobs and Maria Cristina Kiehr.
The motets all receive fine performances. This vocal
chamber music requires a good interplay between performers and those
on this record are generally admirable. Jacobs sings two of the solo
motets, 'Salve Regina' with its cornet obliggati and 'O quam tu pulchra
est'. Whilst I was able to admire his artistry greatly, not everyone
will like his distinctive resinous tone. But these are two of the most
affecting motets on the record and Jacobs' way with the words is hauntingly
persuasive. Though all the artists on the disc are excellent, Jacobs
proves to be the most penetratingly responsive to the text.
The admirable cornettists are Jean Tubery, and William
Dongois and their playing combines discretion and subtlety along with
virtuoso effect. They appear on two further tracks. 'Transfige', a solo
motet well sung by Gerd Türk with his mellifluous, bright, if slightly
unvarying tenor voice and 'Bone Jesu verbum patris', a lovely duet charmingly
sung by Elisabeth and Andreas Scholl, who blend exquisitely. The two
cornets beautifully balance the two vocalists and show off Grandi's
expertise with the new structural developments in sacred music.
Dramatic and structural interest are rarely absent
from these lovely works. Solo voices are counterbalanced by two violins
in three of the motets. 'Osculetur me', in which Andreas Scholl brings
to bear his creamy alto voice; 'Virgo prudentissima' sung with a brilliant
urgency by Elisabeth Scholl; 'Vulnerasti cor meum' sung by the bright
toned Maria Cristina Kiehr who gets the bulk of the soprano solos.
In the multi-voiced motets, some are in the more traditional
style of the late 16th century, like the 5-voiced setting
of Job's lament, 'Versa est'. But others reflect Grandi's more recent
concerns. 'Heu mihi! - Quid ploras?' is a conversation between the despairing
sinner (hauntingly sung by Gerd Türk) and God (sung by Andreas
Scholl, Otto Rastbichler and Ulrich Messthaler). 'Quemadmodum desiderat'
is another dialogue, this time between two voices (Maria Christina Kiehr
and Ulrich Messthaler). a lover and beloved, which ends with a hymn
to the Virgin!
The motet 'Plorabo die ac nocte' uses a text which
links the lamentations of Jeremiah with a pain-filled Marian lament.
The text is sung by each soloist in turn. But, in an effect reminiscent
of a Greek chorus, all soloists join together at the end of each solo.
But the most remarkable is possibly 'Missus est Gabriel'. This setting
of the annunciation uses St. Luke's Gospel, allocated to Evangelist
(Ulrich Messthaler, singing with a wonderfully dark tone), Angel (Gerd
Türk) and Virgin (Andreas Scholl). But this mini-oratorio increases
the drama by adding an off-stage chorus (sopranos Maria Cristina Kiehr
and Elisabeth Scholl) who constantly sing the praises of the virgin,
providing a chorus which comments on and interrupts the main dialogue.
All the items on this CD are gems. Grandi had great
melodic gifts and good ear for dramatic presentation of his texts. A
singer himself, his vocal lines are always effective and grateful. All
the singers on this recording are admirable and it manages to showcase
the talents of a remarkable group of young singers and instrumentalists.
Grandi's motets deserve to be better known, but his
works have been difficult to come by in performing editions. This seems
to be the only CD in the catalogue devoted solely Grandi's works, so
it is pleasing to see its return and the artists are also to be commended
for their musicological research. It is a shame that the CD booklet
does not manage to print the texts of the motets. Grandi was such a
text based composer that one misses the opportunity of following the
words in translation. Not all of these texts are well known and not
everyone has the requisite Latin.
This is a lovely CD to listen to in one sitting or
simply to dip into. I can highly recommend it.