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Brilliant Classics

Cori Spezzati: Venetian polychoral music of the 16th Century
Giovanni GABRIELI 'Ahi senza te'; Dolce leggiadre e belle; Alma corte se bella; Kyrie Eleison; Fuggi pur se sai; Amor dove mi quidi; Omnes gentes plaudite.
Andrea GABRIELI 'In nobil sanque'; Alla battaglia; Ale quancie de rose; Gloria; Alessandro Striggio 'Ninfe leggiadre s bella';
Adrian WILLAERT 'O bene mio '
Johann GRABBE 'Cor mio';
Hans NIELSEN 'Deh dolce anima';
Claudio MERULO Sanctus; Benedicamus Domine; Hodie Christus natus est; Agnus dei
Chamber Choir of Europe/Nicol Matt
No recording details supplied


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.

Gary Higginson


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