Giovanni Legrenzi was an extremely accomplished composer who
wrote highly original sacred music - both for the liturgy (masses,
motets) and for devotional use (oratorio).
He also wrote instrumental and chamber music for 'local' performance; and for
the theatre. It was the church, though, that fed him most richly - both physically
and spiritually. He began his quite distinguished career at Bergamo and ended
it as maestro di cappella at St Mark's in Venice. His style, depth and
breadth of invention, and skills as a technician were known to - and greatly
admired by - Bach, who collected Legrenzi's manuscripts - often from those of
his patrons returning from northern Italy in the first quarter of the next century.
This double CD featuring an idiomatic and beautifully-performed collection of
two pieces of Legrenzi's church music is particularly welcome. Not otherwise
represented on record, these two works make an excellent introduction to Legrenzi's
strengths: a highly inventive use of melody and a total command of colour and
texture. Listen to the way the emotional 'highs' and 'lows' of the Credo in
the Mass [CD.1 tr.3] are supported by changes in instrumentation and tempi, for
example. This is not histrionic, but certainly conveys in every bar a somewhat
dramatic response to belief.
The originality of the Vespers has to be noted too - despite being written
in the shadow of Monteverdi. Legrenzi's evince a more relaxed, less driven and
more lyrical approach. Listen to the way the voices weave and exchange emotions
in the Laudate pueri [CD.2 tr.13] or the elation of the Laudate Dominum [CD.2
tr.16]. There is little derivative or imitative, even though Legrenzi is writing
less than half a century after the impact of Monteverdi's own Vespers.
The maturity and confidence of the two works presented here are amply conveyed
by the instrumentalists, chorus and soloists of Oficina Musicum under its creator-director,
Riccardo Favero. Remarkable is the fact that they come from a collection representing
Legrenzi's first publication - in 1654, when he was under thirty years old. An
easier option would have been to reproduce the by now well-established stock topoi of
the Italian Baroque, stamp a little of his own preference for certain instrumental
combinations, a splash of local pride and wrap the whole up in a package appealing
to a potential patron.
But as Oficina Musicum makes very clear - yet without fuss - that these works
of Legrenzi's carry great weight in their own right thanks to their freshness,
ingenuity and to the composer's barely-tapped imagination. If not perhaps as
purely novel as equivalent woks by Biber, who was a contemporary, they are almost
as innovative and every bit as compelling. Contrast and alternation are used
to great effect but never for their own sake. At the same time, the way these
aspects of his music are interpreted here have as much to do with the dramatic
impetus and logic of the texts as with the famed disposition of performers in
the northern Italian churches.
The performances on these CDs do these aspects full justice, though: choruses
are crisp yet communicative, soloists sensitive in their articulation, yet disciplined
- and at the same time brimming with spontaneity; the instrumentalists are full
of feeling yet brilliant. Above all Favero has read the architecture, the sense
of what's to come in the musical development, very well. Nothing is played merely
because the notes on the score suggest it should be. There's an internal rationale
to every phase of each of these two interpretations. It may be that Favero took
a conscious decision to respect the relatively small scale on which these beautiful
works were conceived. He is at pains to respect that and make the most of the
contrast between intimacy of performance and response on the one hand, and the
gravity and sublime nature of the subject matter on the other. If so, he - and
his forces - have succeeded admirably.
The acoustic is most apt. The double CD - the first one lasts barely half an
hour yet the price of the product scarcely reflects that - comes with a useful
essay but no texts, which is a pity. Legrenzi is under-represented in the current
catalogue. This excellent set waves a colourful, pristine, intricately woven
and durable flag for the composer.