Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)
Concerti musicali per uso di Chiesa Op. 1 - Messa & Vespro
Messa a 4 Voci e Doi Violini [35:45]
Vesperae Solemnes de Confessore [67:30]
Oficina Musicum/Riccardo Favero
rec. November, 2008, Church of Sant'Alessandro Martire, Massanzago (Padua), Italy. DDD
DYNAMIC CDS 653 [35:45 + 67:30]

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.

Mark Sealey