With this disc we find ourselves in the Basilica di Santa Barbara
in Mantua. It was built between 1562 and 1565, and was to represent
the splendour of the Gonzagas - one of the most powerful families
in Italy at the time. The Duke of Mantua, Guglielmo Gonzaga,
was "a pious and careful ruler keen to project an image of himself
as the True Christian Prince", according to Iain Fenlon in his
liner-notes. His piety was probably the reason that he received
the papal privilege to develop his own liturgy. It was quite
different from the mainstream and resulted in a specific liturgical
repertoire. It is a matter of good luck that this repertoire
has been preserved almost complete and is now kept in the Conservatory
Two famous names in music history are connected to Mantua. Giaches
de Wert, born in Flanders and a representative of the Franco-Flemish
school, entered the service of Duke Guglielmo in 1565, just
after the basilica had been finished. Although he was responsible
for liturgical music he has become mainly known for his madrigals.
No fewer than eight books were printed during his time in Mantua.
His motets which have been included in this recording bear witness
to his skills in this department, especially in the close connection
between text and music. Vox in Rama is one of his most
famous motets. The text is about the Massacre of the Innocents.
The first line is expressed by all the voices starting at the
lower end of their tessitura and then rising an octave: "A voice
was heard in Rama, lamentation and bitter weeping". The piece
contains some strong dissonances. Ascendente Jesu delivers
more specimens of eloquent text expression. It is about Jesus
sleeping in his disciples' ship when a storm is brewing. "Behold,
there was a movement in the waters, so great that the boat was
nearly lost in the waves". The movement of the waters is vividly
illustrated, which strongly contrasts with the long notes on
the words "But he (Jesus) slept on". After he has calmed the
sea the motet ends with another passage with long notes on the
words "and there was a great calm". The contrast with the motet
by Nicolas Gombert, In illo tempore, is striking. He
belonged to an earlier generation of the Franco-Flemish school,
and his music is almost devoid of text expression.
The reason that this motet is included is that Claudio Monteverdi
used it as the cantus firmus of his Missa In illo
tempore which is the main work here. It was part of the
collection which was printed in 1610 and is best-known because
of the inclusion of the Vespro della Beata Vergine. Monteverdi
was also at the service of the Duke of Mantua at the time Wert
was there. One of his most famous compositions, the opera L'Orfeo,
was performed there, and also his lost opera L'Arianna
and the Ballo delle Ingrate. He had been appointed as
an instrumentalist at court in 1590/91 and wasn't supposed to
compose music for the liturgy. When Wert died in 1596 he was
succeeded by Benedetto Pallavicino. It was only after his retirement
that Monteverdi was given the job. It is quite possible that
the music which was printed in 1610 was first performed at the
basilica of Mantua.
At the time Monteverdi was considered a representative of the
stile nuovo, and he was the subject of strong criticism
of the theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. Iain Fenlon suggests
his Missa In illo tempore could have been written as
an answer on Artusi's attacks. In this mass he showed his mastery
of the stile antico, and as cantus firmus he took
a motet by a then 'ancient' composer who in his time was considered
one of the greatest masters of counterpoint. That doesn't necessarily
indicate that this mass should be sung a cappella, although
today it is mostly performed that way. In this recording the
lower parts are supported by bass viol, violone, theorbo, harp
and organ. That has a positive effect as in ensembles like Odhecaton
the upper voices tend to dominate.
The mass is interspersed by three pieces which have only recently
been identified as compositions by Monteverdi. They are from
a collection which was printed during 1662-67 by Alessandro
Vincenti in Venice. Fenlon suggests that Monteverdi's son Francesco
could have been responsible for the publication. The two settings
of the Salve Regina are for three voices (two tenors
and bass) with basso continuo.They reflect the stile nuovo,
as is shown by the daring harmonies and the declamatory character
of various passages. The third, another Marian antiphon, Regina
coeli, is in the same style, this time for three high voices
(two sopranos and alto) with basso continuo.
It wasn’t the best of decisions to put them between
the sections of the mass. That has everything to do with the
acoustic of the basilica in Mantua. It is rather unique that
this recording took place in that large building, because one
would expect the large reverberation to cause all kinds of problems.
In his notes about the recording Jérôme Lejeune
states that things worked out much better than he had expected.
During the mass the ensemble was allocated at two opposing balconies,
but to his surprise this hardly caused any trouble in regard
to coordination. "The section of the vaulting that links the
two galleries had clearly being designed for the best possible
transmission of sound between the two galleries. We realised
that the microphones that had been placed in the centre of the
nave now gave an excellent image in sound, one that was balanced
and much clearer." The three sacred concertos are, however,
performed in the chantry at the lower end of the church. That
causes a strong acoustic contrast between these pieces and the
mass. It is probably a good idea to programme your CD player
to play the mass first and then the three sacred concertos.
I strongly urge you to purchase this disc. No lover of Monteverdi's
music would want to miss the chance to hear three 'new' compositions
by the great master. Even the more general music-lover will
greatly enjoy this recording. The interpretation is brilliant,
not only of the music by Monteverdi, but also of the motets
by Wert and Gombert which are outstanding in their own right.
The venue of this recording and the effects on the performance
are quite exciting - additional reasons to seek out this disc.
Definitely worth the 'Recording of the Month' accolade.
Johan van Veen