Adriaen WILLAERT (1490 - 1562)
Vespro della Beata Vergine
Deus in adiutorium [1:02]
Annibale PADOVANO (1527-1575)
Toccata del 8° tono* [3:48]
Benedicta es - Per illud a 7 [7:05]
Ricercar I a 4* [4:35]
Jachet DE MANTUA (1483-1559)/ Adriaen WILLAERT
Dixit Dominus a 8 [6:31]
Laudate pueri a 8 [3:54]
Ricercar I a 3* [5:18]
Laetatus sum a 4 [6:50]
Nisi Dominus a 4 [5:22]
Ricercar VII a 3* [4:12]
Lauda Jerusalem a 8 [4:45]
Ave maris stella a 6 [7:42]
Ricercar X a 4* [5:15]
Magnificat a 4 [8:27]
Benedicamus in laude Jesu a 4 [1:34]
Toccata del 3° e 4° tono* [2:59]
Capilla Flamenca/(Rob Cuppens, Marnix De Cat (alto), Jan Caals, Tore Denys, Govaart Haché, Laurens Wyns (tenor), Lieven Termont (baritone), Dirk Snellings (bass)) Joris Verdin (organ)*/Dirk Snellings
rec. February 2012, Chapel of the Zusters van Sint Vincentius, Gijzegem, Belgium and March 2012 at the Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna, Italy*
RICERCAR RIC 325 [79:30] 

If I am not mistaken Paul McCreesh was one of the first to perform Italian sacred music from around 1600 in the form of liturgical reconstructions. His 'Venetian Coronation Mass' recorded in 1989 was groundbreaking. Only recently he recorded such a 'remaking' (review; review; review). His example has been copied by others.
This disc also contains a kind of liturgical reconstruction. It concentrates on Adriaen Willaert, a Venetian composer who is somewhat overshadowed by the Gabrielis and in particular by Claudio Monteverdi. He was highly respected in his time though he laid the foundation of the cori spezzati practice which would become one of the hallmarks of liturgical music in Venice.
There is no Vespro della Beata Vergine in Willaert's oeuvre, comparable with the famous Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. A collection of 1555 includes a Vespro della Madonna, though, and one wonders why the Capilla Flamenca didn't choose this piece to record if they wanted to present Willaert's music in its liturgical context. The Vespers followed a strict formal pattern: they opened with the verse Deus in adiutorium, which was followed by five Vesper Psalms, a reading of a lesson or capitulum, a hymn, the Magnificat with antiphon and prayers and ended with Benedicamus Domino. There’s no complete Vesper liturgy on offer on this disc.
In the Vespers the Psalms and the Magnificat are embraced by antiphons. These are absent from this recording. Before the first Psalm we hear the motet Benedicta es - Per illud ave. The liner-notes don't explain why this piece has been included or why it is put before the first Psalm. It was quite common to sing a motet instead of the repeat of the antiphon after a Psalm, but since no antiphons are sung here, that wouldn't make any sense. The inclusion of organ pieces also raises questions. Katelijne Schiltz, in her liner-notes, writes that "[in] contrast to Monteverdi's setting of the Vespro della Beata Vergine, an extensive collection of instruments was not used during the middle of the 16th century. The organ was certainly employed, but did not accompany the choirs, who most probably sang a cappella". She doesn't explain what exactly the organ's role in the Vesper liturgy was. There seems to be little connection between the organ pieces and the vocal works. That is only emphasized by the fact that they are recorded in different venues.
Let's concentrate on the music. The programme opens with the verse Deus in adiutorium, sung here in faux-bourdon style. This is followed by a toccata by Annibale Padovano. He was organist at San Marco from 1552 to 1565 and is particularly important to the development of the form of the toccata. While in Venice he was probably also a pupil of Willaert. The latter's motet Benedicta es is in two parts, the second beginning with the words "Per illud ave prolatum". It is scored for seven voices and is a typical specimen of the Franco-Flemish school. It has a dense structure and is strictly polyphonic, without passages of homophony, and includes a three-part canon. There is little connection between text and music and the motet is characterised by a continuous flow which is only interrrupted between the first and second section.
The liner-notes are a little confusing in their comments on the Vesper Psalms. It is explained that they can be divided into two groups. On the one hand we have the salmi con sue risposte: the verses are separated by a caesura and are sung in turn by the two choirs. The first choir consists of solo voices, the second has more than one voice per part. It needs to be noted that the latter aspect is ignored in this recording: the second 'choir' also comprises just four voices. The three Vesper Psalms in this category are Dixit Dominus, Laetatus sum and Nisi Dominus. They are the fruit of a collaboration between Willaert and his colleague Jachet de Mantua: the latter wrote the music for the first choir, whereas Willaert composed the music for the second. Jachet was of French origin and one of the most widely published composers of his time. The problem is that the latter two Psalms are not for eight voices, but for four. Therefore they can't be divided into two choirs. There is no objection to the verses being sung in turn by the two 'choirs', but was that required by the composers? And who composed which verses?
Laudate pueri and Lauda Jerusalem are of the second type, called salmi spezzati. The choirs again sing the verses alternately, but here there is some overlap: one choir still sings the final cadence when the other choir begins the following verse. In the 6-part Ave maris stella and in the Magnificat and Benedicamus in laude, the latter two for four voices, we hear the practice of alternatim singing: the verses are alternately in plainchant and polyphonic. This is one of the oldest practices in liturgical music.
Capilla Flamenca is one of the best vocal ensembles around, and we get here very polished performances. The voices blend perfectly, and there is also a great deal of transparency which makes the text clearly understandable. This is especially important as the Council of Trent expressed the need to make sure that the faithful were able to hear the text in liturgical music. This could probably also explain why in this kind of music no instruments were used to double the voices.
Although we are left in the dark as far as the function of the organ pieces is concerned, one can only admire Joris Verdin's performances, and even more the beautiful historical instruments in the Basilica di San Petronio of Bologna, dating from 1471-75 and 1531 respectively.
The booklet includes the lyrics, but without English translations. The translations of the Psalms can easily be found in the Bible, and an internet search pretty quickly leads to translations of the other texts. Even so, it is not as it should be: a booklet should provide the listener with at least English translations of non-English texts. In Dixit Dominus the largest part of the doxology has been left out.
The English translation of the liner-notes includes an annoying error. Here we read that composers "were required to distance themselves from the age-old Gregorian chants with their unison melodies". This is nonsense, and the result of a wrong translation of the original Dutch text. In fact Ms Schiltz writes that composers needed to use the Gregorian chants as a starting point. Only then the next sentence makes sense: "The composers' skills were applied to the integration of these fixed requirements into a polyphonic frame (...)".
From a musical point of view this is an excellent release. This great repertoire which has hardly been explored as yet, receives exemplary performances. The whole reconstruction thing should be taken with a spoon of salt, though.
Johan van Veen
This great repertoire receives exemplary performances.