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Ghirlanda Sacra Venezia - Complete edition
Ensemble Primi Toni/Nicola Lamon (keyboard; harpsichord)
detailed track-listing at end of review
rec. Abbazia di Vallombrosa, Regello, Italy, February 2011
TACTUS TC620080 [3 CDs: 171.55]

This is a neatly packaged triple album of the complete forty-five pieces published in Venice by Leonardo Simonetti in 1625 and called Ghirlanda Sacra. These are settings of often-familiar texts such as the Salve Regina and Quam pulcra est by twenty-five composers.
through these names some are familiar but most are hopelessly obscure. Obviously we know Monteverdi and some like Alessandro Grandi and Giovanni Rovetta have become better known in recent years. Others are newcomers, to me anyway, like Giacomo Finetti and Andrea Stella reference to whom I can find nowhere. Most are Venetian; the little known Giovanni Berti for example, represented here by the graceful Hodie apparuerunt delititiae, was an organist at St. Marks. Giacomo Finetti was organist and priest at the Grand Casa church and he is represented by the moving Beata es virgo Maria. Guido Rovetto was also a Venetian priest. Some composers are from elsewhere. Going by his name, Sabino Napolitano is probably from Naples. Amadio Freddi worked in Trevisi.
What makes this publication especially important is that such collections as came out in the 16th century tended to reflect the northern European composers. Either that or they were mostly anonymous overlooking talented Italian composers. This collection comprises entirely Italian pieces.
The booklet is very thin and the essay by Jolando Scarpa is well translated but lacks detail. He does however sum things up excellently in saying that the Ghirlanda Sacra represents “a rich and diverse anthology of compositions in a wide variety of styles, some focused on intimate emotion and expression, some more declamatory, yet others in which the vocal lines appear to come and go more freely”.
The essay gives some insight into the music of the ‘prima practica’ of the age of the Council of Trent. It also explains how things quickly developed after and during the age of Caccini with his secular monadic songs and Monteverdi from the period after his 5th Book of Madrigals.
The first disc opens in fact with four sacred concertos by Monteverdi including a wonderful setting of the Salve Regina - quite the equal to anything in the Vespers.
Leonardo Simonetti was a castrato singer in the Ducal chapel of San Marco. Perhaps he had performed most of these pieces and thought highly of them. He presumably knew the composers. Anyway he seems to have instigated the publication of this music. Without it we would have no church music by Dario Castello who otherwise wrote entirely for wind or of Giovanni Picchi who wrote mainly for keyboard.
The Ensemble Primi Toni consists of six voices - oddly enough no basses are listed - and four instrumentalists including the group’s director Nicola Lamon. They have been making a specialism of Venetian early baroque music and therefore we must trust their scholarship. The motets are divided equally between the singers and are broadly solo items.
I must add that no texts are offered in the booklet, but they are available from the Tactus website. Much of the music is well worth getting to know and some of the settings like Giacomo Arigoni’s Domine Jesu Christe and Grandi’s O Quam pulcra est are tear-jerkingly moving.
Out of 45 pieces it may seem odd to pick out a further few especially pleasing pieces but I will briefly do so. Quite often a motet will be preceded by a brief solo instrumental prelude. Sometimes this is improvised in a stylistically suitable manner by the performer like the theorbo player Pierpaolo Ciurlia. Pietro Bruni’s delicious Cantate Domino begins with a little prelude on the theorbo by the great Johann Kapsberger. This motet weaves a solo cornetto (Andrea Inghisciano) around the verses of the psalm. Sometimes a motet is preceded by Lamon playing an Intonazione by Gabrieli on the organ. We also hear Domenico Obizzi’s Jubilate Deo setting. CD 2 starts with an instrumental Sonata in two parts by Castello. This acts as a prelude to the disc and to Castello’s own unique setting of part of psalm 150 Exultate Deo one of the most interesting of the motets.
Some motets stand-alone. Giovanni Pozzo sets the Veni Sancte Spiritus text but there is by this time no reference to the plainchant melody. A counter-tenor is accompanied by a continuo consisting of organ and theorbo. It moves from a steady arioso to a triple time middle section and finally to an expressive aria. In the latter, for the first time, some parts of the text are repeated and then elaborated with melisma before the end - a fairly standard approach. Bartolomeo Barbarino was well-known castrato at the time. His expressive setting of Venite ad me is given to a soprano with continuo.
It has to be said though that these pieces can appear to be ‘much of a muchness’. To wade through all three discs in relatively quick succession is a mistake. I took at least two weeks over it. It’s also true to say that this is a key collection of Italian sacred music written on the very verge of the Italian nay European baroque and so is pivotal in gaining a thorough understanding of the period.
In truth, some of the singing does not entirely match up to the standards we have come to expect in the UK or France although it certainly at times seems to be committed. Then again, if you like and want this repertoire it’s difficult to imagine any group other than an Italian one like this taking on such a project with such dedication and understanding. The instrumental work is faultless and utterly supportive.
Worth exploring but ultimately, I suspect, only if this period and style is of special interest to you.
Gary Higginson 
Detailed track-listing 
CD 1 [58.18]
1. Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1634) Improvisazione dell'ottavo tono / Ecce sacram paratum [5.38]
2. MONTEVERDI Currite populi [4.06]
3. MONTEVERDI O quam pulchra es [4.26]
4. MONTEVERDI Improvisazione del primo tono / Salve Regina [4.38]
5. Giovanni PRIULI (c.1575-1626) Inter natos mulierum [3.46]
6. Giovanni ROVETTA (1596-1668) O Maria quam pulchra es [5.42]
7. Alessandro GRANDI (1586-1630) O quam tu pulchra es [3.20]
8. Improvisazione del sesto tono / Giovanni Pietro BERTI (1590-1638) Hodie apparuerunt delitiae [2.52]
9. Giovanni PRIULI Ave dulcissima Maria [3.46]
10. Giovanni Paolo CAPRIOLO (1580-1627) In lectulo per noctes [5.42]
11. CAPRIOLO Congratulamini mihi omnes [2.56]
12. Alessandro GRANDI Quam pulchra es speciosa [2.54]
13. GRANDI Intonazione del nono tono alla quinta bassa / Cantabo Domino [3.44]
14. GRANDI Exaudi me Domine [2.56]
15. Giacomo FINETTI (d.1630) Domine quis habitabit [3.34]
CD 2 [56.44]
1. Dario CASTELLO (1590-1658) Sonata Quarta. A Doi. Soprano & Trombone Overo Violeta [5.07]
2. CASTELLO Exultate Deo [3.26]
3. Francesco USPER (1561-1641) Vulnerasti cor meum [4.16]
4. USPER Nativitas tua [3.31]
5. Guido ROVETTO ( fl.c1620) Gaudete omnes [4.28]
6. Giovanni PICCHI (1572-1643) Salve Christe [2.52]
7. Amadio FREDDI (c.1570-1634) Cognoscam te Domine [3.11]
8. FREDDI Salve Regina [3.08]
9. Giovanni POZZO (fl.c,1620) Veni Sancte Spiritus [3.15]
10. Bartolomeo BARBARINO (1568-1617) Venite ad me [4.12]
11. Giovanni GABRIELI (1557-1602) Intonazione dell'ottavo tono / Domenico OBIZZI (fl.c.1620) Jubilate Deo [3.35]
12. Bartolomeo BARBARINO Audi dulcis amica [4.29]
13. Giovanni FINETTI (d.c.1621) Beata es Virgo Maria [3.51]
14. Giovanni MASSICCIO (fl.c.1625) Accipe dilecte mi [3.27]
15. Giacomo ARIGONI (1597-1675) Tota pulchra es [2.50]
CD 3 [53.17]
1. Giacomo ARIGONI Bone Jesu [2.46]
2. ARIGONI Domine Jesu Christe [3.14]
3. Improvisazione del primo tono / Carlo MILANUZZI (1590-1647) Anima miseranda [4.15]
4. G.M.Sabino NAPOLITANO (1588-1649) Sacrum Convivium [2.13]
5. NAPOLITANO Crux Fidelis [3.21]
6. Giovanni GABRIELI Intonazione del primo tono / NAPOLITANO Ecce panis angelorum [4/58]
7. Improvisazione del primo tono / NAPOLITANO Repleatur os meum [4.13]
8. Giulio Cesare MARTINENGO (?) Regnum mundi [2.44]
9. Johann KAPSBERGER (1580-1651) Preludio Secondo / Caletti BRUNI (1602-1676) Cantate Domino [4.55]
10. Giovanni Maria SCORZUTO (fl.c.1620) Domine Deus salutis [2.57]
11. SCORZUTO O bone Jesu [4.11]
12. Leandro GALLERANO (d.1632) Gaudeamus omnes [2.18]
13. Improvisazione dell'ottavo tono / Giovanni BONDIOLI (1596-1636) Ave verum corpus [3.48]
14. Andrea STELLA (?) Bonum est confiteri Domino [3.01]
15. STELLA Confitebor tibi Domine [3.16]