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Venetia, Mundi Splendor - Music and Politics in Venice between the Middle Ages and Humanism
rec. Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 2016
Ensemble Oktoechos/Lanfranco Menga
TACTUS TC390001 [79:55]

“Venice, the glory of the world”, and so it still is—not only architecturally or culturally but also artistically. It indeed was in the middle ages, when this glory may well have been at its height. This very well filled CD covers the period from about 1330 to 1440. Much of the music here was written especially for the installation of various doges and bishops. I have just a few reservations to share about it.

I opened the packaging up with much interest: the repertoire is in many cases unknown. Yes, the Ciconia and Dufay are available elsewhere on several discs but the other names are largely new and the concept and planning behind the CD is arresting and novel. The complete track listing in the booklet gives us the dates of each piece, offered in chronological order. We learn for whom they were composed but not the composer’s dates. So, for example the first track, the bi-textual motet by Marchetto da Padova (who is especially remembered for his highly significant books on music theory), Ave corpus sanctum/Adolescens protomartyr, can be dated to 1329. It was written for the Doge Francesco Dandolo who reigned until 1339. He was the 52nd Doge and extended the city’s territories. The artists Paolo Veneziano included him kneeling at the foot of the Virgin and Christ child in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa in Venice.

This documentation is fascinating and useful. So is the lengthy booklet essay by Lanfranco Menga who directs the group. He does, however, write incorrectly that Ut per omnes coelitum is “by an unknown composer, but attributed to Landini”. To compound the error, he continues that it was composed for “the appointment of Francesco Zaberella as archpriest in Padua in 1401”—Landini had been dead for four years. This fine motet is, anyway, by Ciconia who was based in Padua at the time, which, after all is only about 30 miles from Venice. The motet dubiously attributed to Landini who is otherwise not known to have written sacred music is the three-part Marce, Marcum initaris written for the 59th Doge, Marco Corner.

For a disc with eighteen tracks where almost each text is different and vital to one’s appreciation and understanding of this rare repertoire, most labels would give the texts in a booklet. Not so here. We are informed that “the texts are available on our website”. There is no relevant page: “No lyrics found”.

Perhaps it would also bother you that, as one must admit, this music was originally composed for male voices. Eighteen tracks of just four unaccompanied female voices can seem a little wearisome, especially when the soprano(s) struggle with the demanding tessitura, for example in the Avignon-based Bertrand Feragut’s motet Excelsia civitas Vincentia. However, in small doses the singing and the performances are pleasing, although often lacking in a variety of expression and, in some case, a little slow by the standards of comparative performances.

On a more positive note, we then come to later pieces by the composers from the Low Countries and particularly to the performance of Dufay’s magnificent motet Ecclesiae militantis (c.1433). This is in five parts. The booklet’s photograph only shows four singers—Eugenia Corrieri, Lisa Friziero, Milli Fullin, and Claudia Grimaz—but this motet is in five parts, so they are joined just this once by Marija Jovanovic who, I feel, is allocated the long, tenor plainsong line. I recently heard a recording of this work by Paul Van Nevel’s Huelgas ensemble (Harmonia mundi 901700). Ensemble Oktoechos came as a pleasant surprise, because I could hear much more clearly Dufay’s extraordinary cross rhythms. Van Nevel adds, as it were, a 16ft bass to the tenor in the shape of a sackbut, rather muddying the texture, but he does build a fine climax with increasing dynamics that Oktoechos do not really achieve.

But I do not want to leave you with the impression that this is not a well thought-out and conceived disc. I have said that it is good to have many unusual pieces by little-known figures especially from the earlier, trecento period which illustrate what a highly vibrant time it was in Padua as well as in Venice. The glorious Gloria and Sanctus by the somewhat shadowy figure of Gratiosus, a monk of Padua, come off especially well as does the glowing motet Plaudem decus mundi by Christofero de Monte. It is also helpful that the acoustics are ideal and the recording was made in, I assume, the chapel of what was once a Royal Villa.

On the whole this disc is well worth exploring as long as you take it in short bursts.

Gary Higginson

Disc contents
MARCHETTO da Padova (1274-c. 1326)
Ave Corpus sanctum/Adolescens protomartyr [4:45]
Anon (Landini? d. 1397)
Marce, Marcum imitates [4:23]
Johannes CICONIA (1370-1412)
Venetia mundi splendour/Michael cui Steno domus [3:18]
GRATIOSUS de Padua (flc. 1390-1417)
Gloria [3:33]
Sanctus [4:48]
Bertrand FERAGUT (c. 1385-1450)
Excelsia civitas Vincentia [3:43]
Antonio ROMANO (c. 1380-?)
Stirps Mocenigo/Ducalis sedes [4:19]
Credo [9:15]
Carmininibus festos/O requies populi [4:10]
Hugo de LANTINS (d.1430)
Christus vincit [2:30]
Gloria [3:49]
Christifero de MONTE (1383-1437)
Plaude, decus mundi [4:17]
Guillaume DUFAY (c. 1399-1474)
Ecclesiae militantis [6:19]
Viva san Marco [2:34]


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