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Chiara Margarita COZZOLANI (1602-1676/1678)
Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina [2:30]
Dixit Dominus [10:31]
O Maria, tu dulcis [5:12]
Laudate pueri [7:55]
Salve Regina [6:04]
Laetatus sum [6:22]
Duo Seraphim [4:53]
Nisi Dominus [5:01]
Concinant linguae [5:40]
Beatus vir [10:23]
O quam bonus es [6:22]
Magnificat [8:35]
I Gemelli/Emiliano Gonzalez Toro
rec. 2019, Vinça, France
NAÏVE V5472 [79:38]

This is an auspicious debut recording by I Gemelli and their conductor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, not only for their high musical standards. There also is the exemplary scholarship and programming by Violaine Cochard and Mathilde Etienne exhibited in their construction of a liturgically coherent set of Vespers, primarily from the disparate collection of choral works that comprises Cozzolani’s Salmi a otto voci concertati, opus 3 (published in Venice in 1650).

Although her work was published in Venice, Cozzolani was a Benedictine nun in Milan. Certainly these Vespers inevitably put one in mind of the most influential set of all, by Monteverdi, which he published four decades earlier, and which became associated with Venetian ceremonial. Unlike that compilation, however, Cozzolani’s publication is not a self-contained Vespers set. It is presumably with Monteverdi’s setting, in honour of the Virgin Mary, in mind that a similar sequence has been collated, primarily from her Opus 3 collection, although it also draws on her Concerti sacri, opus 2 from 1642 for some suitably Marian motets. The influence of Monteverdi’s example is also evident in the decision to include a setting of Duo Seraphim, in this case by Caterina Assandra.

The choral textures are somewhat more homophonic or chordal than the more bustling, teeming passages of Monteverdi’s settings. The choir of I Gemelli project these with impressive clarity and expansiveness, evident in the opening Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina and then in the solemn, even stern, harmonies with which the Dixit Dominus commences. Much of the choral music is sumptuously written in eight parts. Although I Gemelli sing one to a part, they still create a solid wall of sound. However, in sections scored for smaller ensemble, their lower numbers mean that they can despatch more hurried or polyphonic declamations with admirable crispness in musical articulation and verbal diction, so that the repeated “non” of that Psalm are authoritative, and the striking interjections of “Gloria patri” throughout it – rather than reserved just for the Doxology at the end – persuasively delineate Cozzolani’s imaginative unusual structure.

Further choral highlights on this disc are the radiant performance of Laetatus sum for a reduced chorus; the alacrity of I Gemelli’s execution of the florid passages in Nisi Dominus; and the finely judged contrasts between the extrovert and the more quietly awed sections of the Magnificat, and between full and reduced choirs for the alternating verses of Beatus Vir. The singers also demonstrate notable precision and discipline in their volley of repetitions of “jucundus homo” in the latter, whether loud or soft. Evidently it helps that the musical forces are led from within the choir by Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, who sings as one of the two tenors.

In the solo numbers the singers are equally accomplished, often exuding a more operatically expressive character in the Marian motets selected. The unspecified lone tenor turns O Maria, tu dulcis into an urgent, anxious prayer, whilst the two sopranos cannot but enlist the listener’s sympathy for their sighs in the Salve Regina. The three male singers may sound grainy and a touch distant in Duo Seraphim but that seems to be a deliberate choice to lend the movement a mystical tone. The highlight of this disc, though, is surely O quam bonus es, another duet for two sopranos – sung ravishingly, even erotically, as the musical phrases answer each other or combine in chains of mellifluous thirds, anticipating the exquisitely entwined lines of the last part of Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres. The jaunty instrumental interludes – as though Christine Pluhar has wandered in with her band L’Arpeggiata – may irritate purists who will not find these in the score, but they only add to the charm of that piece.

Although the CD notes do not say, it is presumably Etienne and Cochard who are responsible for turning the continuo line of the score into an elaborate instrumental accompaniment comprising twelve performers altogether. The contributions from I Gemelli are lively but discreet, as heard in their occasional interpolations between the sections of some movements, but otherwise they add lustre to the vocal lines, for instance as when the flute and cornett gild the choral polyphony of the Nisi Dominus without drawing attention to themselves.

A putative Vespers setting had earlier been constructed from Cozzolani’s opus 3 by Magnificat, under the direction of Warren Stewart (review). It offers a more complete liturgical recreation than I Gemelli’s by including such things as plainsong antiphons and Biblical readings. The same group also separately recorded the opus 3 collection in a comprehensive survey on disc (review). In one sense these recordings represent a more authentic realisation of Cozzolani’s intentions: they are sung by female voices alone, as she would have heard in her convent, the lower choral parts taken an octave higher than they would be by male singers. Stewart’s results provide more streamlined, diaphanous textures, underpinned by a reduced instrumental accompaniment of violone, theorbo and organ. But in reality, once Cozzolani’s music was published and disseminated amongst a wider audience, it could readily have been adapted to choirs of male voices, as I Gemelli undertake here. Their version still equates with performances that could have been heard in the 17th century, therefore, and the grander dimensions of their new recording make this release irresistible.

For fans of Monteverdi’s Vespers this is indispensable listening. Even if Cozzolani’s Vespers do not quite reach the same level of inspiration, it is still a wonderful gem of early Baroque choral music that rewards re-discovery on its own merits alone.

Curtis Rogers

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