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Pietro VINCI (c1525-1584)
Quattordeci Sonetti Spirituali
Anney Barrett (soprano), Matthew Anderson, Jason McStoots, Michael Barrett (tenors), Steven Hrycelak (bass)
Nota Bene/Sarah Mead
rec. 2019, Harlan Chapel, Brandeis University, Waltham, USA
Italian texts with English translations

Viol consort Nota Bene and the quintet of singers whom they accompany have unearthed here a Renaissance gem, apparently its first recording. Pietro Vinci was an accomplished exponent of madrigals, and on the evidence of this recording, clearly underrated today. For his fifth book (1580) of such compositions, he turned away from the fashionable secular Petrarchan-inspired poetry of the day. He set instead, unusually, a series of religious poems by the noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, albeit still written in the form of sonnets. They appear not to have been intended for any liturgical or ecclesiastical purpose, but constitute an idiosyncratic body of music designed perhaps for private devotion or theological contemplation. The closest well-known parallel would be Lassus’s later sequence of twenty spiritual madrigals Lagrime di San Pietro (1594).

So vivid, even exuberant, are Vinci’s settings in their musical rhetoric, matching the fervour of the poetry, that they herald a Baroque style of expression which Monteverdi and his contemporaries would develop more comprehensively in the decades immediately after Vinci’s death. In other respects his madrigals parallel the intensity and intimacy of Gesualdo’s slightly later books of motets, if they do not quite attain the latter’s advanced and daring harmonic experiments. There is also a similar tenebrous quality to the music as Vinci employs an unusual, bottom-heavy vocal texture comprising soprano, three tenors, and bass. As madrigals, however, Vinci’s pieces invite the added attraction of an accompanying consort of viols to shadow their vocal lines.

The five singers here convey the music’s private fervour throughout the fourteen sonnets – each divided into two parts of eight and six lines – which reflect on various aspects of the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, or express devotion to and adoration of them. Some of the madrigals raise the listener into a state of awe or worship before the majesty of the persons or situations contemplated – like beholding a Titian painting or a Michelangelo fresco – such as the studied, chant-like concentration in the tone of the lower vocal parts in some pieces. At other times, there is a more engagingly human aspect to the music as the poetry addresses certain events recounted in the Bible, like the way in which Tintoretto places the viewer of his paintings almost directly into his depictions of Biblical scenes as though they are happening in the here and now, or Veronese brings quotidian reality to bear on his artistic imaginings. Hence the ensemble create a certain rapt atmosphere in such incidents as the vision vouchsafed to John the Beloved Disciple in ‘Di san Giovanni Evangelista’ or St. Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb in ‘Della Maddalena’.

Vinci’s cycle begins at the end, and ends at the beginning, as it were, of Christ’s earthly life. After the prayerful first madrigal which really acts as a prologue – or as a ‘collect’ to use a liturgical term – the narrative focus is on mortality as the Passion is dwelt upon, before Vinci ends up with the horror of Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents at Christ’s birth. The subject of this final madrigal, however, is not so much the physical torture of that horrific incident as its mysterious transmutation into a fact of transcendental joy as the slaughtered babies are changed into a flock of winged cherubs ascending to everlasting bliss. This prompts a burst of almost ecstatic musical excitement from the singers in interpreting Vinci’s score.

The five voices, well blended throughout this disc, capture a domestic immediacy in the music by being quite closely recorded. Collectively they take centre stage, with the viols of Nota Bene a little more in the background but not at all side-lined. The silvery lines of the latter provide, by turns, just the right degree of plangent echo, gilding, or counterpoint to the vocal texture. They add a discreet extra dimension to this music, rather in the way that the Venetian masters of the Renaissance so imaginatively handled light in their paintings to instil suggestive dimension and meaning. The voices generally remain in tune but sometimes their timbre is a little over-effusive and raw, especially from one of the tenors (the usual suspects!).

Overall this is a worthwhile excursion into a little known but stimulating corner of late Renaissance repertoire. Fans of this genre will find their investigations here amply rewarded.

Curtis Rogers

Joanna Blendulf (treble and bass viols), Sarah Mead (alto and bass viols), Emily Walhout (alto, bass, and great bass viols), Wendy Gillespie, Julie Jeffrey (bass viols)

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