Saturday 23 June 2012

CD Review - 1612 Vespers

CD cover - 1612 Italian Vespers, I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth
I Fagiolini are back again with another wowjer of a recording. Having released a CD of Striggio's mega-multi-part mass last year, they have now recorded a reconstruction of Giovanni Gabrieli's Magnificat a 20 a 28 for seven four-part choirs. They have presented the magnificant in the context of vespers, a highly informed, but speculative reconstruction of vespers for the Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto.

In 1571 the Holy League of Spanish, Roman and Venetian forces achieved a famous victory over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto. The victory was attributed to the intercession of the Virgin. So the celebrations subsequently took place on the newly instituted feast of the Rosary. Except in Venice, which attributed the victory to both the Virgin and St. Justine of Padua. The battle was celebrated in many Venetian poems, paintings and musical settings, including probably Gabrieli's seven-choir magnificat.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, vespers was the great showpiece service, it was for vespers services that generally speaking the more show-off music was written. And for this disc Robert Hollingworth and musicologist Hugh Keyte have assembled a truly spectacular series of settings of the vespers psalms and canticles.The full music of vespers is here, the opening versicle and response, the five psalms (in this case 109, 112, 121, 126, 147) each with their plainchant antiphon, the hymn Ave Maris stella, the magnificat antiphon and the magnificat itself. The reconstruction is complete with all the plainchant, even opening atmospherically with the ringing of a bell.

Being as this vespsers was for a major feast, the antiphons would be sung before and after the psalms. Here, as was often the case, the antiphons after the psalms are replaced by antiphon substitutes.

The disc opens with bells followed by the versicle and response, Viadana's Deus in adiutorium for four choirs. This, and the five psalm settings, are taken from a collection of four-choir vespers settings published in Venice in 1612. Viadana worked alongside Monteverdi and the two seem to have both been interested in new ways to set vespers.

Viadana's psalms are set for two basic choirs, one choir with five virtuosic singers and the other a four-part a cappella choir. These are supplemented by two optional choirs, a high one and a low one, doubling the main choirs at the octive and creating rich sonoroties. Here, as would usually be the case, the choirs are made up of a mixture of voices and instruments. For Viadana's psalm settings, I Fagiolini use voices for choirs 1 and 2, with instruments for choirs 3 and 4.

Viadana's Deus in Adjutorium is a glorious noise, though the five psalm settings are more Monteverdian in style. The settings are clearly intended to make the words clear with solo passages alternated with highly concerted ones. There is some nicely virtuosic singing and varied expressive setting of the text and it makes you think that we ought perhaps be paying more attention to Viadana.

Psalm 109 is followed by the antiphon substitute, Barbarino's Exaudi Deus, a penitential motet from his second book of solo motets. Here played by Gawain Glenton's nicely warm toned cornett, and David Roblou on organ. It is expressive rather than highly virtuosic, but still with some nifty playing.

Psalm 112's antiphon substitute is Andrea Gabrieli's Benedictus Dominus Deus Sabaoth, a double choir setting of a melange of warlike texts almost certainly written for Lepanto celebrations. The two choirs are simply voice plus continuo, all male choirs with counter-tenors on top. It is grandly majestic, wth some crisp and impressive singing which develops into some rather nice competitive singing between the two choirs.

 The antiphon substitute after Psalm 121 is Viadana's O Dulcissima Maria for solo soprano and organ, performed by Clare Wilkinson accompanied by David Roblou (organ) and David Miller (theorbo). A quasi erotic setting which Wilkinson sings with great beauty and clarity of line.

Psalm 126 is followed by Palestrina's Quae est ist, a sensuous setting from the Song of Songs sung unaccompanied by five single voices with Anna Crookes and Clare Wilkinson on the top two parts. The ensemble sing with beautiful tone and line with a carefully focussed intensity.

The final psalm, Psalm 147, is the grandest, a magnificent noise. It has Andrea Gabrieli's Toccata on the 9th Tone as its psalm subsitute, with James Johnstone brilliant on the organ.

The hymn, Ave Maris Stella, combines polyphonic settings by Monteverdi (from the Vespers of 1610) for verses one and seven, by Soriano (from his publication of 1610) for verses two, four and six, with plainchant for verses three and five. The Monteverdi verses are big and grand, with the mixture of instruments and voices in the two choirs giving luxuriously luscious textures. By contrast, Soriano's verses are more austere with the voices (tenors and basses) mainly intoning plainchant surrounded by instrumental textures.

The magnificat is one of a pair by Giovanni Gabrieli which survive incomplete, just two of the seven part books remain, in a set copied for the court chapel of Archduke Ferdinand at Graz in the early 17th century. The seven choir versions are almost certainly arrangements by one of Gabrieli's pupils who were employed in Archduke Ferdinand's chapel. Ferdinand was a great enthusiast for Venetian poly-choral music and these seven-part arrangements probably adapt three-choir originals written for Venice. Grand as the three-choir versions were, with their emphasis on the more bellicose passages, they were almost certainly written for a Battle of Lepanto celebrations. The slightly formulaic, imitative nature of the music has meant that it has been possible for Hugh Keyte to reconstruct the seven-part versions. Three of the choirs (2, 4, 6) are fully vocal, each choir taken by four solo voices. The other choirs are a mixture of vocal and instrumental;  choir 1 has counter-tenor William Purefoy with four strings, choir 3 has bass Chris Adams with cornett, sackbut and dulcian, choir 5 has tenor Nicholas Mulroy with cornett, sackbut and dulcian and choir 7 has baritone Eamonn Dougan with four strings; plus of course continuo consisting of three organs, theorbo and lute.

The result, is unutterably grand. It sounds amazing on CD and must have been tremendous when heard live, the seven choirs almost surrounding the congregation. The effects of the different choirs, with the mixture of voices and instruments mean that we clearly get the effects of soli and tutti moments, with Gabrieli and his arranger clearly relishing the contrasts of scale. The feeling of architectonic building blocks is very apparent when the texture moves from one voice plus four instruments to all 28 parts sounding together. In the middle, Keyte has extrapolated a pause point in the piece into an instrumental fanfare which moves into the amazingly bellicose final setting of Abraham et semine ejus.

The magnificat antiphon substitute is Monteverdi's great solo motet, for bass voice, Ab aeterno ordinata sum, with Jonathan Sells as the brilliantly expressive bass solo aided and abetted by David Roblou on organ and David Miller, theorbo.

Finally there is a grand extra-liturgical motet. Hugh Keyte's speculative, but highly satisfying, reconstruction of Gabrieli's In Ecclesiis restoring it to its full grand version for four five-part choirs. Choir 1 has two voices, Nicholas Mulroy and Greg Skidmore with cornetts, viola, sackbuts and organ, choir 2 has all voices, two per part, choir 3 has two voices, Clare Wilkinson and Matthew Long, with viola, sackbut, dulcian, organ and theorbo, choir 4 has two voices, Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Eamonn Dougan, with sackbuts, dulcian, organ and theorbo. Choirs 1 and 2 are original, choirs 3 and 4 are reconstructed from the original top lines.

The result is big boned, vibrant and expressive, and Keyte's reconstruction brilliantly makes sense of the motet. There is some wonderfully gutsy singing, without it ever becoming coarse and moments like In Deo salutari with just two men and instruments are simply thrilling.

The recording nicely captures the  acoustic (St. Johns Church, Upper Norwood), but there is nothing woolly about it with lots of lovely crisp singing. It is impressive the way the recording engineers have brought both breadth and clarity to the performance. Robert Hollingworth is far, far more than a traffic policeman, getting some superb singing and playing from his performers as well as some highly expressive performances.

This recording helps us realise that there were other notable composers besides Monteverdi. By choosing the Battle of Lepanto, Robert Hollingworth and Hugh Keyte have helped put the music in context in a way that its not quite possible with Monteverdi's 1610 vespers. Hearing the works in a full liturgical reconstruction with ALL the plainchant is immeasurably helpful; this music was written to be performed in this sort of setting.

The booklet comes complete with extensive notes about exactly what you are hearing, plus photographs, texts and translations. A must for everyone's library shelf.

Further details from the I Fagiolini website. Their special microsite includes fuller accounts of Hugh Keyte's reconstructions, free downloads including a piece by Bassano which they couldn't fit onto the CD and pdf's of the Magnificat and In Ecclesiis scores.

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