Notes and Editorial Reviews
I strongly urge you to purchase this disc.
With this disc we find ourselves in the Basilica di Santa Barbara in Mantua. It was built between 1562 and 1565, and was to represent the splendour of the Gonzagas - one of the most powerful families in Italy at the time. The Duke of Mantua, Guglielmo Gonzaga, was "a pious and careful ruler keen to project an image of himself as the True Christian Prince", according to Iain Fenlon in his liner-notes. His piety was probably the reason that he received the papal privilege to develop his own liturgy. It was quite different from the mainstream and resulted in a specific liturgical repertoire. It is a matter of good luck that this repertoire has been preserved almost complete and is now kept in the Conservatory of Milan.
Two famous names in music history are connected to Mantua. Giaches de Wert, born in Flanders and a representative of the Franco-Flemish school, entered the service of Duke Guglielmo in 1565, just after the basilica had been finished. Although he was responsible for liturgical music he has become mainly known for his madrigals. No fewer than eight books were printed during his time in Mantua. His motets which have been included in this recording bear witness to his skills in this department, especially in the close connection between text and music.
Vox in Rama is one of his most famous motets. The text is about the Massacre of the Innocents. The first line is expressed by all the voices starting at the lower end of their tessitura and then rising an octave: "A voice was heard in Rama, lamentation and bitter weeping". The piece contains some strong dissonances.
Ascendente Jesu delivers more specimens of eloquent text expression. It is about Jesus sleeping in his disciples' ship when a storm is brewing. "Behold, there was a movement in the waters, so great that the boat was nearly lost in the waves". The movement of the waters is vividly illustrated, which strongly contrasts with the long notes on the words "But he (Jesus) slept on". After he has calmed the sea the motet ends with another passage with long notes on the words "and there was a great calm". The contrast with the motet by Nicolas Gombert,
In illo tempore, is striking. He belonged to an earlier generation of the Franco-Flemish school, and his music is almost devoid of text expression.
The reason that this motet is included is that Claudio Monteverdi used it as the
cantus firmus of his
Missa In illo tempore which is the main work here. It was part of the collection which was printed in 1610 and is best-known because of the inclusion of the
Vespro della Beata Vergine. Monteverdi was also at the service of the Duke of Mantua at the time Wert was there. One of his most famous compositions, the opera
L'Orfeo, was performed there, and also his lost opera
L'Arianna and the
Ballo delle Ingrate. He had been appointed as an instrumentalist at court in 1590/91 and wasn't supposed to compose music for the liturgy. When Wert died in 1596 he was succeeded by Benedetto Pallavicino. It was only after his retirement that Monteverdi was given the job. It is quite possible that the music which was printed in 1610 was first performed at the basilica of Mantua.
At the time Monteverdi was considered a representative of the
stile nuovo, and he was the subject of strong criticism of the theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi. Iain Fenlon suggests his
Missa In illo tempore could have been written as an answer on Artusi's attacks. In this mass he showed his mastery of the
stile antico, and as
cantus firmus he took a motet by a then 'ancient' composer who in his time was considered one of the greatest masters of counterpoint. That doesn't necessarily indicate that this mass should be sung
a cappella, although today it is mostly performed that way. In this recording the lower parts are supported by bass viol, violone, theorbo, harp and organ. That has a positive effect as in ensembles like Odhecaton the upper voices tend to dominate.
The mass is interspersed by three pieces which have only recently been identified as compositions by Monteverdi. They are from a collection which was printed during 1662-67 by Alessandro Vincenti in Venice. Fenlon suggests that Monteverdi's son Francesco could have been responsible for the publication. The two settings of the
Salve Regina are for three voices (two tenors and bass) with basso continuo.They reflect the
stile nuovo, as is shown by the daring harmonies and the declamatory character of various passages. The third, another Marian antiphon,
Regina coeli, is in the same style, this time for three high voices (two sopranos and alto) with basso continuo.
It wasn’t the best of decisions to put them
between the sections of the mass. That has everything to do with the acoustic of the basilica in Mantua. It is rather unique that this recording took place in that large building, because one would expect the large reverberation to cause all kinds of problems. In his notes about the recording Jérôme Lejeune states that things worked out much better than he had expected. During the mass the ensemble was allocated at two opposing balconies, but to his surprise this hardly caused any trouble in regard to coordination. "The section of the vaulting that links the two galleries had clearly being designed for the best possible transmission of sound between the two galleries. We realised that the microphones that had been placed in the centre of the nave now gave an excellent image in sound, one that was balanced and much clearer." The three sacred concertos are, however, performed in the chantry at the lower end of the church. That causes a strong acoustic contrast between these pieces and the mass. It is probably a good idea to programme your CD player to play the mass first and then the three sacred concertos.
I strongly urge you to purchase this disc. No lover of Monteverdi's music would want to miss the chance to hear three 'new' compositions by the great master. Even the more general music-lover will greatly enjoy this recording. The interpretation is brilliant, not only of the music by Monteverdi, but also of the motets by Wert and Gombert which are outstanding in their own right. The venue of this recording and the effects on the performance are quite exciting - additional reasons to seek out this disc. Definitely worth the 'Recording of the Month' accolade.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International