|REVIEWS: divine art dda 25062 Grandi: Motetti a cinque voci, etc|
Whether the music of Alessandro Grandi’s third book of motets was ever actually heard at Sant’Orsola is unknown, but what is certain is that the motets could not have been performed in their published form for a mixed ensemble of high and low (male ) voices. The directors of Musica Secreta make a perfectly valid case for transposing and arranging the music to suit an all-female ensemble plus a continuo group of harp, lute and organ: such pragmatic adaptation was part and parcel of musical life at the time. My only reservations really are where a couple of the motets have been transposed up a fourth and sound very high, especially Versa est in luctum cithara mea, which has too bright a sonority for a funeral motet. Full details of all the changes made to each piece are meticulously detailed in the accompanying booklet.
The performances here would surely have delighted Margherita, not only in their technical accomplishment but also in their self-effacing modesty. Though the texts are beautifully expressed, the approach is not a strongly rhetorical one. In the highly wrought Amina mea liquefacta (My soul is melted), the contrasts of mood and sonority are handled with the utmost refinement. Here, as elsewhere, there’s a strong metrical pulse to the performances, which sometimes could have been relaxed a fraction to considerable expressive advantage.
We are also treated to six bonus tracks which Musica Secreta uses in its theatre piece Fallen, based on the life of a young nun in Ferrara. Wert’s motet Vox in Rama audita est (1581) is hauntingly sung by Catherine King, with the three other voice parts taken by harp, lute and organ. Overall, this is beautifully refined music-making – sonorous, soulful and sincere.
There could be no better example of this than Musica Secreta 's Grandi: Motetti a cinque voci (Divine Art dda 25062). This 1614 collection of pieces, intended primarily for churches whose modest musica l establishments would not necessarily include singers capable of taking extended elaborate solos, is a world away from the splendours of St Mark's, Venice, and affords a glimpse of the music ordinary churchgoers might have expected to hear on Sundays and feast-days. In fact Alessandro Grandi did spend much of his later career at St Mark's, ultimately as Monteverdi's deputy, but at the time when these motets were written he was still working for two confraternities in Ferrara. Each piece exploits the five-part texture in different ways, mixing short solos, duets and trios with tutti passages which nicely blend elements of both prima and seconda prattica.
Grandi's fine melodic gift is in evidence throughout, as is his imaginatively responsive word-setting, especially in the many Marian pieces. Anima mea liquefacta est exudes an atmosphere of devotional ecstasy, especially in the climactic piling up of voluptuous dissonances, extra fervency is given to the supplications of Exaudi Deus by the tossing from voice to voice of the ‘intende mihi' motif, and a simply chordal triple-time refrain gives O dulcis et o pia an entirely appropriate gentle tenderness. The best pieces have an almost Monteverdian quality; Versa est in luctum is a strikingly fervent and intense expression of deep mourning, and Quomodo dilexi legem tuam displays a luxuriantly laid-back response to an amorous Song of Songs text which is strongly reminiscent of the older composer.
This and other similar items are especially well served by the fact that Musica Secreta is an all-female group; adapting mixed-voice pieces in this way was common 17th-century practice, usually for the use of nuns' choirs, and it is particularly appropriate for these motets since their dedicatee, Duke Alfonso II's widow Margherita Gonzaga d'Este, herself entered a convent. The group's deliciously mellifluous sound brings an extra level of exquisite intensity to expressive dissonances, and the clarity of their individual voices keeps concertato textures beautifully transparent. Cascades of ‘follow-my-leader' ornamentation are really delightful, and there are very few moments where the ear is disturbed by the absence of lower voices.
A complete recording of one of Grandi's motet books is a very great treat; it must be said that the project originated as the soundtrack to the film Fallen , about a 17th-century Gonzaga girl's entry to a Ferrarese convent (bonus tracks contain other items from the film including motets by Josquin), but let us still hope that it heralds more additions to the discography of an exceptionally talented composer who has for far too long laboured under Monteverdi's shadow.
Since 1990 the group ‘Musica Secreta’, made up exclusively of female voices, has been engaged in discovering the role of women in early modern music. In this it is on the one hand concerned with the relatively rare compositions by women, but also on the other with the treatment of works for different ensembles. The theoretical and musical derivation and foundation are persuasive, reflecting the continual search for the probable and the possible.
This recording shows that a carefully chosen repertoire certainly makes this approach accessible. The collection with motets for five voices by Alessandro Grandi (1577-1630), who was later to become deputy chapelmaster to Claudio Monteverdi, and subsequently active for many years in Bergamo, published in 1614, and subsequently republished many times, presents the state of music at the beginning of the 17 th century : technically, aesthetically and tonally many-faceted, and reflecting the major change which marked the era, Grandi comes across as a powerful composer. This extensive CD is completed by recordings which originated in Celestial Sirens’ multimedia project “Fallen” [Traps], and, among others, with works by Josquin des Prez and Giaches de Wert.
‘Musica Secreta' bring together with the sopranos Deborah Roberts, Tessa Bonner and Katharine Hewitt, the Mezzosoprano Catherine King and the Alto Carline Trevor as profiled soloists, whose voices truly blend together to create a genuine ensemble sound. Strong and precise, the additional voices impact on the overall tone, with all the voices intoning brilliantly and articulating together. The compositions are precisely arranged, and are presented in such a way as to display their numerous strong points. All in all the ensemble achieves a high level of vocal technique, matched by the superbly arranged ornaments. In the absence of a bass register, which the piece really needs, the accompanying organ, chitarrones and harp support the vocals in the lower registers.
The result is a lively and full value interpretation, showing no weakness in comparison to the original mixed voice conception in terms of the effectiveness of the piece. With careful transposition, and the instruments filling the bass parts, this altogether succeeds as a convincing interpretation.
AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE:
As an exclusively-female ensemble, Musica Secreta (founded in 1990) has devoted itself to the “recovery, performance and recording of music associated with women in the early modern period”. With great care, sensitivity, and musical judgement, the ensemble arranges and transposes the music so that it matches their vocal resources. Sometimes instruments at quite a discrete and low volume- double the voices or play the lower parts. Sometimes the pieces are transposed up a whole tone, up an octave, etc. Exactly what has been changed is specified in the accompanying notes; for example ‘O Dulcis et O Pia' is transposed up a whole tone and the bass is not sung, and in ‘Letaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis' the quintus, tenor and bass parts are transposed up an octave.
An attractive humility and fervent earnestness comes through in the performances. It does take a bit of time to get used to the timbre of the all-female ensemble, and sometimes the singers stretch to get to the bottom notes, but word painting is effectively interpreted – as in the liquid melismas of ‘Anima Mea Liquefacta Est' (My Soul is Melted) – and the performance and repertoire decisions are convincing. In a few places, momentum wanes (as in Josquin's ‘Agnus Dei III' from the Homme Armé mass and the opening of Grandi'd ‘Exaudi Deus Orationanem Meam').
The program includes 20 minutes of music from Musica Secreta's “multi-arts” project, Fallen , a theatre piece that uses film and other media in performance. The music here is plainchant along with compositions by Josquin, Wert, and St. Catherine of Bologna. The music complements the Grandi collection very well, and the performances further demonstrate this different way of performing early polyphony. The female eight-voice Celestial Sirens ensemble joins Musica Secreta for four of these pieces, as well as for Grandi's ‘Letaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis'.
Texts, translations, and notes with details of arrangements, transpositions, and instrumentation.
Although considered one of the finest composers of his day, Alessandro Grandi’s music is little known. This premiere recording of his 16 Motets for Five Voices, published in Ferrara in 1614, is very welcome. Musica Secreta is an all-female vocal group formed in 1990 to perform and record ‘music associated with women in the early modern period’, so these motets are performed as they might have been sung by a convent choir or the concerto di dame that flourished in Ferrara at that time. The CD also includes musical excerpts from the soundtrack of the intriguing film/live/multimedia work ‘Fallen’, a collaboration between Musica Secreta and the Hampshire-based playwright Fiona Mackie.
However, the aims of Musica Secreta are of great interest to all musicians, design and gender issues aside. Common sense dictates that renaissance and baroque nuns much have sung more than plainsong, but just how did the polyphony work when limited to upper voices? Since the standard format for the publication of 16 th century polyphony was a set of part books for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (with extra voices as necessary), the implication is that this repertoire was sung only by men, who can, of course, cover all of these parts on their own, with the use of both broken and unbroken voices.
It is now understood that these part books could be interpreted in a number of ways, however, which would allow nuns access to this music as well. Various possibilities are available, and all are demonstrated on this recording. A straightforward transposition of those pieces with a narrow enough compass is the most obvious; other options include the use of an instrument to carry the bass part, while the upper parts are sung; another possibility is that the top part alone is sung as a solo, while the other parts are played by an instrumentalist; transposition of just some of the vocal parts provides another alternative, though great care must be taken here not to create grammatical errors in the inversion process.
As its title indicates, this recording includes the Motets for five voices published in 1614 by Alessandro Grandi ( c 1577-1630). It also includes bonus material from Musica Secreta's multimedia presentation Fallen , a collaboration with playwright Fiona Mackay, theatre director Anthony Richards, and filmmaker T Perrin Sledge, which tells the story of a young 17 th century girl who is on the eve of enforced enclosure in an Italian convent. The singing is first-class throughout the CD: clear, free, compelling, and with nearly impeccable intonation. Indeed, one of the advantages of freely arranging the music is that it can all be sung at a tessitura that suits the singers on hand: there is almost none of the pinched, slightly sharp, vibrato-less singing that one often hears in mixed-voice recordings.
On listening, I was never aware of the fact that I was only hearing upper voices, and although the liner notes make no apologies for disconcerting the listener, the caveat is actually unnecessary. This recording is absolutely worth obtaining, for the sake of some really exquisite singing (not to mention the repertoire itself), even if, as the notes say: ‘None of the performances on this recording should be considered definitive; we simply offer them as possibilities, based on what we know of the book's [Grandi's Motetti ] history'.
But actually it works very well, the tenor and bass parts transposed up an octave and a continuo group providing firm support. Less successful are the two motets transposed up a fourth, where a slight sense of strain is apparent. Like Monteverdi, Grandi faces both ways: backwards with
Whether singing solo or as an ensemble, the ladies of Musica Secreta sound beautiful, the bright sopranos of Deborah Roberts and Tessa Bonner complemented by the throaty alto of Caroline Trevor. One of the most appealing motets is “Quo rubicunda rosa”, which begins with a duet and becomes quite Venetian in its antiphonal exchanges.
To be honest, the overall effect is bland. Grandi;s melodies fall easily on the ear, but all too rarely are they spiked with chromaticism, “Versa est in luctum” being an exception. In some of the pieces by other composers, the ensemble is joined by the eight-strong Celestial Sirens. The variety of texture is welcome, though the most moving singing comes from Catherine King in “Vox in Rama”, done as a solo with instruments. The booklet is badly laid out. An enterprising disc all the same, well worth hearing.
THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY:
First something about Grandi. It is not quite certain where he was born, probably in Ferrara, where he also worked during the first stage of his career. In 1617 he was appointed as a singer at St Mark's in Venice, when Monteverdi was choirmaster there. Grandi became Monteverdi's deputy in 1620. In 1627 he moved to Bergamo, where he became maestro di cappella. He died there of the plague in 1630.
Grandi's first collection of music was published in 1610. Early in his career he was influenced by the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and Giovanni Croce; it wasn't until the early 1620s that he adopted the monodic style. And it was only in Bergamo that he composed large-scale works. Before that he mostly composed smaller-scale works for voices and bc. The collection of motets for five voices recorded by Musica Secreta dates from 1614, when he still worked in Ferrara. The volume was edited by the Ferrarese singer Placido Marcelli and dedicated to Margherita Gonzaga d'Este, widow of Alfonso II d'Este. At the court of the Estes three famous female singers were active, known as the 'Concerto delle Donne'. When her husband died, Margherita returned to her birthplace Mantua, where she founded and entered a convent. But she never took the vows of profession, and tried to keep her household as much as possible. As the singing of polyphony wasn't allowed in convents she asked the Pope for dispensation, which was granted.
It is possible the motets of this third book were performed for Margherita, but she won't have heard them as they were written by Grandi. In a women's convent no men were allowed to perform, but Grandi had scored his motets for mostly soprano, alto, two tenors and bass. For a performance in a women's convent the lowest parts had to be transposed upwards, usually an octave, or they could be played instrumentally. It is reasonable to assume this was a normal practice. Some convents performed music written by nuns, but they certainly also had to turn to music written for 'normal' practice. And even if composers had performances by women's voices only in mind, they usually scored their compositions for conventional forces, as Vivaldi did in the early 18th century. His Psalm settings have solo parts for soprano and alto, whereas the tutti are for the usual four voices. This was just a matter of supply and demand: music for women's voices alone just didn't sell.
In this performance the former of the practices described above has been applied: the lower voices are transposed upwards. In some cases the lowest voice isn't performed at all. I find that very odd: you just can't completely omit a part from a composition, in particular as an instrumental performance had been perfectly possible and in line with the practice of the time.
Musica Secreta is an ensemble whose focus is on music by female composers of the 17th century. It isn't the only ensemble of this kind: the Italian ensemble Capella Artemisia, directed by Candace Smith, has produced several discs with music by women, in particular by nuns. Most of them have been released on the Italian label Tactus. Here Musica Secreta widens its horizon by bringing music written for conventional forces in performances that could have taken place in women's convents. It is an interesting angle from which to view music of the early 17th century in Italy, and is perfectly legitimate. It is therefore even more disappointing that the interpretation is far from ideal.
Don't get me wrong: Musica Secreta is a very fine ensemble, and the five singers on this disc - Deborah Roberts, Tessa Bonner, Katharine Hawnt (soprano), Catherine King (mezzo) and Caroline Trevor (contralto) - have very nice voices which blend excellently. The problem is that the singing is rather bland. As the programme notes in the booklet state Grandi's motets are a mixture of 'prima prattica' and 'seconda prattica'. The latter aspect is reflected not only by the use of the basso continuo, but also by elements like contrast, text expression and ornamentation. In all these aspects this recording falls short of what one may expect to hear in music of this period. The text expression is limited as is the addition of ornamentation, and there are hardly any dynamic shades. A very important vocal technique at this time was the 'messa di voce', the swelling and abating of the voice on a single note. It was especially used for very emotional passages, and in the motets recorded here a word like "o" (O dulcis, o mater pietatis, o amor) almost begs for the use of it, but it is absent here. Giulio Caccini (Le nuove musiche, 1601) calls this technique "the foundation of Passion". It is this passion which is lacking. It is really beyond me how Marian motets can be performed with so little emotion. After all, we are in the middle of the Counter-Reformation here, and the veneration of Mary was at the very heart of this movement. I also note very little involvement in the penitential motets, and the exaltation which characterises early baroque settings of the 'Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis' isn't delivered in this performance either.
As the recording of Grandi's motets of 1614 only would make the playing time of this disc rather short, six 'bonus tracks' are offered. These are pieces from the ensemble's programme 'Fallen'. "Fallen depicts the anguished and erotic dream of a young 17th-century girl on the eve of her forced enclosure within the convent." As I haven't seen or heard this programme, in which the ensemble cooperated with a playwright and a filmmaker, it is difficult to assess the function of these pieces within that programme. The performances of the works by Josquin and the plainchant are stylistically somewhat better than Grandi, but here the ensemble sounds a bit stressed now and then, probably as a result of the upward transposition. The compositions by De Wert and Agostini fare little better than Grandi, though.
The booklet contains informative programme notes and all the lyrics with an English translation. As one may assume these are meant to be read, why are they printed on a background which makes that so difficult?
To sum up: a splendid idea to bring the music of Grandi to our attention, but in this performance the qualities of his music are severely under-exposed. Grandi definitely deserves a second chance.
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