American Record Guide
, October 2006
Although vastly outnumbered by his instrumental compositions, the sacred vocal music of Antonio Vivaldi is a substantial body of work that is claiming its due attention from outstanding early-music ensembles. The competition among recordings is pretty stiff, with the II-disc compilation by Robert King and The King's Consort holding a special place. Ardella Crawford, reviewing the boxed set (Hyperion 44171; May/June 2006) called it "the perfect collection of Vivaldi's sacred music", and she seconded my enthusiasm for individual volumes as they appeared over the past few years. There are, of course, many recordings of The Gloria (R 589), but artists are delving into the other choral works as well as the solo motets and liturgical settings for solo voices. The two discs now under consideration are worthy examples.
The recording from Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina is Volume 5 of the sacred works-in this case including sacred instrumental pieces as well as vocal music-but also a subset of a larger project, namely the recording of some 450 Vivaldi manuscripts now in the National University Library at Turin. This is Volume 31 of that series.
The vocal works on this program are one of two settings for solo voice of the Vesper psalm Laudate Pueri (R 601) and the solo motet In Furore (R 626). The solo motets are described in the notes as "paraliturgical compositions" that might be sung at the Offertory of the mass or as a substitute for an antiphon at Vespers. They consist of two da capo arias (a form considered inappropriate for legitimate liturgical texts) joined by a recitative and concluding with an Alleluia. The Latin texts, most often written by contemporary clergy or patrons, rarely have much literary or devotional distinction. In Furore is one of the better known and most virtuosic of these pieces. Soprano Sandrine Piau displays almost superhuman clarity and precision in the daunting vocal gymnastics of this work and in the comparably challenging Laudate Pueri. These are finely nuanced performances from a singer who has sometimes struck me in the past as mannered. Here she sings with great authority.
The playing by Accademia Bizantina is noteworthy for its gusto and energy, though the quieter and more reflective movements are also impressive. There is much vehemence, but these players never cross the line into ugliness or harshness. Going beyond mere technical polish, they convince us that they are speaking their native musical language and understand its gestures from the inside. This is how I feel about Robert King in Purcell and Handel, and while I would be the last to disparage his Vivaldi, the flavor is different from what Dantone and his ensemble have to offer. There are some dazzlingly impressive Italian early-music ensembles currently active, and Accademia Bizantina is clearly one of the best. Their string tone is unabashedly "period", so those who cannot abide it will need to look elsewhere for their Vivaldi. The recording is intimate but not excessively close, though one can hear a preparatory sniff from Dantone (who directs from the harpsichord) at the start of nearly every movement.
The instrumental works include a Sinfonia Al Santo Sepolcro, a brief and somber twomovement work most likely played in connection with the placement of the Reserved Sacrament on the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday. Vivaldi wrote four concertos for violin and organ with strings. Two are known to be reworkings of concertos for two violins. The other two, including the one recorded here (R 541), show the earmarks of a similar adaptation. The Concerto for the Solemnity of San Lorenzo - it is not certain whether the saint is Laurence the Martyr or the Venetian Lorenzo Giustiniani - survives in several copies besides the Turin manuscript, attesting to its popularity in Vivaldi's lifetime. Stefano Montanari, the lead violinist in Accademia Bizantina, is the soloist in both concertos. Dantone plays the organ in R 54 I.
The recording from Kevin Mallon and the Toronto-based Aradia Ensemble is very different. It is the second volume in a project to record all of Vivaldi's sacred music. I was immediately impressed by the very warm sound of the period strings-not as "ultra" as Accademia Bizantina-enhanced by the moderately reverberant acoustic of the Toronto church. The Canadians are not nearly as emphatic as Dantone's ensemble- a quality I might not have noted had I not come directly from the other recording. Mallon's performances are estimable, but if he is aspiring to the elegant polish of Robert King, he does not quite achieve it.
This program includes the other solo setting of Laudate Pueri (R 600) and the solo motet Canta in Prato (R 623) sung by the young soprano Tracy Smith Bessette, whose tone is clear and lithe with a gentle but pervasive vibrato. Her style is not as overtly "early-music" as Sandrine Piau. The other two works are the Stabat Mater (R 621) and the solo motet Clarae Stellae, Scintillate (R 625) for the Feast of the Visitation (May 31). They are sung by contralto Marion Newman, whose tone is clear and warm. The Stabat Mater is one of Vivaldi's earliest sacred works, commissioned in 1712 by an oratory in Brescia. There were many compositional stipulations, among them that only the first half of the text was to be set. The original soloist would probably have been a countertenor or castrato. It is worth noting that countertenor David Daniels has recorded the piece brilliantly with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, another outstanding Italian early-music ensemble (Virgin 45474; May/June 2002).
The first volume of Mallon's Vivaldi series (Naxos 557445) does not appear to have been reviewed here. It includes choral pieces-Dixit Dominus (R 595) and the less familiar of the two Glorias (R 488)-as well as the solo motel Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera (R 630).