About this Recording
8.573196 - Choral Concert: Vasari Singers - PIZZETTI, I. / MALIPIERO, G.F. / ALLEGRI, G. / MACMILLAN, J. / PUCCINI, G. (De Profundis, Miserere, Requiem)

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968) • James MacMillan (b. 1959) • Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652) • Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) • Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)


The music contained on this recording comprises three sets of (mostly Italian) paired settings, spanning well over 350 years. In 2009 Harry Christophers and The Sixteen commissioned James MacMillan to write a companion work to the famous Miserere by Allegri, written around 1630. The resultant work, whilst very strongly and recognisably the voice of the Scottish composer, magically gives more than a nod to the plainsong and homophonic chant of the earlier work.

The second pair dates from 1937. The composers Pizzetti and Malipiero had been long-term friends and colleagues but there had been a falling out and the relationship had foundered. Happily, in time their differences were put aside and to mark the reestablishment of their friendship, they agreed to write a work for each other. Their very different settings of the De profundis text was the result.

The final pair links two totally contrasting settings of the Requiem: one again from Pizzetti, a full thirty-minute setting of the Mass for the Dead text in Latin; the other by Puccini, using just the opening lines of the Requiem and lasting a mere six minutes. The link? Despite Pizzetti not initially being a great admirer of the works of his elder contemporary, he came to appreciate and respect Puccini, the man and his work. Indeed, at a memorial for the late composer in 1924, Pizzetti gave the eulogy. The service also contained only the second performance of this Requiem. Slightly tenuous perhaps, but this little gem of a piece sits very comfortably alongside the Pizzetti and completes what I hope you will find a fascinating and illuminating set of juxtapositions.

Jeremy Backhouse

Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652)

Allegri spent his entire musical career in Rome, where he was born. His motets and other sacred music brought him to the attention of Pope Urban VIII, who obtained for him an appointment in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. Allegri joined the papal choir in 1629, serving the Sistine Chapel until his death in 1652.

In the 1630s Allegri composed for Holy Week a setting of Vulgate Psalm 50, Miserere mei, Deus, which eventually became his greatest musical legacy. The piece was to be performed for the service of Tenebrae (Latin for ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’), traditionally sung during the last days of Holy Week. For many years the Pope refused to allow copies of the Miserere to be removed from the chapel (the penalty for this being excommunication); that is until Mozart attended the Holy Week performance in 1770. It was after hearing this performance that he, at the age of fourteen, famously wrote out the forbidden music from memory, thus bringing the piece to a wider audience.

Allegri’s musical structure follows what by then was common practice for the singing of this psalm: alternation between plainchant verses and different choral elaborations of the chant. The piece opens with a five-voiced choir that harmonises the first psalm verse, with the chant melody known as the tonus peregrinus. A simple chanted verse follows, then a verse sung by a distant choir of four soloists. Over the years, each solo verse became gradually embellished with a rich oral tradition of abbellimenti, the vocal ornamentation by the best singers in the Catholic Church. The great castrati added the leap to high C at the crux of each solo verse, nowadays of course sung by a soprano. The final solo verse leads not into the expected chant, but instead into a choral refrain that includes the full nine-voiced texture; gradually, though, the dynamic recedes into the shadows.

James MacMillan (b. 1959)

James MacMillan read music at Edinburgh University and took doctoral studies in composition at Durham University with John Casken. Since his return to Scotland and the acclaimed BBC Proms première of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990, he has become the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation; his 1992 percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel has received over 400 performances. MacMillan’s music has been programmed extensively at international music festivals and he is internationally active as a conductor. He worked as Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic between 2000 and 2009, and was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic from 2010. He was awarded a CBE in January 2004.

MacMillan’s Miserere was composed in 2009 for The Sixteen and their conductor Harry Christophers, and is his 21st-century take on the setting of the penitential psalm famously set by Allegri in the seventeenth century. Allegri and MacMillan are among the few composers to have tackled the complete text. MacMillan’s work is scored for a single choir with divisions and solos in each voice part, and also chanted passages in close harmony for male and then female voices.

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)

Malipiero was born in Venice and spent much of his life there. He studied the violin as a boy but later became a composition student and transferred to the conservatory in Bologna, where in 1905 he obtained a diploma in composition. In 1913 he travelled to Paris, where he met Ravel and Stravinsky and attended the première of The Rite of Spring. This was a turning-point such that he suppressed virtually all the music he had previously written. Malipiero’s style became highly individual but always approachable, and his output prodigious: more than 25 operas, a similar number of symphonies and symphonic poems, concertos, large works for choir and orchestra, and chamber works.

Malipiero was also an academic. In 1921 he became professor of composition at the Parma Conservatory, and later, director of music institutes at Padua and Venice. As early as 1902 he found inspiration in Italian Baroque music, which he began transcribing from library manuscripts. In 1926, while continuing to compose copiously, he embarked on his complete Monteverdi edition, a widely criticised yet pioneering endeavour; he also collaborated on a collected edition of the works of Vivaldi, edited works of Corelli, Frescobaldi and others, and wrote many articles for scholarly journals.

Malipiero’s De profundis is a setting of Psalm 130 (Vulgate Psalm 129) and despite its brevity, shows the calm and sombre side of his 1930s style. It was originally scored for solo voice, viola, piano and optional bass drum, which provides pianissimo drum-rolls at the beginning and end of the piece. Where he dedicates the work to Pizzetti on his score, Malipiero adds the words “a lugubrious expression of our melancholy, sung perhaps to bury our illusions. Amen”.

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968)

The son of a pianist and piano teacher, the young Pizzetti seemed to be heading for a career as a playwright but then entered the Parma Conservatory, where began his lifelong interest in the early (fifteenth and sixteenth century) music of Italy, later to be reflected in both his own music and his writings.

Pizzetti is probably best known for his operas (he wrote over twenty in all), but opera was not an all-consuming passion—along with Respighi and his sometime friend and close contemporary Malipiero, Pizzetti was part of the ‘generation of the 1880s’, among the first Italian composers for some time with wider interests: he also wrote other vocal compositions, instrumental and orchestral works.

Pizzetti taught at the Conservatory in Florence, holding the post of Director from 1917 to 1923. While in Florence he became a writer for the famous Florentine periodical La voce, through which he associated with many influential Italian philosophers and artists. Later he contributed to other journals and wrote several books on the music of Italy. By 1924 he was directing the Milan Conservatory, then moved to Rome in 1936, becoming Respighi’s successor at the Academy of St Cecilia. He was also a music critic and, from about 1930, increasingly active as a conductor in Europe and the Americas.

Pizzetti thus led a very varied musical life which continued well into the 1960s. Though relatively unknown outside Italy, among the conservative Italian musicians of his generation, he was extremely influential and widely respected; his compositions were, and remain, significant in his own country. Though relatively unknown outside Italy, among the conservative Italian musicians of his generation, he was extremely influential and widely respected; his compositions were, and remain, significant in his own country.

His Requiem of 1922, one of several a cappella choral works, revealed his empathy with vocal polyphony. But it was the De profundis, for seven-part mixed voices and based on text from Psalm 130, which inspired his most successful composition pupil Castelnuovo-Tedesco to describe Pizzetti as “without doubt the greatest vocal polyphonist Italy has had since the glorious fifteen-hundreds”.

De profundis, as befits its title, begins with the lowest voices. The upper voices gradually emerge and build to a gentle climax before subsiding; this ethereal work closes on a single note marked to be sung ppp (pianississimo, or as softly as possible).

Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem is an a cappella work in five movements. The influence of Gregorian chant is clearly identifiable from the opening bars of the first movement, Requiem, sung by the bass line. With the words et lux perpetua, the other voice parts enter in successive layers of snaking, imitative melodies that unmistakably emulate the ancient style. This movement concludes with a brief fugal treatment of the Kyrie.

The second movement is the complete Dies irae sequence, the longest in the Requiem Mass. It opens sombrely with a medieval chant melody from the basses and altos; then comes Pizzetti’s only innovation with the entire Requiem text—adding the word Oh! to the Dies irae, to produce some striking two-part writing: tremulous melismas [several notes sung on one syllable of a plainsong text] on the word Oh! from the tenors and sopranos, who sing this as a countermelody. Both the chant and the Oh! melismas recur throughout until the final section, Pie Jesu, closes the movement as a peaceful prayer.

At the Sanctus the choir divides into three four-part choruses (one of women’s voices and two of men’s), recalling the vivid colours and textures of 16th-century Venetian church music. Counterpoint returns briefly at the Pleni sunt coeli and Benedictus texts.

The first two prayers of the Agnus Dei are sung to a contrapuntal theme. The final prayer concludes with a chant-like melody from the sopranos which floats over triads from the other voices.

The concluding Libera me, the prayer for deliverance on the Day of Judgment, is marked to be sung “with profound fervour”. Although many popular Requiem settings end in a mood of optimism or with a suggestion of comfort, because Pizzetti believed strongly that music must serve the text, the final sounds of his Requiem are no more comforting than its poetry: the concluding text “when Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire” is accompanied by a threatening crescendo in minor harmony driving into the final word, which resolves abruptly in stark octaves and fifths.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)

Puccini is a composer renowned largely for his operatic output and little else. He was the fifth generation of a family of professional musicians and composers, all of whom were church composers and it was expected that he would continue the family tradition; however, all that changed in 1876 when Puccini walked all of 13 miles to the city of Pisa to see a production of Verdi’s Aida. This made such an impact on him that from thereon he concentrated on operatic composition, and from the first performance of Manon Lescaut in 1893, he achieved success and fame. The wide range and diversity of his operas can be defined by La Bohème at one end and Turandot, unfinished at his death, at the other.

Puccini’s Requiem was composed for celebrations held in 1905 to mark the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death. This short piece, for three-part chorus, is inspired and represents the mature sentiments of the composer. It was not published until 1976, so was only occasionally performed, and only in Italy, before that time.

Brenda Moore

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