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  39:6 (07-08 /2016)
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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer

These four choral works by Antonio Vivaldi have been recorded so often before that they have almost become iconic examples of his vocal literature. This recording, however, differs in that conductor Hervé Niquet has chosen to recreate something that seems contrary to the normal performance practice of these works. He has chosen to reimagine all four as if performed by Vivaldi’s female charges at the Ospedale della Pietà, where he worked (off and on) for almost 40 years. We have a number of descriptions about his work with the girls, including paeans by historian John Hawkins, all of w hom comment on the proficiency they demonstrated both instrumentally and vocally. No mere orphans or street urchins taken in by the oligarchical Venetian state, his charges included some of the more high-born children of the city.

The main issue with their performance was that they were to be cloistered away from the public, performing mostly behind screens, so that there was anonymity for the musicians. Several did indeed become proficient enough to teach there in later years and even compose music, such as Agata, Michielina, and Samaritina, all of whom took the last name “della Pietà” as they were foundlings. These women also appeared when mature in public as singers and musicians, but their home was the O spedale. The main maestro di cappella was male, and Vivaldi’s tenure there, sometimes controversial, was a boon to their education in music. Niquet notes that at least one work, the Magnificat, exists in several sources, one of which has a light chorus and only strings for an accompaniment (a later commission from the organization in 1739 enhanced this considerably). The Gloria, one of his best-known pieces, was probably meant for a larger church, but here Niquet considers how it might have been performed at the Ospedale with its limited forces as well. This is not terribly far-fetched, as Vivaldi was always concerned with providing appropriate music, sacred and secular, for his charges. To do that (and with the motets), the chorus has been retained in four parts, but the traditional tenor and basses have been replaced, as they probably were at the Ospedale, by altos and contraltos. The result is a lighter sound, higher and airier. Moreover, since services (for which these works would have been appropriate) were rather subdued affairs, solo movements were replaced by smaller choral groups, resulting in an even lighter choral texture. For the Gloria, movements such as “Laudamus te” and “Qui sedes ad dexteram” are startling for us, as we have become used to the full-throttle solo versions. The same can be said for the Magnificat. Here the chorus takes the place of individual voices, and in order to accommodate it, Niquet has accompanied them only with a string orchestra with one on a part. The actual Ospedale performances (if done for all of the works) would probably have been larger in terms of the ensemble, but here the balance seems just about right. This gives the chorus a bit wooly of a sound, but at the same time they have no difficulties at all negotiating the various passages. Moreover, this sound also softens some of the close suspensive harmonies.

While this may seem a bit out of historical context for our knowledge of Vivaldi’s sacred music, it is an experiment that is well worth noting. One may miss the larger settings of these works and the contrasting solo arias (or duets), but this gives one pause for thought to consider just what the situation was that the composer found himself in day after day at the Ospedale. And this is precisely the sort of discussion that often falls to the wayside. This disc brings it back with a fine performance and some very interesting textures.

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