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Fanfare Magazine: 43:3 (01-02/2020) 
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Reviewer: David Reznick

Perhaps you think that Monteverdi was a universal genius, equal in talent and influence to Beethoven; and that he wrote the first great opera, which possibly has never been surpassed. Or that Cavalli followed Monteverdi’s direction and set the standard for living a life in opera. I agree with both statements. But when I first met and fell in love with them, it didn’t cross my mind that if these two giants could bring forth such celestial music at the same time, there must be plenty more lying around in monasteries and libraries. Well, it took a while, but the record companies went to work; and today, the panoply of 17th-century music is laid before us like a sparkling new galaxy.

The eras of music history tend to alternate between times when composers start by selecting a form in which to write, and bind themselves to stay within the form while trying to write music superior to others using the same formal scheme (Apollonian); and times when the overwhelming impetus is self-expression and emotion, and rules of form during those times are made to be broken (Dionysian). The new 17th-century music, which Monteverdi called seconda practica, followed an era dominated by Palestrina, whose music, which many found beautiful, then and now, was constructed by rules so stringent that they are like trying to paint a portrait while wearing a strait jacket. (Just ask any music major who has suffered through a semester of modal counterpoint, during which these rules are studied.)

Well, in our age there’s plenty of room for both. Now, my shelves are flooded with the “new music” of Monteverdi et al.; and I have emerged with two new musical heroes, of whose existence I once had no clue: Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602–1676) and Alessandro Grandi (1590–1630). Cozzolani was a nun in Milan who spent her entire adult life in the convent. She rose steadily and achieved the title of Abbess. But somehow she mastered the seconda practica and used it, while always limiting herself to sacred music, to write music that reveals all the passions common to the rest of us, music that simultaneously breaks your heart and pulls you toward heaven. Grandi, who hadn’t long to live, succeeded in becoming Monteverdi’s assistant at San Marco in Venice, where, like Mozart, he produced music with the fecundity of someone who may have had a premonition that he would die young. (And like Purcell, another great 17th-century composer, he was struck down by the plague.) After his death, his reputation and music began to fade away … just like J. S. Bach.


I don’t have time to describe the joy and peace his music has given me since I discovered him. But I can rejoice since, due to recordings, he is holding on, and if there was ever a composer who deserved rediscovery, it is Grandi. With this new disc, I now have four CDs wholly devoted to his music. This new one, by Academie d’Arcadia, contains 15 motets, some of which are new to me. Picking favorites in this repertoire is tricky, since every piece arranged for modern performance is at first a scholarly thesis. No one knows much about how it sounded in the 1600s; it all depends upon the knowledge, wisdom, and artistic temperament of the various arranger-conductors featured on these recordings. Example: All four of my discs have a performance of the motet O quam tu pulchra es, and they sound like four different pieces of music. This new recording strikes me as being dedicated, earnest, and sweet-sounding, but I think there is more room for passion and drama. Grandi and Cozzalani both addressed themselves, over and over, to the Virgin Mary; and in both cases, it sounds as if they were lovesick swains serenading her under her window. In no way do these remarks mean to make you think twice before buying the disc. Grandi shines through every performance on every disc. Each rediscovered piece brought before the public is a priceless gift which can only add to his growing fame.

Want to fall in love? Easy—buy a copy of the disc Monteverdi’s Contemporaries, which I’ve had since the 1970s but is still in print. The director is David Munrow, whose death by his own hand at age 33 was more than a tragedy—it was a calamity that left a gaping, bloody hole in the world and set the cause of ancient music back 50 years. Anyway, buy the disc and listen to Grandi’s motet O Beate Benedicte. If you don’t listen to it at least three times in one sitting, Grandi may not be your guy.

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