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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

Longe mala, umbrae, terrores** (RV 629) [15:27]
O qui coeli terraeque serenitas* (RV 631) [14:41]
Vestro Principi divino** (RV 633) [08:58]
Canta in prato, ride in monte* (RV 623) [07:30]
Invicti, bellate** (RV 628) [09:27]
Nulla in mundo pax sincera* (RV 630) [13:29]
Anke Herrmann, soprano (*); Laura Polverelli, contralto (**)
Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro De Marchi
Recorded in October 2001 Istituto di Musica Antica Academia Montis Regalis, Mondovi, Italy DDD
OPUS 111 OP 30340 [69:33]

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When one looks into somewhat older books on the life and works of Antonio Vivaldi, there is little chance that the vocal works are discussed. And if they are discussed it is the sacred works for soloists, chorus and orchestra that get attention. The motets are mostly completely ignored.

Twelve motets are extant, two of which are incomplete. But there is conclusive evidence that Vivaldi composed a fairly large number of motets. The genre of the motet was very popular in those days and Vivaldi was not going to be an exception. In the liner notes Angelo Chiarle writes: "In eighteenth-century Italy, a 'motet' was understood as meaning a vocal work that was sacred but non-liturgical in character, to a text in Latin verse. Its place was in the moments of relative silence during Mass (Offertory, Elevation and Benediction) or Vespers (between two psalms, given that the antiphons were by that period rarely set to music)." The practice of performing motets like those of Vivaldi and his contemporaries during Mass wasn't generally accepted: the ecclesiastical authorities tried to limit such performances. One of the reasons was the character of the lyrics, which according to the French author Pierre-Jean Grosley (1764) were "a sorry collection of rhymed Latin words, in which barbarisms and solecisms are commoner than good sense and reason."

In fact, motets were first and foremost showpieces for singers, often written for specific singers. Many of Vivaldi's motets were written for his pupil, later assistant Anna Girò, who was a mezzo-soprano.

The structure is standardised: every motet contains two arias, interspersed by a recitative, and closes with an 'alleluia'. The scoring is solo voice - either soprano or mezzo-soprano/contralto - with strings and basso continuo.

Some of the motets were written for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where Vivaldi worked a large part of his life. But others were written to be performed in Rome, which Vivaldi visited in 1723 and 1724 and where he was in close contact with Cardinal Ottoboni.

The present recording is part of a Vivaldi Edition which aims to record all extant compositions of Antonio Vivaldi. A large part of the job will be done by Italian soloists and ensembles.

There is every reason to be happy with the contribution of the Academia Montis Regalis here. The playing is very colourful and follows the text of the motets very closely. That makes it especially disappointing that I can't recommend this recording without reservation because of the inconsistent performances of the singers.

Let me start with saying that there are some excellent moments. The last item on this disc, and one of the most famous of all Vivaldi's motets, 'Nulla in mundo pax sincera', is sung very well by Anke Herrmann. The contrasting character of the two arias comes across convincingly, and Ms Herrmann has no problems in this technically demanding piece. She also illustrates the singing of the nightingale in the opening aria of 'Canta in prato' very nicely.

Laura Polverelli does quite well in 'Invicti, bellate', clearly distinguishing between the two arias, of which the first has a 'battaglia' character, whereas the second is much softer, being a prayer to Jesus that the enemy - the night - may be beaten.

Unfortunately there are also serious flaws in their singing. The fact that I don't particularly like their voices is a matter of taste. Their extensive use of a rather wide vibrato isn't: in the 18th century vibrato was an ornament, not a way of singing, as is the case here. A clear articulation of the text isn't one of the strengths of the singers anyway, and the extensive use of vibrato doesn't make it any easier to understand the lyrics.

Sometimes the voice of Anke Herrmann does sound stressed and uncomfortable, in particular in the upper register, for example in the opening aria of 'O qui caeli terraeque serenitas'. The ornaments don't seem to come very natural and the performance lacks variety.

The two arias of 'Vestro Principi divino' are characterised in the booklet as "joyful and nimble", but Laura Polverelli's interpretation is rather dour and not joyful at all. The dark colour of her voice doesn't help in this respect.

These motets may be vocal showpieces, but in my view the abundance of ornamentation in the da capo of the first aria of 'Longe mala, umbrae terrores' seems somewhat over the top. It doesn't enhance the expression, but rather weakens it.

It is a shame that the opportunity has been missed to deliver a recording which does these motets full justice.

Johan van Veen

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