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Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)
Compiete, Op. 7 - Prayers at the End of the Day
Nova Ars Cantandi/Giovanni Acciai
Ivana Valotti (organ)
rec. 2018, Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara, Mantua, Italy DDD
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.579086 [58:54]

Giovanni Legrenzi was one of the most important composers in Italy in the second half of the 17th century. He played a crucial role in the development of instrumental music and is the link between the canzonas by composers of the 17th century and the sonatas which were written in the 18th. In particular his collection of sixteen sonatas, published in 1673 as his Op 10 under the title of La Cetra has received quite some attention. These sonatas regularly appear in concert programmes and recorded anthologies. His eighteen sonatas Op 2 have also been recorded. However, a large part of his considerable output has been overlooked, and that goes in particular for his vocal music.

Legrenzi came from a relatively humble background: he was born in the village of Clusone, near Bergamo, where his father was violinist at the parish church. His first post was that of organist at S Maria Maggiore in Bergamo where he restored the city to its former glory as music centre, which had fallen apart after the death of Alessandro Grandi during the plague of 1630. He left Bergamo in 1655 and became maestro di cappella in Ferrara the next year. By 1670 Legrenzi was living in Venice, where he worked at several ospedali. In 1681 he was appointed vicemaestro di cappella at St Mark's, and in 1685 he became maestro di cappella. During Legrenzi's years at San Marco the choir and the instrumental ensemble attained their largest recorded size.

With his ensemble Nova Ars Cantandi, Giovanni Acciai recorded the Compiete con le lettanie & antifone della B. V. 5 voci, printed in Venice in 1662 as Legrenzi's Op 7. It is one of ten collections of sacred music published between 1654 and 1692. In addition a considerable number of sacred works have been preserved in manuscript. It bears witness to the importance of sacred music in Legrenzi's oeuvre, and makes it all the more surprising that this part of his output has received so little attention.

The collection as such is remarkable as it seems no other composer has published anything like it. Acciai, in his liner-notes, points out that there is a striking contrast between the curiosity of this collection and the frequent Mass and Vesper settings. In order to understand what this collection is about, it is necessary to know which place the Complines (Compiete) have in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. The booklet says: "Compieta (in English 'Compline', derived from Ad Completorium - 'completion') represents the final part of the Divine Office. It is the collection of prayers that, from the first half of the 6th century - with the introduction of St Benedict's Regola Monasteriorum - monks (and later also priests) in the Roman church intoned over the course of the day. (...) Compline constitutes the final moment of prayer in the monastic or secular day. It is recited before the day ends, and the monks or priests retire for the night to rest (Ad Completorium). With the exception of the Marian antiphons and the Litanies that sometimes accompany it, Compline is the one hour of the Divine Office that never changes during the liturgical year."

At the time of publication, Legrenzi worked in Ferrara, where he in 1656 had been appointed maestro di cappella of the Accademia dello Spirito Santo at Ferrara, an institution devoted to the performance of sacred music and oratorios. There he also composed his first operas to librettos from the pen of Marchese Ippolito Bentivoglio, who was not only involved in the affairs of the Accademia, but also became a lifelong patron and friend of Legrenzi. Their ties continued after the composer's departure in 1665. Bentivoglio was also the dedicatee of the Compiete. Acciai states that Legrenzi was still in the early phase of his career and undoubtedly wanted to make a name for himself with this collection and the dedication to such an important and influential figure.

All the pieces are scored for five voices and basso continuo. They are rooted in the concertato style, which had emerged in the early 17th century. Within each piece, passages for the entire ensemble and solo episodes alternate. The writing for the voices is based on the monodic principle, meaning that the text and its emotional meaning are in the centre. That comes especially to the fore in the solo episodes, for instance in their declamatory character. However, in the course of the 17th century, more lyrical episodes had been introduced into vocal music, something we notice in the operas of Cavalli. Such elements are included here as well. There is no lack of text expression. Examples are the rising figure at the opening of Cum invocarem, a setting of Psalm 4: "Hear me, when I call, O God". In the same piece, the word "clamavero" ( I call [upon the Lord]) is illustrated by coloratura. This psalm is followed by another one, Psalm 31, In te, Domine, speravi, in which the word "non" (non confundar in aeterno - let me never be ashamed) is repeated several times in all the voices. At the close of Alma redemptoris mater, dissonances illustrate the text "Ave, peccatorum miserere" (Have mercy on sinners).

The collection comprises fifteen pieces in total. In addition to six psalms (either complete or selected verses), it includes four of the five Marian antiphons. They are sung at the end of the Complines, and are immediately preceded by the Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis. Composers often split the ensemble into two groups, singing the invocations or supplications and the responses (ora pro nobis) respectively. Legrenzi does not follow this practice. The Litaniae are preceded by the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis). Antiphonal elements are represented by the Responsorium breve (In manus tuas, Domine); the cycle also opens with such pieces (Collatio, Benedictio, Lectio brevis). The hymn is Te lucis ante terminum.

This is a highly fascinating collection of music, which I first heard some time ago in a live performance (by another ensemble), covered by Belgian radio. It made quite an impression then, and this recording confirms my assessment of this collection of liturgical pieces and of the qualities of Legrenzi as a composer of vocal music. The performance released by Naxos leaves little to be desired. Overall, the singing is excellent, and the five singers show their command of the monodic style in their declamatory approach. In the tutti episodes, their voices blend very well. The only issue is the voice of Alessandro Carmignani, who sings in the soprano range. He does so admirably well, but his voice tends to dominate the ensemble. His diction is better than in earlier recordings I have heard, but still I wonder whether a female soprano would have been a better choice (even though, as a matter of principle for historical reasons, I am in favour of all-male performances). The top-notes also don't always sound very comfortable.

However, on balance that is a minor issue, which should withhold nobody from purchasing this disc, which includes almost an hour of wonderful music. It whets the appetite for more Legrenzi.

Johan van Veen

Iube, domne, benedicere [02:30]
Confiteor Deo omnipotenti [03:04]
Converte nos, Deus (Psalmus 84/85) [02:45]
Cum invocarem (Psalmus 4) [08:14]
In te, Domine, speravi (Psalmus 30/31) [05:28]
Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi (Psalmus 90/91) [04:11]
Ecce nunc benedicite Dominum (Psalmus 133/134) [03:43]
Te lucis ante terminum (Hymnus) [01:23]
In manus tuas, Domine (Responsorium brevis) [01:37]
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine (Canticum Simeonis) [05:00]
Litaniae Beatae Maria Virginis [06:46]
Alma Redemptoris mater (Antiphona mariana) [02:54]
Ave, Regina caelorum (Antiphona mariana) [02:39]
Regina caeli laetare (Antiphona mariana) [02:38]
Salve, Regina (Antiphona mariana) [05:15)

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