L'Harmonia d'affetti devoti by Giovanni Legrenzi: a gem of seventeenth-century sacred music.
Disc of the month May 2022
After having recorded the Compiete op. 7 (about which we wrote on MusicVoice), Giovanni Acciai, the ensemble «Nova Ars Cantandi«» and the organist Ivana Valotti continue their deserving undertaking of reviving works unfortunately forgotten and never recorded by Giovanni Legrenzi from Bergamo. Their latest recording effort, also world premiere, concerns the Harmonia d'affetti devoti, op. 3, again published by Naxos, a work printed in Venice in 1655, that is a year after the musician from Clusone was literally expelled (probably due to an accusation of gambling, an inadmissible fault for a clergyman) from his position as organist at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo.
Dedicated to the Duke of Parma Alessandro Farnese, the Harmonia d'affetti devoti represents a further step in the innovation of the so-called «concertato style» applied to seventeenth-century sacred music, which took hold in the middle of that century. His style recalls the one outlined by Claudio Monteverdi in the famous Selva morale e spirituale collection, published fifteen years earlier, based on the revolutionary concept of the «seconda prattica», which enhanced the textual dimension of the voice and with music devoted to enhancing its emotional message.
It can therefore be argued, as Giovanni Acciai does in his erudite and in-depth accompanying notes to the record, that op. 3 by Legrenzi is the result of the thoughtful and careful study that the Clusone musician made of the Monteverdi stylus modernus. This, however, does not mean that this lesson was developed by Legrenzi in a slavish and imitative way, but inserted and developed through his own extraordinary inventiveness, based on an extraordinarily melodic approach, together with the harmonic and contrapuntal context of the musical matter. A music that, through the exaltation of the text, had to become highly expressive, capable of being persuasive not only in its aesthetic dimension, but also in the spiritual one.
The Harmonia d'affetti devoti was composed for a limited number of voices (four, although several of its fourteen pieces that compose it are foreseen for two or three voices, with the discreet accompaniment of the organ), which makes us understand its use which was thought above all to meet the needs of those ecclesiastical realities that could not boast a larger choral mass due to obvious problems of an economic nature.
But the poverty of the means offered did not mean an equal poverty in terms of expressiveness and beauty, since op. 3 is a miraculous casket in which pages and moments of the highest musical and expressive value are hidden, thanks to an ingenious stylistic balance given by a language in which timbral nuances, harmonic ideas and a shrewd use of the aforementioned concerted contrapuntal style find their place. parties, such as to give rise in those who listened to a movement of involvement and great and total emotion.
The texts chosen for the work, perhaps by Legrenzi himself, are entirely original and are not taken from the traditional liturgical repertoire of the Proprium, the Ordinarium Missae or the Officium divinum. These texts are not the result of a profound theological reflection, but tend to propose images and sensations devoted to a great expressive simplicity, in order to generate in the listener, even the most uncultivated one, a movement of amazement and wonder, since the primary purpose , precisely on the basis of what is enunciated by the second practice, aimed at this: to involve directly, without resorting to a useless harmonic and melodic pomp, but focusing on the essential beauty of a melody also through an accurate rhythmic structure capable of attracting , from the very first listening, the attention of the faithful. This essentiality, however, was not free, as happens in the madrigal repertoire of the early seventeenth century, of an apparatus full of metaphors and analogies (the same that can be grasped in the sacred and profane painting of the time), whose function was to increase the attention and involvement of the assembly of the faithful. Thus, melody and text go hand in hand, with the first helping, harmonically and rhythmically, to support and encourage the full understanding of the second. From here, a plethora of real "scenic representations" capable of projecting themselves into the imagination and soul of the listener, who is captivated, almost cathartically, in the exploration of different emotional states depending on the projection generated; so, just to give some examples, we go from the movement of contrition that springs from the second passage, Quam amarum est Maria, passing through human guilt and frailty (Cadite montes, n. 4), up to the concept of eternal damnation and of suffering that redeems (O santictissimum, n. 7).
From these few annotations, even without having listened to it yet, one can guess how the Harmonia d'affetti devoti is a work that, beyond its daily liturgical function, needs not only a pure and highly expressive singing ability among the voices of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, but also and above all of an undoubted ability to render the minimal and almost imperceptible psychological nuances that permeate these fourteen pieces.
And here the four voices of «Nova Ars Cantandi» intervene in an amazing way (remember them: Alessandro Carmignani, soprano; Andrea Arrivabene, alto; Gianluca Ferrarini, tenor; Marcello Vargetto, bass), which, under the precise and loving gesture of Giovanni Acciai, they manage to render these stylistic requirements with surprising and apparent simplicity. But be careful: to be rendered worthily, a work of this kind must not only pass through the expressive abilities of the voice, but must also generate a «theatrical» impression of the singing act itself (I know, I'm repeating myself, but when I listen to the recordings of this ensemble, I cannot help but highlight, repetita iuvant, what is unquestionably their artistic DNA, based precisely on this extraordinary ability to make what they interpreted «theatrical»); this means that his readings are incredibly «three-dimensional» in their expressive range, as the four voices are able to perfectly convey an interiority, an immanence of what must be rendered with the voice. And when this happens, the surrounding space (and this also thanks to the taking of the sound, see technical judgment) is invested by an exquisitely emotional saturation of the singing gesture, with the result that the simple, so to speak, song miraculously becomes theater, acquired spatiality, interior/exterior stage, with the one-dimensionality of the voice returned by the recorded contribution that magically radiates into an emotional, absolute three-dimensionality.
If the four voices fully restore the expressive rigor of the text, in their way of implementing it in an emotionally palpable theater, the contribution given by Ivana Valotti to the organ is like the reassuring maternal presence, a shadow that cares for the singing dimension, the it preserves and makes it grow, the discreet rhythmic path that provides the artistic and aesthetic oxygen so that the song itself can propagate in the proper interior space. Try, on a second listening, to exclude your attention from the voices and concentrate only on the sound line of the organ and you will understand the importance of this contribution, of this very sensitive caress which is like a welcoming nest without which much of the final construction it would inexorably lose its charm.
Finally, Giovanni Acciai. Beyond his priceless work as a musicologist, researcher and passionate scholar, capable of bringing to the surface wonderful pages and works (and this would already be enough to make him an intellectual to thank and admire), there is the side of the artist, of the interpreter. that governs the gesture, the hint, the direction to be given to the voices and the organ, the deus ex machina that regulates and indicates. It is a real shame not to be able to see his gesture, his ability to transform the signs into something alive, finally achievable in the physicality of the artistic act; we can, at most, imagine it. And this is already an element of comfort and further thanks. From all this, only one result follows, at least for what concerns us directly, namely that this recording cannot but be considered disc of the month of May 2022. And I've said it all.
A further step to the preciousness of this recording project is given by the work carried out for the taking of the sound (done by Jean-Marie Quint), which was made in the magnificent Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua, a magical place, and not only for the treasures that are kept there, but also for what it manages to do, in terms of spatiality and physicality, in the emission and propagation of sound, vocal or instrumental. The dynamics are extremely energetic, precise, pleasantly fast in transients; this allows us to capture every slightest inflection, every slightest nuance of the four voices and the organ, so that their return within the sound stage is nothing short of sculpted, with the four singers and the instrument positioned in the center of the speakers, at a fair depth, which is physically enhanced by a reverberation that is never artificial or incorrect, but capable of delineating the spatiality in which the performers find themselves. The tonal balance is not far behind, since the various registers are always perfectly contoured, so that the singing lines always remain distinct, even when the four voices and the organ are simultaneously present. Finally, the detail is pleasantly material, rich in black, with the impression, if you close your eyes, of imagining the physical presence of the «Nova Ars Cantandi» in your listening room.
Artistic judgment: 5/5 Technical rating: 5/5
GIOVANNI LEGRENZI, Harmonia d'affetti devoti, op. 3
Giovanni Acciai with his ensemble «Nova Ars Cantandi» and with the organist Ivana Valotti, continues the exploration of Legrenzi's sacred muisc, proposing after the Compiete, op. 7, a fascinating early collection of fourteen pieces published in 1655 with the title Harmonia d'affetti devoti, op. 3.
Here too Giovanni Legrenzi welcomes the lesson of the new concerted style as Monteverdi had practiced it in the sacred sphere, in the Selva morale e spirituale.
The limited vocal means (two, three or four voices and continuo) make the collection suitable even for churches with few means.
The texts do not belong to the liturgical repertoire, but are intended to be inserted into it, and could be by Legrenzi himself, who was a priest. They must be searched for on the Naxos Website, and it is good to know them to observe with what intensity, variety and imagination Legrenzi welcomes the stimuli, with always fascinating results and with a capacity of melodic seduction no less than that found in his theatrical works.
The direction of Acciai and the four male voices of Nova Ars Cantandi (Alessandro Carmignani, Andrea Arrivabene, Gianluca Ferrarini, Marcello Vargetto) reveal its beauty with sure stylistic adherence and the participation of the organist Ivana Valotti is calibrated with great balance.
(Classic Voice, n. 276, May 2022)
GIOVANNI LEGRENZI, Harmonia d'affetti devoti, op. 3
This is a near-faultless release ... A real jewel in Naxos' catalogue
15 december 2021
Around this time last year, we looked at Legrenzi's Compiete, op. 7.
One year later and the same forces offer Legrenzi's Op. 3, his Harmonia d'affetti devoti (published 1655 in Venice by Alessandro Vincenti).
We should remind ourselves that Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690) was one of the most gifted and influential composers of his generation, playing a decisive role in the establishment of Baroque style in northern Italy in the latter half of the 17th century. A contemporary of Stradella (here, two ways!), Legrenzi drew deep from the well of Monteverdi in his Harmonia d'affetti devoti for two, three, and four voices with organ bass, a piece which was intended for liturgical use. And yet the texts are maximally expressive, Legrenzi's melodic gifts at their height, Listen to the linear fluency of the third track, «Occurite celestes». The winding, intertwining vocal lines are an absolute joy, sung by contralto Andrea Arrivabene and tenor Gianluca Ferrarini:
The acoustic is perfect: the Palatine Basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua.
This is the first complete recording of Legrenzi's op. 3, and it could hardly ask for finer artists, or a finer recording. The piece is dedicated to Alessandro Farnese (1545–1592), Duke of Parma and it is a piece that played a part in the development of the so called «concertato style».
Texts are original (although the author is unknown).
The variety of emotions Legrenzi invokes is vast.
Try now the eternal damnation and redemptive suffering of No. 7, «O Sanctissimum», which featured three of the four soloists (soprano Alessandro Carmignani, contralto Andrea Arrivabene and bass Marcello Vargetto):
During his time in Bergamo and Ferrara, Legrenzi might well have familiarised himself with folk idioms, and we can hear those in the «Obscurum non habet» from «Quid timetis pastores»?, the first track on the second disc, when the music suddenly lightens:
The sheer beauty of L:egrenzi's «Salve Regina» here is almost unfeasible.
Listen to how «Nova Ars Cantandi» approach phrase endings, with teh perfect tapering:
Listening to this twofer straight through is something of an immersive experience: the timescale truly allows one to enter into Legrenzi's highly individual, beautifully sculpted world.
The final «Adoramus te» is, unsurprisingly, a highly interior statement. Listening to the members of «Nova Ars Cantandi», with their vibrato-free delivery, and Ivana Valotti's fine organ contribution, this is the perfect close
Texts and translations are not printed in the booklet but are however available here.
This is a near-faultless release, with superb booklet notes by the group's director, Giovanni Acciai (who also prepared the critical edition used in the recording).
The only thing missing seems to be details of the organ used ... that should deter absolutely no-one, but I do know a few organists who would welcome that information.
This is a real jewel in Naxos' catalogue!