Early Music

[A group of seven recent] recordings of Italian sacred music composed between 1614 and the early 1730s provides a salutary reminder that our knowledge of this particular field is surprisingly patchy, and too largely dominated by works written by a few prominent composers, and/or for the use of a handful of important institutions. As a series of snapshots of different kinds of musica l activity in different sacred settings, they combine, quite fortuitously, both to extend listeners’ horizons and add fascinating extra detail to the overall historical picture, while also, one would hope, encouraging scholars to delve more deeply into the mass of music whose lack of celebrity associations has given it in an unwarrantedly low profile.

There could be no better example of this than Musica Secreta ‘s Grandi: Motetti a cinque voci (Divine Art dda 25062). This 1614 collection of pieces, intended primarily for churches whose modest musica l establishments would not necessarily include singers capable of taking extended elaborate solos, is a world away from the splendours of St Mark’s, Venice, and affords a glimpse of the music ordinary churchgoers might have expected to hear on Sundays and feast-days. In fact Alessandro Grandi did spend much of his later career at St Mark’s, ultimately as Monteverdi’s deputy, but at the time when these motets were written he was still working for two confraternities in Ferrara. Each piece exploits the five-part texture in different ways, mixing short solos, duets and trios with tutti passages which nicely blend elements of both prima and seconda prattica.

Grandi’s fine melodic gift is in evidence throughout, as is his imaginatively responsive word-setting, especially in the many Marian pieces. Anima mea liquefacta est exudes an atmosphere of devotional ecstasy, especially in the climactic piling up of voluptuous dissonances, extra fervency is given to the supplications of Exaudi Deus by the tossing from voice to voice of the ‘intende mihi’ motif, and a simply chordal triple-time refrain gives O dulcis et o pia an entirely appropriate gentle tenderness. The best pieces have an almost Monteverdian quality; Versa est in luctum is a strikingly fervent and intense expression of deep mourning, and Quomodo dilexi legem tuam displays a luxuriantly laid-back response to an amorous Song of Songs text which is strongly reminiscent of the older composer.

This and other similar items are especially well served by the fact that Musica Secreta is an all-female group; adapting mixed-voice pieces in this way was common 17th-century practice, usually for the use of nuns’ choirs, and it is particularly appropriate for these motets since their dedicatee, Duke Alfonso II’s widow Margherita Gonzaga d’Este, herself entered a convent. The group’s deliciously mellifluous sound brings an extra level of exquisite intensity to expressive dissonances, and the clarity of their individual voices keeps concertato textures beautifully transparent. Cascades of ‘follow-my-leader’ ornamentation are really delightful, and there are very few moments where the ear is disturbed by the absence of lower voices.

A complete recording of one of Grandi’s motet books is a very great treat; it must be said that the project originated as the soundtrack to the film Fallen , about a 17th-century Gonzaga girl’s entry to a Ferrarese convent (bonus tracks contain other items from the film including motets by Josquin), but let us still hope that it heralds more additions to the discography of an exceptionally talented composer who has for far too long laboured under Monteverdi’s shadow.

—Elizabeth Roche