Gramophone

This is billed as a soundtrack: not to a film, but to Sacred Hearts , a novel by Sarah Dunant. The book – which I haven’t read – is set in a Benedictine convent in Ferrara in 1570. The music, which is a mixture of plainchant and polyphony, follows the span of the novel from Christmas to Easter.

The question of who sang the tenor and bass parts of the music that Vivaldi composed for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà has been aired recently in Vivaldi’s Women , a television documentary that deserves a wider circulation on DVD. The programme showed that it was possible for women to sing the lower parts at pitch. In their booklet-note, Laurie Stras and Deborah Roberts propose different solutions: first, to transpose those parts up an octave where necessary, with continuo instruments preserving the written bass. This works well in the Palestrina Mass, but the octave doublings in Rore’s Magnificat sound strange and unconvincing to my ears. Much better is the second solution, followed in Surge illuminare and the Lamentations: here the bass is taken only by the continuo. Stras and Roberts also advocate the ornamentation of solo lines. They apply this to the Mass, where it sounds both natural and beautiful; indeed the whole piece is an aural feast.

The plainchant is sung by permutations of the Sacred Hearts Schola – essentially Musica Secreta without the instruments – and the Celestial Sirens, a fine amateur choir. The last item is Rore’s Regina caeli laetare , Frances Kelly’s harp weaving round the soprano line. Magical.

EDITOR’S CHOICE CD, OCTOBER 2009 – “A sense of scholarship as well as intense musicality runs through the whole: fascinating and lovely” – James Inverne

—Richard Lawrence