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Antonio Vivaldi: <em>Sacred Music 2.</em>
10 Nov 2006

VIVALDI: Sacred Music 2

A recording of the complete sacred music of Antonio Vivaldi is a welcome prospect, not least because it offers an opportunity to go beyond the fame and familiarity of Vivaldi’s concertos and the ubiquitous “Gloria.”

Antonio Vivaldi: Sacred Music 2.
Laudate pueri Dominum, RV 600; Stabat Mater, RV 621; Canta in prato, ride in monte, RV 623; Clarae stellae, scintillate, RV 625.

Tracy Smith Bessette, soprano; Marion Newman, contralto; Aradia Ensemble; Kevin Mallon, Director.

Naxos 8.557852 [CD]

$8.98  Click to buy

And with the second volume in this complete series from Naxos, the Canadian Aradia Ensemble under the direction of Kevin Mallon, with soprano Tracy Smith Bessette and contralto Marion Newman present a cohesive program of solo works.

Some of the music is sublime: the opening stanza of the Stabat Mater, for instance, with its expressive use of chromaticism, augmented-sixth harmony, and sumptious sequences is memorable by any standards. Other works, by contrast, fail the memorability test--the “Alleluia” to “Canta in prato,,” for instance, never rises above the pedestrian--but in a recording of the complete sacred works, the mighty must be taken along with the meek.

The performances, like the music itself, are also uneven. Both soloists execute Vivaldi’s florid writing—writing that Denis Arnold long ago aptly likened to Vivaldi’s violinistic passage work—with confidence, although the vibrancy and fullness of their tones makes it seem like hard work. Smith Bessette’s gentler passages, like the “Sit nomen” from “Laudate pueri” are more successful, for here she can bring her attractive warmth of sound to the fore. Elsewhere the extent of her vibrato creates stylistic issues, particularly where the vibrato on weak syllables in a “strong-weak” pattern subverts the rhythmic contour, as in the “Excelsus super” in “Laudate pueri.”

Newman’s tone is beautifully rich. However, the richness occasionally detracts from the contours of Vivaldi’s sinewy lines, as in the opening of “Stabat Mater.” For many, I suspect, the touchstone performance of the “Stabat Mater” remains James Bowman’s with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Musick (L’Oiseau-Lyre 414 329 2), a performance difficult to rival in terms of sheer sonic beauty. In referencing the earlier recording an important contrast emerges: that between female alto and male countertenor. Generalizations are both difficult and unwise—falsettists and “contraltos” come in all sizes and shapes and make a wide variety of sounds. In this particular case, however, the contrast is between a rich female timbre, sometimes in an awkwardly low register, and a highly focused, lean, vowel-rich falsetto sound. The clarity of the line and its contours seem advantageously served by the latter.

The Aradia Ensemble is an orchestra that plays with a fine sense of historical style. However, too often here one seems to want more . . . more rhythmic exhilaration in those passages of typical Vivaldi drive, and more extravagant tone in sensuous passages. In the final reckoning this is a recording perhaps more welcome for presenting the repertory than for the actual renditions themselves. The performances are competent and more, certainly, but rarely are they distinctively compelling.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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