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26 Feb 2007
Cori Spezzati: Venetian Polychoral Music
If there ever was a moment where architecture and music became passionately tied to one another, it would be when the polychoral music of the 16th century was tied to St. Mark’s
cathedral in Venice.
By placing choral members in various positions across the chapel, the
western choir leaders created the first ‘surround sound’ experience. Cori Spezzati or, “Divided
Chorus” was the method in which this polychoral music was positioned across the chapel to
create such a spellbinding effect. Of all composers working in this genre, Giovanni Gabrieli
seemed most capable of creating such magic. This method rooted itself in Venice partially with
thanks to St Marks Cathedrals choirmaster and composer Adrian Willaert. He formed the
connective tissue between post-Josquin De Prez composition and what we now hear on this
masterful compact disc presented to us by the Chamber Choir of Europe.
This recording, also offered as a Super Audio CD, displays the composers who flourished under
the Venetian School established by Willaert. The Chamber Choir of Europe presents us with a
dazzling performance centered on the secular madrigal and sacred works of Andrea and Giovanni
Gabrieli and Claudio Merulo. Performances of pieces by Andrea Gabrieli, who studied under
Willaert, provide a link from the Franco-Netherlandish style to a later style typical of Venetian
polychoral music, exemplified by his nephew, Giovanni.
Listening to these transitions, we can be thankful that Giovanni kept copious records of his
uncle’s work. He kept a scrupulous eye on the past, but Giovanni was an innovator for his time,
and even when compared to his uncle. Andrea’s “Alla battaaglia” or “A le guancie de rose” are
simple, direct and uncomplicated compared to Giovanni’s “Amor dove mi guidi” which employs
three four-part choirs. Even Giovanni’s “Kyrie eleison” a massive sounding call and response
between choirs - showcases a change in composition and choir organization from Andrea’s
Giovanni is surely the cinemascopic composer of the Venetian school of polyphonic vocal music
on this disc. His madrigals show a quality and complexity that the other composers featured on
“Cori Spezzati” lack. However, Willaert, who played such an integral part in this genre, seems
shortchanged with merely one minuscule yet scintillating piece, “Oh bene mio.” The listener will
benefit from hearing this piece; not only does it refer to the root of the art form of the madrigal,
but one can follow its evolution by listening to Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli afterward.
“Cori Spezzati” makes a curious inclusion of three composers from outside of the Venetian
school, sent by their kings to study with Giovanni Gabrieli, master his style and return to their
respective countries with their own version of the polychoral music of Venice in hand. Still, the
madrigals of Johann Grabbe, Hans Nielson and Mogens Perdersøn do serve more than historical
interest. Grabbe’s “Cor Mio” and Nielson’s “Deh dolce anima” sound slightly more dark and
brooding than Giovanni’s preceding, “Alma cortee s’e bella”. They lack the intensity and
elaborations either Gabrieli. But their presence on this album brings the listener a wider scope
and variety of the mid-sixteenth century’s polychoral spectrum.
“Cori Spezzati” is an exquisite recording. The Chamber Choir of Europe perform near flawlessly
and offer the listener a world of stereoscopic sound and vocal beauty. Only the mostly-English
liner notes pose a problem; they lyrics are translated into German. But language should not deter
one from hearing a piece such as Giovanni’s “Kyrie eleison”, whose vocals spiral to the heavens
and almost echo or cascade off of one another. The beauty of this piece and others on “Cori
Spezzati” is as impressive and miraculous as Saint Marks itself.