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Alessandro Grandi is one of the Italian composers of the early 17th century who is almost completely overshadowed by Claudio Monteverdi. There are not many recordings of his works available. This is difficult to understand as Grandi’s music is of excellent quality and shows the features of so much of the sacred music of the time: a combination of ‘prima prattica’ and ‘seconda prattica’ and a very strong attention to the text and its ‘affetti’. The first time I heard his music was on an old record by the Academia Monteverdiana, directed by Denis Stevens. The interpretation wasn’t brilliant, not even by the standards of that time (1976), but good enough to make a lasting impression. Since then I have always been on the lookout for recordings of his works. I am happy that I had the opportunity to listen to this disc, but also very disappointed in the interpretation. More about that later.

First something about Grandi. It is not quite certain where he was born, probably in Ferrara, where he also worked during the first stage of his career. In 1617 he was appointed as a singer at St Mark’s in Venice, when Monteverdi was choirmaster there. Grandi became Monteverdi’s deputy in 1620. In 1627 he moved to Bergamo, where he became maestro di cappella. He died there of the plague in 1630.

Grandi’s first collection of music was published in 1610. Early in his career he was influenced by the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and Giovanni Croce; it wasn’t until the early 1620s that he adopted the monodic style. And it was only in Bergamo that he composed large-scale works. Before that he mostly composed smaller-scale works for voices and bc. The collection of motets for five voices recorded by Musica Secreta dates from 1614, when he still worked in Ferrara. The volume was edited by the Ferrarese singer Placido Marcelli and dedicated to Margherita Gonzaga d’Este, widow of Alfonso II d’Este. At the court of the Estes three famous female singers were active, known as the ‘Concerto delle Donne’. When her husband died, Margherita returned to her birthplace Mantua, where she founded and entered a convent. But she never took the vows of profession, and tried to keep her household as much as possible. As the singing of polyphony wasn’t allowed in convents she asked the Pope for dispensation, which was granted.

It is possible the motets of this third book were performed for Margherita, but she won’t have heard them as they were written by Grandi. In a women’s convent no men were allowed to perform, but Grandi had scored his motets for mostly soprano, alto, two tenors and bass. For a performance in a women’s convent the lowest parts had to be transposed upwards, usually an octave, or they could be played instrumentally. It is reasonable to assume this was a normal practice. Some convents performed music written by nuns, but they certainly also had to turn to music written for ‘normal’ practice. And even if composers had performances by women’s voices only in mind, they usually scored their compositions for conventional forces, as Vivaldi did in the early 18th century. His Psalm settings have solo parts for soprano and alto, whereas the tutti are for the usual four voices. This was just a matter of supply and demand: music for women’s voices alone just didn’t sell.

In this performance the former of the practices described above has been applied: the lower voices are transposed upwards. In some cases the lowest voice isn’t performed at all. I find that very odd: you just can’t completely omit a part from a composition, in particular as an instrumental performance had been perfectly possible and in line with the practice of the time.

Musica Secreta is an ensemble whose focus is on music by female composers of the 17th century. It isn’t the only ensemble of this kind: the Italian ensemble Capella Artemisia, directed by Candace Smith, has produced several discs with music by women, in particular by nuns. Most of them have been released on the Italian label Tactus. Here Musica Secreta widens its horizon by bringing music written for conventional forces in performances that could have taken place in women’s convents. It is an interesting angle from which to view music of the early 17th century in Italy, and is perfectly legitimate. It is therefore even more disappointing that the interpretation is far from ideal.

Don’t get me wrong: Musica Secreta is a very fine ensemble, and the five singers on this disc – Deborah Roberts, Tessa Bonner, Katharine Hawnt (soprano), Catherine King (mezzo) and Caroline Trevor (contralto) – have very nice voices which blend excellently. The problem is that the singing is rather bland. As the programme notes in the booklet state Grandi’s motets are a mixture of ‘prima prattica’ and ‘seconda prattica’. The latter aspect is reflected not only by the use of the basso continuo, but also by elements like contrast, text expression and ornamentation. In all these aspects this recording falls short of what one may expect to hear in music of this period. The text expression is limited as is the addition of ornamentation, and there are hardly any dynamic shades. A very important vocal technique at this time was the ‘messa di voce’, the swelling and abating of the voice on a single note. It was especially used for very emotional passages, and in the motets recorded here a word like “o” (O dulcis, o mater pietatis, o amor) almost begs for the use of it, but it is absent here. Giulio Caccini (Le nuove musiche, 1601) calls this technique “the foundation of Passion”. It is this passion which is lacking. It is really beyond me how Marian motets can be performed with so little emotion. After all, we are in the middle of the Counter-Reformation here, and the veneration of Mary was at the very heart of this movement. I also note very little involvement in the penitential motets, and the exaltation which characterises early baroque settings of the ‘Litaniae Beatae Mariae Virginis’ isn’t delivered in this performance either.

As the recording of Grandi’s motets of 1614 only would make the playing time of this disc rather short, six ‘bonus tracks’ are offered. These are pieces from the ensemble’s programme ‘Fallen’. “Fallen depicts the anguished and erotic dream of a young 17th-century girl on the eve of her forced enclosure within the convent.” As I haven’t seen or heard this programme, in which the ensemble cooperated with a playwright and a filmmaker, it is difficult to assess the function of these pieces within that programme. The performances of the works by Josquin and the plainchant are stylistically somewhat better than Grandi, but here the ensemble sounds a bit stressed now and then, probably as a result of the upward transposition. The compositions by De Wert and Agostini fare little better than Grandi, though.

The booklet contains informative programme notes and all the lyrics with an English translation. As one may assume these are meant to be read, why are they printed on a background which makes that so difficult?

To sum up: a splendid idea to bring the music of Grandi to our attention, but in this performance the qualities of his music are severely under-exposed. Grandi definitely deserves a second chance.

—Johan van Veen