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Briefly Noted: Great Venetian Mass (CD of the Month)

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Vivaldi, The Great Venetian Mass, Sophie Karthäuser, Lucile Richardot, Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew
(released on June 24, 2022)
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905358 | 68'09"
One does not really need an excuse to make another recording of Vivaldi's well-known Gloria (RV 589), but it helps to have something that could set a new version apart. The distinguished French early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants hit on an ingenious solution, setting the Gloria as the centerpiece of a hypothetical reconstruction of a Great Venetian Mass by Vivaldi. The Redhead Priest, although he was required to produce several settings of the Latin Ordinary during his career at the Ospedale della Pietà, left no complete Mass that has survived. Paul Agnew, a long-time tenor with the ensemble and now serving as its musical codirector with founder William Christie, conducts a convincing interpretation that can only make the listener lament what such complete masses have been lost.

The Kyrie (RV 587) suits as a first movement, especially the second statement of "Kyrie eleison," with its playful rising chromatic scale, passed around the choir and orchestra, zipping along at a fleet tempo. A particularly nice touch comes in the motet placed between the Kyrie and Gloria, Ostro picta, armata spina (RV 642), surviving only in a manuscript in Turin. This piece, subtitled "Introduzione al Gloria," is something like a trope to preface the Gloria, because of its text likely sung for the Visitation of the Virgin on July 2, the convent-orphanage's patronal feast. Soprano Sophie Karthäuser gives a plangent edge to this solo piece, including the striking text painting of sudden silences in the main theme, "Linguis favete / Omnes silete" (Let tongues be still / Let all be silent), as the singer imposes silence so that only the words of the angelic hymn that follows can be heard.

Agnew helps his musicians shape a worthy interpretation of the famous Gloria, one of only two by Vivaldi that survive. The opening movement, adorned by two rustic natural trumpets, moves at a bubbly speed and with expressive, text-sensitive shaping of the choir's homophonic phrases. Karthäuser and steely mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot share the solo movements to optimal effect, and the aching suspensions of the "Et in terra pax" section are drawn out to languorous effect. The concluding fugue ("Cum sancto spiritu"), borrowed from another Gloria by one Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, a contemporary of Vivaldi's in Venice, is in the context of this mass reconstruction just another piece of the patchwork. Of Vivaldi's two surviving settings of the Credo, the group selected RV 591, the only one still confidently attributed to the composer. Its "Crucifixus" especially is quite lovely, a web of plaintive vocal lines over a detached walking bass.

No musical setting of the other movements of the Mass by Vivaldi survives, requiring this reconstruction to conclude with other pieces by Vivaldi retrofitted to the text of the Sanctus and Agnus dei (editions prepared by Pascal Duc). This makes perfect sense, as Vivaldi was known to cannibalize his own work in this way, as did most Baroque composers. The flowing strings of the Benedictus are particularly effective, adapted from a movement of the composer's Dixit dominus. In an apt echo of the return of the start of a cyclic mass setting at its conclusion, the final section of the Agnus dei is based on the solemn opening of the Kyrie (sadly not that zippy chromatic section of the second Kyrie). The sound, captured in 2020 in the resonant acoustic of the Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban in Paris, has a pleasing ring.

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