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Volume 8, no. 1

GIOVANNI ROVETTA. Vespro solenne. Cantus Cölln, directed by Konrad Junghänel. Harmonia Mundi France, 2001. [HMC 901706.]

Reviewed by Jeffrey Kurtzman*

1. Introduction

2. Contents of the Recording

3. Rovetta's Style

4. Performance Characteristics

5. Summary Conclusion

References


1. Introduction

1.1 Giovanni Rovetta, at first a singer in St. Mark's, later Monteverdi's vice maestro di cappella and in 1644 his successor as maestro of the ducal basilica, has been little performed and recorded by early music ensembles before the present compact disc devoted to his music.1 Konrad Junghänel and the Cantus Cölln, joined by an instrumental ensemble comprised of Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Ulla Bundies, Veronika Skuplik, Albert Brüggen, Miriam Shalinsky, and Carsten Lohff, provide a beautifully sounding introduction to some very fine, even outstanding, music by a composer whom this album shows to have been eminently qualified to succeed his master in such an important post. In fact, the similarity between these psalms and motets and Monteverdi's Venetian sacred music is striking, though the differences help delineate stylistic changes from one generation to the next. The pupil shares with his teacher many of the same melodic and harmonic techniques and bass patterns, though Monteverdi usually makes more use of the full choir, employs more complicated harmony, and frequently constructs large sections of continually increasing texture and tension. Rovetta's harmony tends to the clear and simple, without much major/minor or other forms of modal ambiguity; his melodic and harmonic writing is even more sequentially organized than Monteverdi's; he relies more heavily on melodically oriented triple meters; and his formal structures are not as compelling as those of his predecessor. 

2. Contents of the Recording

2.1 The full title of the disc is Vespro solenne: Vêpres vénitiennes pour la naissance de Louis XIV, a designation that is only obliquely accurate. The birth of Louis XIV on September 5, 1638, ensuring the stability of the French throne, was a cause for celebration throughout western Europe. In Venice, after receiving the news by courier on September 16, the French ambassador approached Rovetta about providing music for a mass in the dauphin's honor to be celebrated in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore on the island of that name in the middle of the bacino.2 Official letters arrived from Louis XIII on October 1, and the mass was celebrated in San Giorgio on a Wednesday, apparently in early November. There is no mention in the published account of a Vespers service following the mass, a fact duly noted by Linda Maria Koldau in her excellent and concise notes in the program booklet.

2.2 On March 1, 1639 Rovetta signed the dedication to Louis XIII of his Messa, e salmi concertati, op. 4, citing the honor he had received by being asked to provide the music for the celebration. Given the very short time span between the notification of the dauphin's birth and the festivities, as well as the few months between the mass at San Giorgio and Rovetta's dedication, it is obvious that most of the music of this large print had been written well before the event that led to its publication and had nothing whatever to do with the French ambassador's commission. The commission simply represented a golden opportunity for Rovetta and his publisher, Alessandro Vincenti.3

2.3 The phrase Vespro solenne in the disc's title implies a Vespers service, although the choice of compositions, according to the program notes, was not conceived as a reconstructed Vespers. Nevertheless, the selection consists of the first four psalms of the cursus for most male saints in their proper order followed by a setting of Lauda Jerusalem, the fifth psalm of the Marian cursus (chosen as the most modern setting in Rovetta's print), and the Magnificat. This sequence actually does comprise a legitimate liturgical cursus for first and second Vespers for the dedication of a church or for second Vespers for the feasts of St. Agnes and St. Agatha. Moreover, following each of the psalms on the recording is a few-voiced motet derived from Rovetta's Motetti concertati a due, tre, quattro e cinque voci, op. 3 of 1635 or a sonata by Giovanni Battista Buonamente, whose source is unspecified in the program booklet. These three motets and two sonatas appear in the positions that would be occupied by antiphon-substitutes in a Vespers service, so the contents of the disc do comprise a reconstructed Vespers after all, though not for the celebration of the birth of the dauphin.

3. Rovetta's Style

3.1 Far more important than quibbles about titles and marketing strategies are the music itself and the manner in which it is performed. This disc gives an opportunity to hear for the first time just how good a composer Rovetta was. All of the psalms are in the concertato style, featuring frequent few-voiced textures for solo voices interspersed with imitative and homophonic passages for the full choir. Each of the psalms calls for two obbligato violins, which play sinfonias, ritornellos, short interludes between phrases of text, counterpoints to the vocal parts, or coloristic support for the tutti ensemble. Passages for one and two voices abound, paired voices in imitation and parallel thirds occur repeatedly, there are frequent shifts between duple and triple meter, imitation engaging the full set of voices is common, virtuoso embellishments sprinkle the texture, and choral homophony, both for the full ensemble or in rapid antiphony, contrasts with the other textures in each psalm and the Magnificat. 

3.2 Rovetta's melodic invention is very attractive and his clearly directed harmony lends a strong sense of coherence to extended passages. His triple meters are lilting and lovely, making frequent use of melodic and harmonic sequences and occasional virtuoso passaggi. Duple meters are characterized by careful rhythmic and melodic articulation of the text, patter declamation, scale patterns, and brief virtuosic ornaments to highlight particular words. Full-choir homophony occurs in both triple and duple time. In Lauda Jerusalem, Rovetta restructures the text to make a refrain out of the first verse–a technique used with increasing frequency by composers in the 1630s and beyond. In Beatus vir, the doxology is underpinned in the two bass voices by a repetitive canon at the fourth and fifth on the eighth tone, and in Lauda Jerusalem, the first verse of the doxology is based on a descending tetrachord ostinato. The questions in this psalm and in Laudate pueri primo are treated rhetorically as interrogatives rather than just another phrase of declamatory text. Indeed, the objectivity that had adhered to the setting of psalm texts throughout the sixteenth century and into the early Seicento is superseded here by a nuanced sensitivity to the words, both semantically and rhetorically. 

4. Performance Characteristics

4.1 Junghänel, Cantus Cölln, and the instrumental ensemble give these pieces articulate, virtuosic and gloriously sounding readings. In all of the settings the organ continuo is supplemented with a lute (an archlute?), though it occasionally drops out in response to the text. The two obbligato violin parts are often taken or doubled by cornettos. The use of cornettos in Venetian sacred music is documented throughout the seventeenth century, and their introduction in this recording is wonderfully effective, contributing substantially to its lush sonorities. The pairing of violins and cornettos also enables Junghänel to vary successive statements of ritornellos or sinfonias by utilizing violins one time, cornettos another, and combining the two pairs elsewhere. Buonamente's Sonata Quinta a 2 is performed with a cornetto and a violin rather than a pair of like instruments, and the result is lovely. Similarly, Buonamente's Sonata Prima a 4 is performed with a pair of violins and a pair of cornettos, again producing a marvelously rich sonority. Both sonatas are exquisitely played.

4.2 Junghänel's tempos are lively and energetic, with slower pacing reserved for only a few verses whose texts suggest less animated movement. Rovetta's frequent shifts between duple and triple meter (either 3/1 or 3/2) raise the question of how to relate the two, if at all. Proportions were an anachronistic theoretical concept by the 1630s, and were not necessarily followed in practice. Moreover, by this time there was often no significant or meaningful difference between tripla and sesquialtera. In many cases, Junghänel's transitions from duple to triple time and back again are proportional, frequently with the semibreve under 3/1 equal to the semiminum under C. For example, in Dixit Dominus secondo, the semibreve (whole note) in the tripla passage at conquassabit (where the breve is subdivided into three semibreves) is equal to approximately MM. 120, the same speed as the immediately preceding quarter notes under C. In terms of note equivalence, which is how theorists describe proportions, the ratio is a quadrupla, not tripla (3 semibreves under 3/1 = 3/4 semibreve under C). On the other hand, the return to duple meter for the concluding cadence of this passage finds the quarter note at c. MM. 104, whereby 3 semibreves under 3/1 = 1.15 semibreves (4.6 quarter notes) under C, somewhat less than a tripla and not in fulfillment of any of the standard theoretical proportions. 

4.3 Junghänel also employs other temporal relationships between metric shifts, but whatever the proportion, the transitions are smooth and effective, in part because of the cadential retards that end each section preceding a change of meter. However, there is room for more differentiation of tempo between successive duple-meter verses in Dixit Dominus secondo and Beatus vir and between successive triple-meter verses in Confitebor tibi. The most important factor in determining tempo in the seventeenth century was the character of both the text and its musical setting at any given moment. Such tempo fluctuations responding to the text are more prevalent in the performances of Laudate pueri primo, Lauda Jerusalem and the Magnificat than in the other psalms.

4.4 Throughout the performances the text is very clearly enunciated. There is some fine and effective ornamentation in the instrumental parts, although the singers do not ornament in the psalms, even at cadences (I don't have access to the music of the motets to determine if embellishments are employed there). In short, Rovetta receives great care and respect from excellent musicians in all these aspects of performance.

4.5 But is this all there should be? In my view, the limited range of many of the changes of pacing and tempo, especially in Dixit Dominus, Beatus vir, and Confitebor tibi, is inadequate to satisfy the demands for flexibility according to the words that date as far back as Zarlino and appear over and over again in the prefaces of secular and sacred prints in the seventeenth century.4 In some cases Junghänel's rhythmic drive is almost relentless, and Rovetta's infrequent (and therefore significant) tempo rubrics are largely ignored. Confitebor tibi is marked "Adagio" at its beginning, but its pacing is lively and less than 10% slower than a passage indicated "Allegro" in Lauda Jerusalem, which is itself sung at the same tempo as the preceding, unmarked section. To be sure, the "Presto" at the verse Ecce enim in the Magnificat increases the tempo by 60% over the preceding slow Quia respexit, but although the tempo of the "Presto" is about 15% faster than the "Allegro" in Lauda Jerusalem, the rhythmic pacing in Ecce enim is actually a bit slower because of the relative note values employed in the two verses. Rovetta's "Presto" rubric is for the purpose of conveying the excitement of the announcement to Mary that she shall be considered blessed by all generations. That excitement is subdued in this performance, not only because the tempo isn't quite fast enough, but also because the upward leap of a fourth on "ecce" ("behold"), reiterated numerous times through imitation, doesn't receive enough vocal stress.

4.6 The lack of sufficient emphasis on "ecce" underscores another problematic aspect of this recording. Every indication of performance style we have from Venice in the 1630s suggests that even in sacred music–including psalms–the expression of affect was paramount. Performers were repeatedly advised to imitate the orator by emphasizing the rhetoric of the words, sing with as much affective expression as possible, and vary the tempo according to the affect. This rhetorical style of singing was intended to induce in the listener the same feeling as expressed by the words. Despite the beauty of their performances, Junghänel and his singers pay too little attention to these facets of performance style, and the singers too often treat the text as if it were an objective set of undifferentiated declarative sentences. True, there are the aforementioned occasional significant shifts of tempo, frequent cadential retards, increases and decreases in dynamics, and the occasional dropping of the lute from the continuo to underline the character of the text. But these nuances are limited and occur mostly between different sections of a composition. Within a single passage there is often inadequate stress on flexibility of beat or nuances of accentuation. 

4.7 Apart from more flexible and varied pacing of the tactus, rhetorical singing requires considerable attention to vocal stress at the level of the individual syllable. Despite the accurate and clear enunciation, the tempos—especially in duple time—are frequently too brisk to allow for detailed accentuation. The singers on many occasions pay insufficient heed to the syllables that Rovetta himself highlights by rhythm and pitch, which in turn reflect what was very likely an Italianate accentuation of the Latin. While the Magnificat is better than the psalms in this regard, other factors contributing to the expression of the words are missing even here. In the canticle, the first tone setting is frequently inflected by a B-flat, sometimes as fa sopra la, and by affective use of the sharp leading tone on C. Fa sopra la appears over and over again as a specially expressive device in sixteenth-century madrigals from as early as Arcadelt, but in the Magnificat it is sung as if it were just another diatonic note, as is the C-sharp. A few specific cases in point are the verses Quia respexit, where the B-flat, often in close proximity to a diminished fourth F-sharp, helps underscore the word "humilitatem"; Quia fecit, where "magna" is repeatedly emphasized by fa sopra la; Et misericordia, where the word "misericordia," set to a B-flat-F-sharp diminished fourth following on the heels of a C-sharp, is sung by the bass soloist as if these were ordinary diatonic pitches; and Suscepit Israel, where none of the chromatic inflections, including a G-sharp, receive any special attention at all. Even in Lauda Jerusalem, where the tempo is slowed by the solo soprano for a striking chromatic descending passage on the words "Emittet verbum suum et liquefaciet ea," there is little effort made to highlight the chromatic inflections by emphasizing the non-diatonic pitches. Similarly, throughout the recording dissonant counterpoint at cadences, often between two voices, is generally sung without any special vocal stress on the dissonances. As a result, the performers miss many opportunities to be affectively expressive in favor of a more restrained, overly objective presentation of the music and text. My criticisms are more relevant to the psalms and the Magnificat than the motets, which in general are sung more expressively, though I still don't find them affective enough. 

5. Summary Conclusion

5.1 From the standpoint of sound and virtuosity, these recordings are gorgeous and brilliant, and they give us our first glimpse of the truly exciting world of Rovetta's music. But too often I am left unsatisfied by a style of singing that doesn't fully address what expressive, rhetorical performance seems to have meant to musicians and listeners in seventeenth-century Italy.


References

*Jeffrey Kurtzman (jgkurtzm@artsci.wustl.edu) is the author of The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context, Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); editor of Claudio Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), and editor of the ten-volume series Seventeenth-Century Italian Sacred Music: Vespers and Compline (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995–2003). 

Notes

1. Most of the Credo from Rovetta's Messa e salmi concertati, op. 4, the print featured on the present recording, was performed by Andrew Parrott and the Taverner Consort, Choir and Players on the album Monteverdi: Mass of Thanksgiving, Venice 1631 (Hayes Middlesex, England: EMI Records Ltd., 1989), CDS 7 49876 2.

2. An account of the event entitled Venetia festiva per gli pomposi spettacoli fatti rappresentare dall'Illustriss. & Eccellentiss. Sig. d'Hussè Ambasciatore di S.M. Christianissima, per la nascita del Real Delfino di Francia was published by Fausto Ciro in Venice in 1638. The dedication is dated November 26, so the chronicle was quickly printed as a commemoration of the festivities.

3. The entire collection has been edited and published by Linda Maria Koldau as vol. 109 in "Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era" (Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, 2001). Koldau's transcriptions served as the basis for the present recording.

4. Gioseffo Zarlino, Le istitutioni harmoniche (Venice, 1558), 204, 340. For some Italian prefaces from the early seventeenth century that discuss tempo, including fluctuating tempos, see Uwe Wolf, Notation und Aufführungspraxis: Studien zum Wandel von Notenschrift und Notenbild in italienischen Musikdrucken der Jahre 1571-1630, 2 vols. (Berlin and Kassel: Verlag Merseburger, 1992), I: 51–60


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