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‘Red Priest’ rarities in Oxford

25 November 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears some of Vivaldi’s little-known sacred music


IT SEEMS peculiar that Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, the “Red Priest” as he was known (ordained deacon in 1700 and priest in 1703), should be so little associated with sacred music. It is true that his setting of the Gloria from the Mass is — alongside The Four Seasons — one of the most commonly performed of his works. But it is the lack of attention to his remaining sacred output (his first work, Laetatus sum, was written when he was just 13), including a handful of longer sacred cantatas, that the newly founded Tulipa Consort, a spry Dutch-based ensemble, has sought to make amends for in its latest tour, “Canti Sacri”.

The composer’s vast output is staggering for one who, born in 1678, died in 1741 aged just 63. His concertos and orchestral sinfonias, pieces, of which three fine examples were included here, run to well over 500 works. He composed, or contributed arias to, more than 50 operas, and showed a fondness for Roman or oriental themes (such as Artabanus, King of Parthia; The Coronation of Darius; and Farnace), stageworks that are currently resurfacing, thanks partly to the efforts of Garsington Opera. Some have moral themes, but none religious subjects. One of his four sacred oratorios, composed for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà (Hospital of Mercy), Juditha Triumphans (1716), survives (the rest being lost), however; and excerpts were included to lend dramatic allure to this wide-ranging recital heard at the historic Holywell Music Room in Oxford.

Many of Vivaldi’s under-appreciated sacred works for solo or chorus are psalm settings: Beatus Vir (the double-choir version, recorded by Ex Cathedra), Dixit Dominus, and Lauda Jerusalem are all notable examples; as is Nisi Dominus, set for alto (contralto or countertenor) solo. Others include In Exitu Israel (recorded by the Taverner Choir). There are some half-dozen or more motets for soprano with strings or larger forces. His Stabat Mater is another work for alto, recorded by, among others, Andreas Scholl. Vivaldi also left some settings of Marian texts, especially Salve Regina, but also Regina Coeli.

The extracts from Juditha Triumphans, Vivaldi’s retelling of the story of Judith and Holofernes, designed to celebrate the victory of the Venetian Republic over the Turks in 1716, were especially telling. “Vivat in pace” is wonderfully soothing, almost somnolent, with the soprano — Tulipa’s founder Johannette Zomer — evoking an innocence and charm on a par with Handel’s more serene arias such as “Cara sposa”. “Transit aetas”, which followed, accompanied by softly plucked strings and a superbly sensitive solo mandolin (Michiel Nissen), is equally reflective, and wound down with a charming envoi for the instruments. Strangely for a work entitled “triumphant”, the third extract was gentle, too: a lilting pastoral accompaniment producing an enchantment not unlike Gluck’s Orfeo.

In a way, the religious flavour was caught not least by the Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepulcro”, which, by means of a rippling passage that recalls the chromatic Winter from The Four Seasons, evoked first an atmosphere of intense grieving, and then, by falling semitones, a growing sense of hope. Some of the other works — certain passages occasionally taken perhaps a fraction too legato — yielded a contrasting vitality: “Ascendit laeta” starts off with the zest and optimism one naturally associates with that text, and, after a central section, embarks on a da capo that soars up into the ether, full of excitement, again recalling Handel’s more vital arias. A plangent start (“Recitativo”) characterises the motet “O qui coeli terraeque serenitas”, whose final Allegro positively takes off, with the exuberance one associates with Mozart’s solo “Exsultate, Jubilate”.

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