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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


The “Venice, splendor of the world” on this release isn’t the complacent republic of the 16th century, but an earlier stage of that city-state, one that was growing extremely wealthy with the as-yet unsurpassed Mediterranean trade, and recently expanding inland to build itself an empire. Accordingly, the music isn’t comprised of antiphonal choirs by Willaert or the Gabrielis, but ceremonial motets meant to honor the island nation’s doges, or dedicated to one of them. As the doge was said in some sense to incarnate the city, so the honor was being paid back to Venice itself. Claudia Caffagni has chosen to focus on motets over a given century that refer to any of six doges: Francesco Dandolo, Marco Cornaro, Andrea Contarini, Michele Steno, Tommaso Mocenigo, and Francesco Foscari. (Yes, that Foscari. Though the facts behind his death and that of his son are considerably at variance with Verdi’s opera, as you would expect.)

The pieces divide musically if not always cleanly between the first three doges and the last three. The earlier group, one piece per doge, belong very clearly to the early and mid-Trecento. Caffagni notes the current belief that there was no polyphonic culture within Venice at the time, so that these works might have been commissioned outside of the city; though that begs the question why Venice’s zealously nationalistic civic leaders would go abroad, in effect, possibly to Padua or Florence, for its music of patriotic celebration. The rest of the album features music from the early-to-mid 15th century, when some Franco-Burgundian influence can be detected, though more conservative isorhythmic formulae continue to be employed from time to time. Four of these latter works are multi-textual. Three are not motets at all, but Mass movements—though in fairness, all three are well worth the hearing. (And together with the three motets of Antonius, represent all that survives of his music save for a fragmentary ballata.)

On this release La Reverdie includes 10 performers that cover voices, vielles, recorders, cornett, trombone, bells, harp, and portative organ. Their performances intermingle voices singing words, vocalizing, and an instrument substituting for a given vocal part. All of these techniques were used, sometimes together, during the period represented on this disc; and La Reverdie chooses among them thoughtfully. Thus the album’s opening motet, attributed to Marchettus de Padua, features a mix of three voices, male and female, as well as vielle and organ; while Ciconia’s motet makes a magnificent effect with its textural variations, utilizing only six voices and a trombone. Occasionally, as in Aurea Flamigeri and Christus vincti, instruments are used to create what amounts to an introductory verse, but usually the voices have their say from the start. There is never a sense of meretricious overloading, or of poorly chosen instruments drawing attention away from the voices rather than functioning as an integrated part of the compositional textures.

The singing deserves praise. Put bluntly, vocal parts in some early music ensembles are treated as something that can be shoved off on one or another instrumentalist who isn’t doing anything particular at the moment, and whose voice won’t make the milk immediately sour. La Reverdie isn’t one of those groups, but features very good singers in this often complex and beautiful music.

The only problem with this release is that at just over 57 minutes it’s very short. Granted, other works from Venice and its confederated cities weren’t composed in honor of any doge, but then, neither were the Credo and two Glorias included here. Caffagni makes apparent this is the recording side of a larger research project, but it’s fair to say that most purchasers of the album will be coming to it not for that project, but for La Reverdie’s stylistic sense, technical adroitness, and beauty of sound in this rarely heard music. A few more selections wouldn’t have hurt the project one bit.

That aside, this is a welcome release from an early music ensemble that combines research with attractively realized public performances and studio recordings. Strongly recommended.

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