A wealth of great invention and craftsmanship to be appreciated.
Graham Rogers 2011
Monteverdi's lavish Vespers setting of 1610 has long since become a celebrated mainstay of the choral repertoire, performed equally as often in concert halls as in churches or cathedrals. But, as cornett player Jamie Savan points out in his accompanying notes for this new album, the opulent scale of Monteverdi's work, written for the Basilika of St Mark's in Venice, was atypical for its time: hardly any other ecclesiastical establishments boasted such grand instrumental or vocal resources. Savan, with his ensemble The Gonzaga Band (named after late-Renaissance Italy's powerful artistic patrons), sets out to introduce us to the wealth of humbler-scaled contemporary Vespers music.
The use of the word "masterpieces" to describe the works in this collection, as the album's subtitle does, may be overstating the case – even with the qualifying prefix "miniature". But there is certainly a wealth of great invention and craftsmanship to be appreciated, many of the pieces rivalling Monteverdi for musical charm and sophistication. Almost all of the 14 short works that make up the album's 62 minutes running-time – psalms, a hymn, a Magnificat, chants and instrumental sonatas, toccatas and canzonas – are by different composers, very few of whom are familiar names today; several of the pieces are here recorded for the first time.
At its largest, with two guest artists, The Gonzaga Band numbers just two singers and four instrumentalists (two cornetts, theorbo and harpsichord/organ). Yet, even with just two or three musicians, the sound they create is often remarkably opulent. Savan and company have a seemingly instinctive feel for this repertoire, their persuasive performances delivered with terrific flare and panache. The voices, particularly that of principal singer, soprano Faye Newton, are of a ‘pure’ Early Music type that is justified by the instrumental character of many of the vocal lines. In Maurizio Cazzati's joyful Regina caeli which ends the album, for example, Newton's bright and impressively agile singing is all but indistinguishable from the two cornetts, to great effect. A shade more vocal character would probably help make the album more palatable in longer doses, but it is impossible to dip into it and not discover a wonderful gem.