Vivaldi: The Great Venetian Mass – an inventive reimagining from Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants

It’s quite refreshing to read the rationale for a period-instrument recording which closes with the statement that the conductor-author makes ‘no great claims for the authenticity’ of the project.  But, if Les Arts Florissants’ ‘re-construction’ of Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘Great Venetian Mass’, recently released on the harmonia mundi label, requires some imaginative leaps then there is no doubting the critical insight with which the ensemble’s long-time tenor and now co-director, Paul Agnew, has tackled the challenges, nor the sparkling spiritedness of the resulting score and performance.

Born in Venice in 1678, Vivaldi was employed for most of his working life by the Ospedale della Pietà, both a charitable institution which was home to female orphans and the illegitimate daughters of the Venetian aristocracy and a music conservatoire with a renowned all-female choir and orchestra.  Vivaldi joined the Pietà as maestro di violino in 1704, shortly after being ordained as a priest, and by 1716, despite numerous difficulties and disputes with his employers during the intervening decade, he had been promoted to maestro de’ concerti (music director).

In a letter to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio written on 16th November 1737, Vivaldi explained that shortly after joining the Pietà ill health had forced him to give up celebrating mass: ‘Barely ordained a priest I said mass for a year or a little longer, and then I abandoned it having had to leave the altar three times because of the same complaint … Immediately after eating I can usually move about, but never on foot, this is the reason I do not celebrate mass.’  Whether this was a genuine complaint (asthma, perhaps?) or a convenient excuse is not clear.  But, a contract (Incombenze del Maestro di Choro) of July 1710 confirms that Vivaldi’s responsibilities included to compose ‘at least two masses and two new Vespers each year, for Easter and for the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, to which this church is consecrated, and in addition at least two motets per month as well as every other type of composition that he is commissioned to write for funeral rites, for Holy Week services, or other occasions of the type’.

If he fulfilled the terms of his contract, Vivaldi must have composed a great number of sacred works, but while various mass movements survive, including the popular Gloria RV 589, alongside motets, psalm settings, hymns and Magnificats, these fragments are stand-alone movements, and no complete liturgy survives, for either Vespers or the Mass.  Agnew notes, though, that records show that a complete mass setting had been commissioned from Vivaldi by the administrators of the Pietà in 1715.  Furthermore, the report of a visit by Frederick IV of Denmark to the Pietà where Vivaldi apparently directed an Agnus Dei at Sunday mass, led Agnew to speculate about the possibility of recreating a Missa intiera, employing the same techniques of reconstruction and borrowing that Vivaldi used in his own compositions.  And, this use of ‘parody’ is evident from the first, in the ‘Kyrie’ RV 587, scored for double choir and orchestra, with which the ‘Great Venetian Mass’ begins.  Vivaldi’s only extant setting of the Kyrie from the Ordinary Mass, its first movement draws thematic material from Vivaldi’s Magnificat RV 610a, while the closing grand fugue is based on a subject which the composer also used in his Concerto Madrigalesco RV 129. 

Vivaldi’s sacred music is varied in mood, form and technique, but there is a prevailing concerto manner, a flamboyance which is unsurprising given that the mass movements and motets were designed to show of the virtuosity of the female orchestra players and singers, some of whom would be destined for the opera house.  That’s not to suggest that the music lacks profundity, simply that the sacred music originating in eighteenth-century Italian conservatoires, by composers who had one foot in the concert hall and theatre, and which was intended to attract lucrative donations from the ‘audience’ seated on the other side of the lattice grille, was different in tone from that created in secluded monasteries and convents for the contemplation of the eternal life.

Agnew and Les Arts Florissants relish this exuberance.  There is drama from the first, in the luxuriant, confident chromatic twists of the orchestras’ grand Adagio introduction and in the vigour with which the groups of violins exchange the falling arpeggios of the ensuing Allegro.  The acoustic is resonant but there’s a persuasive spaciousness too.  When the voices enter, their homophony develops the instruments’ chromatic swells, squirming smoothly through the teasing semitones, before they take off fleetly, imitative snatches tossed lightly back and forth between the two choirs, the upper voices ever sweet and pure.  The ‘Christe eleison’ is busy but buoyant – some terrifically nimble bass playing here – and the sopranos and altos enter with a bristling consonant that matches the instrumental dynamism.  Agnew exploits the contrast between the voices’ initial, pointedly placed crotchets and the elastic rhythms that they release, and between the excited vocal passagework, executed with ease, and the slippery sighs of the descending suspensions à la Pergolesi.  The monumental fugue whips up a storm, voices announcing their entry with an authoritative stamp, then retreating and emerging freely within the driving textures.

Inserted before the ‘Gloria’ is a motet, Ostro picta, armata spina RV 642, which survives only in the form of a hand-written manuscript preserved in Turin.  Subtitled ‘Introduzione al Gloria’, the motet presents a text of Marian devotion which alludes to a Gospel episode describing the Visitation of the Virgin.  It would likely have been sung on 2nd July, Agnew explains, thereby coinciding with the Pietà’s patronal feast day, and it’s not difficult to imagine it serving as a preface to the Gloria during this annual celebration.  The motet’s two lively arias, joined by brief secco recitative, are sung with a rich, rippling gleam by soprano Sophie Karthäuser above warm but airy strings.  The swinging momentum of the second, triple-time aria is dramatically interrupted by the command, “Linguis favete, Omnes silete voces prophanæ” (Let tongues be still, let all be silent), creating anticipation for the hymn of praise that follows, “Pax in terra, In cælo Gloria”, a theatrical coup which Agnew paces perfectly.

It might have been interesting to have had the less well-known of Vivaldi’s two extant Glorias (there is a third manuscript, RV 590, housed in Kreuzherren Library in Dresden which some have suggested is also Vivaldi’s work), but Agnew eschews RV 588 and presents the familiar RV 589, in which the composer indulges in more borrowing, drawing on both his own compositions and music by Giovanni Maria Ruggieri who was working in Venice at the same time.  The ensemble set off at quite a lick, but it feels effortless, the racing strings surfing a wave that scoops up the vibrant voices whose homophonic phrases of praise are thoughtfully shaped by Agnew.  The strings sigh meditatively, their strokes long and coaxing, in ‘Et in terra pax’, as the suspended dissonances pile up and swell with plangent intensity.  There’s a fierceness to the second phrase of ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ which propels the voices into the imitative richness of ‘Propter magnam’, while ‘Domine fili unigenite’ fairly bounces along with toe-tapping infectiousness, though sometimes the male voices seem to retreat behind the women’s brightness and forward instruments.  ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ begins with plaintive gravity, but Agnew drives a pressing accelerando into a blazing tierce de Picardie climax – not necessarily very ‘authentic’, but definitely thrilling.

Karthäuser and mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot sings the duets and solos.  ‘Laudamus te’ is sprightly and carefree, the solo voices well-matched, but while the vibrancy is uplifting I’d have liked a little less vibrato, particularly from Karthäuser, to imbue the sequential winding with legato lyricism, blend more readily with the strings, and also to conjure the freshness of those young girls of the Pietà three hundred years ago.  A maturity of voice is more apt in ‘Domine Deus, Rex cælestis’, though, Karthäuser’s long lines unfolding fluidly, accompanied by a solo violin obbligato which incorporate some lovely ornamentation to complement the organ’s expressive right-hand counterpoint.  The slow-ish tempo of ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’, and Richardot’s arching messa di voce, emotive phrasing and shimmering inkiness, give the movement an operatic quality which is juxtaposed affectingly with the more reserved homophony of the choir.  In contrast, in ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ Richardot releases a touch of ‘countertenor bloom’.

Of two surviving Credos only RV 591 can be reliable accredited to Vivaldi.  The opening section is urgent, propelled by running bass and scintillating repeated notes in the violins against which the massed voices present a majestic, dignified avowal of belief.  In contrast, ‘Et incarnatus’ (more borrowing from the Magnificat RV 610a) is contemplative and still, the gentle phrasing and soft colour of the voices conjuring all the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation, “Et homo factus est”.  The detached throbbing of the walking bass of the ‘Crucifixus’ evokes Christ’s unalleviated suffering above which the vocal lines entwine with impassioned feeling.  The ‘Resurrexit’ fizzes with fervour, the text declaimed with incisiveness – “Resurrexit” rips through the busy texture – matching the strings’ brilliance and bite.

In the absence of a ‘Sanctus’ or ‘Agnus Dei’ by Vivaldi, Agnew presents two contrafacta, the scores of which are prepared by Pascal Duc.  The ‘Sanctus’ borrows from a Beatus Vir setting for double choir, composed in 1720 for the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso in Rome, and (in the ‘Benedictus’) from one of Vivaldi’s three Dixit Dominus settings.  The opening sections are gloriously joyful, Richardot and mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupić adding zing to the shining massed voices, and gleaming trumpets enhancing the euphoria.  The ‘Benedictus’ has a lovely flow, both Richardot and the strings crafting effortlessly extended undulations of measured intensity.  The ‘Agnus Dei’ reprises material from the first solemn ‘Kyrie’ alongside music from the RV 610a Magnificat.  It’s the longest of the Mass’s movements and offers an appropriate opportunity to re-gather and reflect after the preceding exuberance and theatre.

Agnew self-deprecatingly observes that ‘No doubt Antonio Vivaldi himself would have done a much better job and even the idea of ‘completing’ the mass is based on the very flimsiest of evidence’.  Perhaps … but this disc is undoubtedly inventive, cogently involving and will give listeners much pleasure.

Claire Seymour

Les Arts Florissants, Paul Agnew (director), Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Lucile Richardot (mezzo-soprano, Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano)

Vivaldi: The Great Venetian Mass – Kyrie RV 587, Gloria RV 598, Credo RV 591, Sanctus (contrafactum after Beatus Vir RV 597/1 and Dixit Dominus RV 807/7), Benedictus (contrafactum after Dixit Dominus RV 807/8), Agnus Dei (contrafactum after Magnificat RV 610/1 and 8, and Kyrie RV 587).

harmonia mundi HAF8905358 [67:00]

ABOVE: Paul Agnew, co-director of Les Arts Florissants