Home > Magnificat, Magnificat Reviews > SFCV Review of Rosenmüller Vespers: A Magical Re-creation

SFCV Review of Rosenmüller Vespers: A Magical Re-creation

By Rebekah Ahrendt

The following review appeared on San Francisco Classical Voice.

The sanctuary of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco was transformed into the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice Sunday afternoon. Performing a re-creation of a vespers service for the Feast of the Annunciation, Magnificat wowed the audience with works by Johann Rosenmüller, Giovanni Rovetta, and Francesco Cavalli. This program was a great example of what happens when good colleagues perform the music of good colleagues.

Rosenmüller, Rovetta, and Cavalli all worked together at San Marco beginning in 1658, when Rosenmüller arrived from his native Germany. He had been scheduled to take up the cantorate in Leipzig (the eventual job of J.S. Bach), but was arrested in 1655, having been accused of homosexual activity. Somehow he managed to escape and found a warm welcome in Venice, where he took a job as trombonist in the San Marco Cathedral.

Rovetta was maestro di capella there, assuming Monteverdi’s duties after that great composer’s death in 1643, and serving until his own death in 1668. Cavalli was employed as a singer and organist, and eventually succeeded Rovetta as maestro di capella, a position he held until his death in 1676. Rosenmüller stayed on in Venice, eventually moving back to German lands in 1682. For all three of these composers, the steady employment and good wage that San Marco offered allowed them to produce and perform exceptional music. The collegiality of the capella gave them opportunity to experiment and influence one another.

Modern-day capella

Magnificat is a good modern-day example of a collegial capella. Under artistic director Warren Stewart, the core of Magnificat’s ensemble has experimented with all kinds of music rarely heard today. Together, they have developed a distinct sound and approach to repertoire that never fails to please. Sunday’s concert was no exception.

Magnificat’s Annunciation Vespers service was quite long — only counting the polyphonic works, there were five psalms, six church sonatas in place of antiphons, a hymn, and a magnificat. These were interspersed with chant antiphons, responsories, and prayers. Altogether, that added up to two hours of music, performed without a break. Though it caused some numbness of the rear end, the program was altogether overwhelming and beautifully performed.

Two of the psalm settings by Rosenmüller had probably not been performed since the 17th century. Both his Dixit Dominus à 4 and his Nisi Dominus à 4 have not appeared in modern editions. According to the program notes, Stewart obtained copies of the manuscript from Rosenmüller specialist Kerala J. Snyder. It is amazing to me that such wonderful music has been so largely ignored.

Nisi Dominus in particular was a great find. As is typical of the late Venetian style, the piece is scored for a combination of voices and instruments, which effectively illustrated every line of the psalm. For example, “Sicut sagittae in manu potentis” (As arrows in the hands of the mighty) featured a martial figure in the accompaniment, with all voices uniting in a show of strength. Soprano Jennifer Ellis was highlighted in a solo setting of the first part of the doxology that was extremely melismatic.

Just listening to the six different settings of the doxology on this program was an enlightening experience. Besides that of Rosenmüller’s Nisi Dominus, the doxology for Cavalli’s Laetatus sum was also special. Tending more toward the mystical and strange, Cavalli’s setting focused on darker tones. A five-part string ensemble (including two violas and violone) emphasized the contributions of the alto, tenor, and bass, sung beautifully by Margaret Bragle, Daniel Hutchings, and Hugh Davies. Their muted melodies, often in a low register, seemed to highlight the anxiety of war underneath the rejoicing of this psalm.

Musical delights

On the high end, soprano Laura Heimes was a welcome addition to the ensemble, one I had not heard with Magnificat before. Her clear soprano blended excellently with Ellis’ in the five-part works, which often paired the high voices. Her solo portions were equally well performed, with precision and sensitivity.

Offsetting the vocal works were a number of sonatas by Rosenmüller, performed by two violins, two violas, and violone. At San Marco it was common to substitute instrumental works for portions of the service. With so many fine instrumentalists on call, the so-called sonata da chiesa (church sonata) became popular. This type of sonata contrasts elaborate contrapuntal moments with contemplative or meditative slow sections. A few of the sonatas on this program featured wildly chromatic themes that were richly elaborated and deliciously performed by the ensemble. The five-part texture is typical of 17th century Italian music and became standard also in French music after Lully.

The violas were a special treat. It is not often that I get to hear two independent viola parts in a concert, especially when played by fine violists like David Wilson and Vicki Gunn Pich. John Dornenburg’s violone playing was also quite fine and was surprisingly florid and agile on an instrument best known for being rather lugubrious. Violinists Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem were simply delightful, as was (as always) the continuo playing of Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler on organ and lute, respectively.

Proosdij was given a moment in the soloist’s spotlight on a hymn setting by Giovanni Battista Fasolo, a famous organist who published an all-purpose collection of organ pieces for liturgical use in 1645. The hymn “Ave maris stella” was performed in alternation between the singers on the hymn tune and the organ in a richly ornamented version. The effect was stunning. Though the tune was recognizable in the organ parts, the inventiveness of the elaboration and the skill of Proosdij in bringing it all together created a wholly new experience of this popular hymn.

Altogether, this was a most impressive concert. Though I did have trouble walking for some time afterward, and though a few more tuning breaks would have been desirable for the strings, it was a more than worthwhile experience. I felt transported back to San Marco for an afternoon, listening to the music of those who worked there long ago. Thanks to the work of Magnificat, it is possible, and rewarding, to take such an imaginary journey.

Rebekah Ahrendt holds the artist’s diploma in viola da gamba and historical performance practice from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Currently, she is a graduate student in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.