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The Producer Speaks: Impressions from the Cozzolani Recording Booth

Peter Watchorn and Joel Gordon

The Men in the Booth: Peter Watchorn and Joel Gordon (photo by David Tayler)

Over recent weeks I have been re-discovering the amazing music of Donna Chiara Margarita Cozzolani and the extraordinary talents of the ladies (and a few gentlemen) of Magnificat who brought it all to life. It seems hardly possible that the first of these recordings took place a decade ago, beginning in August 2000, marking one of Musica Omnia‘s very first projects (We began recording Jaap Schroeder and Penelope Crawford’s Atlantis Ensemble the same year.)

Having released two “liturgical” versions of a fairly hefty sampling of Cozzolani’s music from both 1642 and the grander collection of 1650, we are now finally mining the remaining wealth of material that we captured and preserved all those years ago in order to realize our original goal of presenting all the surviving music by this wonderful and unique composer, who for me exemplifies the second generation of composers of the Italian Baroque.

I can recall the atmosphere of friendly camaraderie between all the performers and their good-natured acceptance of myself as newly appointed (and relatively inexperienced) producer, fortunate to be working with the highly experienced (and fantastic) engineer/co-producer Joel Gordon, who created the “sound” for Musica Omnia and has continued to develop it right up to most recent release – our 30th. And working with Magnificat and Warren Stewart was a great joy – and an education. And, how great it was to simply spend time in the beautiful Bay Area.

I remember being amazed at the virtuosity of the singers, the imagination of the continuo team and the visionary direction of Warren Stewart, who radiated scholarship, practical knowledge and committed enthusiasm for this music with every gesture. It’s also great to recall the special sound created by having SATB music sung entirely by women, recreating the sounds that must have enlivened Chiara Margarita’s convent in Milan, spreading its fame far and wide. And what a cast: Catherine Webster, Meg Bragle, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Karen Clark, Jennifer Lane, Deborah Rentz-Moore, Ruth Escher, Suzanne Jubenville, Andrea Fullington, Elizabeth Anker and Linda Liebschutz. Not to mention the exemplary continuo support of Hanneke van Proosdij, David Tayler and John Dornenburg.

Cozzolani Session Log

A page from the recording session logs from August 2001. (click to enlarge)

Going over the session logs and recorded material has been fascinating – and illuminating – after this long passage of time. As producer I’ve (thankfully) become a lot more economical and efficient in the decade since we began this venture. It’s almost embarrassing to see (or hear) how much material I made the singers record, just to be sure we had it all in the can before departing! Still, better too much than too little, I guess.

And what music: the Dixit Dominus, Gloria in altissimis, Surgamus omnes, the Magnificats, the two settings of Laudate pueri, Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus… Not to mention the exquisite Messa a 4 of 1642, particularly the Agnus Dei – so simple yet so enchanting. All masterpieces. It will be interesting to hear them presented as part of their respective collections (Concerti sacri from 1642 and Salmi a Otto Voci from 1650) rather than in the context of a liturgy. And it’s a great tribute to how much the group had already accomplished that these early recordings still maintain the group’s present-day high standards (and our own), while retaining the freshness and wonder of new and recent discovery. It was a special time.

I recall that on one of the “rest” days, I dragged co-founder and guiding light of this project and the Musica Omnia label David Fox’s beautiful Ruckers copy harpsichord by Walter Burr into St. Stephen’s church in Belvedere and recorded (in about 6 hours) a CD of Tudor & Jacobean music. It was amazing to revert (as performer) to the restraint of the late Renaissance after inhabiting (as producer) the world of Cozzolani, whose music takes the Baroque ideal of idiosyncratic word-painting to its outer limit. The resulting CD set became another of our earliest releases and, like the Cozzolani Vespers, one of our most successful.

It’s nice to think that we’re finally completing this important pioneering project and that we will have a tenth anniversary reunion back at the original scene of the crime this June.

There’s (much) more to come, so stay tuned!

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