AWESOME 'OSTRO' - MAGNIFICENT 'MAGNIFICAT'- GLORIOUS 'GLORIA' - RICHARD HICKOX, GO TO THE THE 'HEAD OF THE CLASS'!
Antonio Vivaldi (1675-174l) was both priest and musician composing both
sacred music and music for the Theatre, which definitely is reflected in his 'Gloria'. Vivaldi's sacred music may be divided into works with a liturgical text, and occasional, non-liturgical pieces, like 'Ostro picta, armata spina'(Dyed with crimson, armed with thorns) which belongs to a genre known as the 'introduzione'. Such works were essentially solo motets on freely-invented Latin texts and were intended to introduce a liturgical item. 'Ostro picta' consists simply of two da capo arias for soprano and strings separated by a brief recitative, and performed brilliantly on this disc by Emma Kirkby. Since 'Ostro picta' shares the same key and several thematic and textual links with the 'Gloria' RV589, they may well have been written to be performed together on certain festive occasions.
The 'Gloria' is cast in 12 movements, the choruses alternating with solos for two sopranos and an alto. It is filled with brilliance and energy from the beginning opening chorus to the meditative alto solo close to the end "Qui Sedes ad Dexteram". To avoid too loose a structure Vivaldi re-uses music from the opening movement in the chorus 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus', and provides a splendid climax to the work with an exhilarating choral fugue, 'Cum Sancto Spiritu', which is actually a re-working of a fugue by one of his contemporaries.
Like Vivaldi's 'Gloria', Bach (1685-1750) divides his setting of the 'Magnificat' into 12 contrasting movements each treating a short section of the text. It is scored for a 5 part choir; 5 soloists (SSATB), as well as flutes, oboes, trumpets in 3 parts, drums, strings and continuo. The opening section of the 'Magnificat' sets the stage for all that follows. The festive tone is set immediately by the opening chorus which is animated, but not rushed. Each of the five soloists (SSATB)has an individual aria, introduced and articulated by instrumental ritornelli. One of the most beautiful duets in this work is :"Et Misericordia" sung with incredible beauty by Michael Chance (counter-tenor) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor). Interspersed with the solo movements there are three fine fugal choruses. The work ends with a traditional musical pun as Bach returns to the brilliant music of the opening chorus at the words 'sicut erat in principio'- 'as it was in the beginning'.
When I purchased this disc it was for the sole purpose of hearing Michael Chance's voice as it sounded in this rendition from 1990 as opposed to Cleobury's 2001 recording in which he also sang the same line-up as in 1990. I am happy to say that he sounds every bit as excellent as he did then.
But, in addition to answering that question, I discovered a wonderful performance of both the 'Gloria' and the 'Magnificat.' And even though I do like Cleobury's recording of both works, this is just another interpretation every bit as excellent, but certainly with a different flavor.
The Hickox goes slightly faster in the 'fast' and slower in the 'slow' parts. Therefore, the soloists seem to have a bit more freedom in their renditions. While both discs have great soloists, I have always personally preferred Emma Kirkby; she seems so 'baroque' in her approach. As for the tenors, both discs are equal; how can one say that John Mark Ainsley is better than James Gilchrist or vice versa. I have to give the edge to Steven Varcoe, bass (great resonance).
The orchestra performed well, especially noted was the performance of the oboe and cello who had several solo passages. Overall Hickox seemed to prefer a more romantic approach than Cleobury, but I'll listen to both (not at the same time, of course). Richard Hickox directs his forces with great acumen, and is always in control. The Collegium Musicum 90, vocal and instrumental forces capture the prize for technical accuracy and musical passion, sometimes lacking in period performances.
Hickox passed away several weeks ago and whenever I listen to this wonderful rendition and many others that he conducted, I am reminded about how much he will be missed in the world of music!