Viva Italia – Sacred music of the 17th Century beautifully recorded

This release focuses on the composers who trained, taught, or influenced the music at the Vatican’s Collegio Germanico during the 17th Century. It was a top-tier institution — Tomàs Luis de Victoria and Giacomo Carissimi taught at the college, and their sacred music is well-represented in this program. The 17th Century was a time of transition stylistically, from the rich modal polyphony of the late renaissance to the major/minor tonality of the early Baroque.

The program shows that transition, with high renaissance music from Palestrina and Victoria, and baroque works by Charpentier and Carissimi. The real discovery for me was the music of Giovanni Felice Sances (1600-1679) who eventually moved to Vienna and became the Imperial Kapellmeister for Ferdinand III.

Three short sacred works by Sances are included, as well as his Missa Sancta Maria Magdalenae. Sances began his career as an opera singer, and the supple expressiveness of the human voice is at the forefront of his works. This is music that borders on the sensual and provides plenty of opportunities for the soloists to shine.

The massed forces for this recording also provide variety. There are some a capella works, some that used sackbut (early trombones) to double the choirs, and some with instrumental ensembles that act independently (yet in conjunction with) the choirs. It’s a well-thought-out program that keeps the listener continually engaged.

Viva Italia is a live recording, and while there are no audience sounds, there are occasional pitch and intonation problems. But they’re minor and transient. Grammy®-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh is at the helm, and the sound of the recording is near-perfect. It captures not only the performances but the ambiance of the space they’re in — an essential component for this style of music.

And of course, full credits should go to Brian Schmidt and his performers. The Duke Vespers Ensemble has a warm, seamless blend, the Mallarmé Chamber Players and Washington Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble play cleanly and expressively.

Bottom line: Beautiful music beautifully performed and beautifully recorded.

Viva Italia: Sacred Music in 17th Century Rome 
Duke Vespers Ensemble; Mallarmé Chamber Players; Washington Cornett & Sacbut Ensemble; Brian Schmidt, conductor 
MSR Classics MSR 1580

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