Motets From History’s Shadows Are Diamonds In Rough Performance

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Digging through archives in his cathedral not far from Milan, a priest discovered a rich trove of late-Renaissance polyphony. A third volume of motets by the largely forgotten Orfeo Vecchi has now been recorded.

Orfeo Vecchi. Six-Voice Motets. Cappella Musicale Eusebiana; Carlo Montalenti, organ; Denis Silano, conductor. Dynamic (CDS8001). Total time: 01:06:24

DIGITAL REVIEW — In 1598, Milanese composer Orfeo Vecchi (c. 1551-1603) published the third volume of his Motets for Six Voices. Some 425 years later, the music has finally been recorded for the first time. This premiere is thanks to Denis Silano and the Cappella Musicale Eusebiana, who captured these stunning examples of late-Renaissance polyphony on a recent Dynamic Records release.

Father Denis Silano has worked with the Cappella Musicale Eusebiana to bring attention to Vecchi’s forgotten music. (santaceciliabrescia.it)

Silano, who is also a priest, has a special connection with the little-known Vecchi: He works in the cathedral in Vercelli, about 50 miles from Milan, and the very place where the composer spent most of his career, first as a student and then as maestro di cappella. The project to bring Volume III’s 20 works to the world involved the scholar Dario DeCicco and others digging through the cathedral’s archives for manuscripts, which he edited and published in 2019. The result of DeCicco’s labor was to reveal a master of vocal writing devoted to preserving the old traditions of sacred music while also (subtly) looking forward to the burgeoning Baroque.

One musicologist described Vecchi as “a faithful interpreter of the Tridentine ideals.” That puts him in a developmental line with Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), famed in music-history textbooks as the poster boy for the Council of Trent’s mandate for the composition of church music: Make the listeners think of God rather than distracting them with sensual, temporal beauty. Palestrina’s clarity of rhythm and avoidance of intensely emotional word-painting can be heard in Vecchi’s ethereal motet “Surrexit pastor bonus.”

Yet the younger composer could do more than please the Council of Trent; he had a multifaceted style. Sometimes he nods to the past, yet he can also create a more secular sound. In “Prudentes virgine” he intertwines lines and fragments of text in a manner reminiscent of Jacques Arcadelt or Luca Marenzio. These early practitioners of the madrigal were from a couple of generations before Vecchi, indicating both his flexible skills and his dependence on historical examplars.

The third volume of motets were among Vecchi’s final works.

The first phrases of “Consolamini popule meus,” which opens the collection, are a good example of the antiphonal technique (voices in a call-and-response relationship), which Vecchi then follows with passages of imitative counterpoint. Again, the contrast suggests the thoroughness of the composer’s musical education. Cappella Musicale Eusebiana is a 12-voice ensemble; by assigning two people to a part, they have a solid, choir-like sound, yet the individual lines remain clear. As Silano explains in his booklet essay, the six parts are often subdivided by Vecchi to allow for a musical dialogue within each motet: Often it’s the “three upper voices against the rest.”

By the end of the 16th century, it was becoming increasingly common to find organs in churches. On some motets in this recording, Carlo Montalenti makes an unobtrusive, dulcet sound in chords and part-doubling on an organ made in 2021 by Nicola Puccini, blending perfectly with the voices.

A particularly striking piece is “Alleluia: Christus resurgens,” in which every voice shares the same rhythm. Even within that homophonic technique, Vecchi manages to give a sense of motion. Credit goes to Silano and the choir as well for not allowing the note-against-note counterpoint to come across as staid or heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, fascinating scholarship does not automatically translate into splendid performance. There are countless small problems with intonation, harsh vocal tone, and ragged ensemble singing throughout these tracks. The bar for performing early music is so high these days that the lack of attention to detail in this recording is inexcusable.

It doesn’t help that some tracks are plagued by imbalance in the production mix by sound engineer Fabio Framba. The tenor voice that sticks out awkwardly from the polyphonic fabric in “Eructavit cor meum” is but one example of some truly baffling acoustical faux pas.

Execution aside, this album represents important work. Although some individual motets had already made it into print over the centuries, Silano was the first to reconstruct the entire book in performance, and every motet except the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is a world-premiere recording.

The contents of Volume III were among the final works by Vecchi, who died in 1603 at approximately 52 years of age. According to sources from later in the 17th century, his output was enormous. Perhaps Silano can blow the dust off more manuscripts from the Vercelli Cathedral archives so we all get a chance to hear the rest of Vecchi’s work. The next round, hopefully, will be presented at a level more in keeping with the quality of the writing.