Vivaldi Nulla pax in mundo Gramola

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Nulla pax in mundo
Concerto for strings and basso continuo in G minor (RV 157)
In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626)
O qui coeli terraeque serenitas (RV 631)
Concerto for cello, strings and basso continuo in D minor (RV 405)
Nulla in mundo pax sincera (RV 630)
Ostro picta, armata spina (Introduzione al Gloria) (RV 642)
Aleksandra Zamojska (soprano), Michal Stahel (cello)
Pandolfis Consort
rec. 2021, Atelier 73, Unterretzbach, Austria
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 
Gramola 99267 [69]

“The motets and introduzioni are among the less often performed works of Antonio Vivaldi”, according to the liner-notes of the present disc. That is a surprising statement. In my collection of discs I have eight different recordings of In furore iustissimae irae and O qui coeli terraeque serenitas respectively, and I am sure that I don’t have every recording in the catalogue. It seems that only Ostro picta, armata spina is not that often performed and recorded. Obviously, that does not mean that a new recording should not be welcome. After all, these are very fine works which are in no way inferior to Vivaldi’s most popular pieces, either in vocal or in instrumental music.

Whereas Vivaldi’s sacred music was mostly intended for performance by the girls and young women of the Ospedale della Pietà, some of his motets were written for other performers, mostly elsewhere, for instance in Rome. There can be little doubt that they were highly appreciated, as copies of these pieces have been found in archives across Europe.

In furore iustissimae irae is a case in point. Vivaldi composed it in Rome during one of his three stays that are documented from the 1720s, always at the carnival season. The motets are mostly not connected to any particular stage in the ecclesiastical year; they were written per ogni tempo. As all the motets, they consist of two arias, embracing a recitative, and close with an extended Alleluia. In this piece, the opening aria describes the wrath of God at the sins of mankind. The short recitative is a prayer for mercy, and the second aria then expresses the joy about the salvation through Jesus.

O qui coeli terraeque also dates from one of Vivaldi’s stays in Rome. The opening aria is about the “serenity of heaven and earth” whose source is God, who is asked to “kindly consider our prayers”. The recitative is a prayer to “make us cherish constantly the heavenly goods”. The second aria expresses the transience of everything in this world; here Vivaldi uses a descending chromatic figure in the bass.

Nulla in mundo pax sincera is one of Vivaldi’s best-known motets, probably because of the virtuosity of the solo part, which requires a wider range than the other motets. Notable is also the length of the opening aria; in the other three motets included here, the second aria is always the longest. The aria, written in a siciliano rhythm, speaks about the lack of “honest peace” in the world; “pure and true peace, sweet Jesus, lies in thee”. The recitative urges the listener to avoid worldly pleasures and “him who follows us”. This refers to the devil, as the ensuing aria reveals: “The serpent’s hiss conceals its venom, as it uncoils itself among blossoms and beauty.”

The last work in the programme is a so-called Introduzione. Vivaldi has written several such pieces, which were intended as introductions to a section of the Mass or a Psalm. This piece is written as introduction to a setting of the Gloria, very likely Vivaldi’s RV 589, undoubtedly one of his most popular sacred works. However, we don’t know for sure for what reason it was written. Normally, the Gloria is part of the mass, but – as far as we know – Vivaldi did not compose a complete mass setting. Moreover, the Gloria RV 589 is probably too long to be part of a mass. It is also hard to see any place for an introduction as Ostra picta, armata spina in a mass. That suggests that both works may have been performed at a special occasion, such as a celebration of the patronal festival of the Pietà. In its tenor, the opening aria is similar to the second aria of O qui coeli terraeque, where the transience of the world is demonstrated at the fate of a rose, which dies. Here the text says that the rose which “bloomed proudly in the early morning” “becomes pale, wilts like grass” in the evening. “That is how the fleeting and brief glory of the world goes”, the ensuing recitative says. It ends with a celebration of “the Virgin, chosen as Mother of the Almighty Son”. The last aria consists of short phrases, which lends it a dance-like character, and here we find again a connection with a feast for the Virgin Mary: “Now a celebration is to be held of the blessed day and the great event, a merry festivity and remembrance.”

The rest of the programme is devoted to instrumental works. The two concertos for strings and basso continuo belong among a substantial category in Vivaldi’s oeuvre, consisting of concertos and sinfonias for strings without solo parts. Some of such pieces appear in manuscripts with the title concerto ripieno. They probably date from the 1720s and 1730s and most of them were composed for and played by the orchestra of the ladies of the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was acting as maestro de’ concerti. Whereas the concertos with solo parts were vehicles to show the ladies’ considerable virtuosity, these compositions were more suitable to demonstrate the qualities of the Ospedale’s orchestra as a whole. None of the concertos and sinfonias have been published. However, in manuscript they seem to have found a wide dissemination. The Concerto in G minor is by far the most frequently-played of them all.

Vivaldi left 27 concertos for cello, strings and bc. Seven of these have been preserved in the library of Prince Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, an avid collector of music and skilled player of the cello. He collected music on his travels as a diplomat but also commissioned concertos and sonatas from the best composers of his time. It seems unlikely that the Prince ever met Vivaldi in person; the seven concertos in his collection were the result of activities from people in his circle. The Concerto in D minor is part of his library; it was not written for the Prince, but rather for the girls of the Ospedale. The copy was made for him by a certain Franz Horneck, a young musician in Venice.

Making a disc with music by Vivaldi is not an easy task, considering the stiff competition. All the pieces included here are available in more than one recording, some even in quite a large number of performances. Overall I am not very impressed by what the performers here bring to the table, I’m afraid. I like Aleksandra Zamojska’s voice, but I am disappointed by her interpretations. Her singing is marred by an incessant, but not very wide vibrato. However, that is not the main problem. Her performances are rather one-dimensional, and short on expression. Listening to all four motets in one sitting was not an easy task, as I felt it was too much of the same. I enjoyed Ostra picta, armata spinamost; especially the last aria is fairly well done. Another issue is the lack of differentiation between good and bad notes, and that is also something from which the instrumental playing is suffering, at least in the motets.

The two string concertos come off better, although the one in G minor is too restrained. The best part of this disc is the cello concerto, largely thanks to Michal Stahel’s dynamic performance of the solo part, which I have enjoyed very much.

However, it is too little to really save this disc. The performances are neat and stylish. It is just that the expressive and theatrical features of Vivaldi’s music are underexposed, and that is a big shame.

Johan van Veen

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