In concert: Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus

This week, a rightly classic performance from the great countertenor Andreas Scholl with
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. [23 mins]

Vivaldi’s works were already going out of fashion in Venice well before he died in 1741, and for the next two centuries he seems to have been remembered — except in a small handful of historical studies — just for a few violin concertos. And even those who knew a bit more about the range of his instrumental music music seem to have been ignorant of (or at least very much downplayed) Vivaldi’s religious and secular vocal music.

It wasn’t until about 1930, and after some detective work, that the Biblioteca Nazionale of Turin acquired a large collection of Vivaldi’s music that had been bought by the Austrian ambassador to Venice in the second half of the eighteenth century and then split and passed down through two branches of his descendants. And there re-emerged such central masterpieces as the Gloria RV 589, the Stabat Mater RV 621, and not least the motet Nisi Dominus RV 608, receiving their first performances since Vivaldi’s time in 1939.

We know that the motet was probably composed about 1715, in one of the periods while Vivaldi was officially maestro de’ concerti at the Ospedale della Pietà, but unofficially was also filling in for the maestro de’ coro (who was responsible for religious music). And it is thought that it was written for the vespers service for the patronal feast of the Pietà (i.e. the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), when Psalm 126, Nisi Dominus, is prescribed.

The motet, then, was written to be sung by a woman — and it could well have been intended for quite a mature contralto (for the retirement age from the coro of the Pietà was 40). But it seems that most modern recordings are by countertenors. Of video recordings by countertenors, there is a particularly good one by the one-time Cambridge choral scholar Tim Mead, performing in Santa Chapelle. If you want to hear a contralto, then Lucile Richardot also gives a very fine performance in Prague’s Church of Saints Simon and Jude. But in the end, my first choice has to be Andreas Scholl. Not just for his voice but also because, in the transcendent Cum Dederit (here at 6.15), Vivaldi marks the strings to be played “con piombi” (with lead mutes) and in this recording the orchestra obey, using unusually heavy mutes to produce such atmospheric tones. A wondrous effect.

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