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Nisi Dominus Magnificat

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Today Vivaldi’s extraordinary fame is based largely on his concertos; during his lifetime he was much better known for his sacred compositions, including the Magnificat, recorded here, of which numerous manuscript copies have survived in libraries as far afield as Bohemia

Some of his works were clearly known to Johann Sebastian Bach. It is very likely that some of Vivaldi’s concertos were written with the idea of propagating the success that his church works had obtained at St Mark’s or the Ospedale della Pietà (an ‘orphanage’ for the illegitimate daughters of noblemen). The Magnificat in G minor was written for Solemn Vespers at the Pietà; it compares favourably with most contemporary settings of the hymn to the Virgin Mary, and notably Bach’s.

A first-version manuscript gives the names of the young ladies of the Pietà who sang the work: L’Appolonia, La Chiaretta, L’Ambrosina, La Bolognesa and L’Albetta must have had extraordinary voices, judging by the score!

The boldness of the unison writing in some of the choruses, the deep emotion of some of the arias (‘Qui respexit’, ‘Sicut locutus est’) and above all the brilliant ‘Et misericordia’ evoking the ‘Crucifixus’ from Bach’s B minor Mass or the ‘Qui tollis’ from Mozart’s C minor Mass K417a, show that, although the sheer number of his concertos has tended to devalue his significance, Vivaldi is indeed one of the true geniuses of music.

Psalm 126 is a concerto sacro, a piece from Marian Vespers treated as a solo cantata. Yet it includes neither recitatives nor arias, for in his score Vivaldi follows very closely the meaning of each verse, thus adopting the most appropriate musical form in each case. The music of the ‘Cum dederit’ (‘For so he giveth his beloved sleep’) reappeared again later in his concertos ‘La Notte’ and ‘Il Sonno’. For the doxology, the liturgical formula in praise of the Trinity, the voice is accompanied only by the continuo and an obbligato instrument that appears nowhere else in the work: the viola d’amore.

Carl de Nys.

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