Seventeenth-century music from Venice to Dalmatia
The Marian Consort/Rory McCleery
The Illyria Consort/Bojan Čičič
rec. 2020, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Texts and translations provided
DELPHIAN DCD34260 
The disc to be reviewed here brings us to a part of Europe, which – as far as the performance of music of the renaissance and baroque periods is concerned – can be reckoned among the outskirts of Europe. It would not surprise me if even those who have a more than average knowledge of the music of these periods, can’t mention a single composer from the region that is now known as Croatia. The track-list includes one name that may be more or less familiar: Francesco Usper. Especially some of his instrumental works are sometimes included in programmes of sacred music, for instance Vespers, by Italian composers of the early 17th century. However, I suspect that most listeners to such performances think he was Italian. In fact, he was born in Parenzo, which is now Poreč in Istria.
The present disc is inspired by a mission of Venetian diplomats to Constantinople in 1575. One member of the delegation was Giocomo Soranzo (1518-1599), who had been Venetian ambassador to France and England and was to become ambassador to Constantinople from 1576 to 1581. The voyage is described by a member of the company. There is hardly any reference to music, but the diary is used as an “excuse”, as Bojan Bujić puts it in his liner-notes, “to present in this recording some of the music written by the composers who were active in, or hailed from, the Dalmatian coast along which Soranzo’s party sailed.” He rightly adds that one cannot make a clear distinction between the various regions at the time. There was a constant movement of musicians across the region, and Usper is a good example. He studied with Andrea Gabrieli and made a career in Venice, where he also died.
The fact that this disc is not strictly connected to Soranzo’s voyage also allows to include music that was written well after the voyage, and even after Soranzo’s death. It is a mixture of sacred and secular pieces, of vocal and instrumental works and of pieces in the stile antico and in the concertato style which was dominant in the early decades of the 17th century. The programme is embraced by two pieces by Francesco Usper, whose original name was Sponga and adopted the name of his Venetian patron, Cesare Usper. So did Gabriele Usper, probably Francesco’s nephew. Both pieces by Francesco are very much in the style of the Gabrielis, and are performed here according to the performance practice in Venice, in a mixture of voices and instruments. The Battaglia a 8 is a setting of Psalm 150. The Ave Maria attests to the importance of the veneration of Mary, which had become quite prominent in Venice in the wake of the city’s victory over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. According to Pope Pius V this had been the result of the intervention of the Madonna of the Rosary. Gabriele’s Sonata a 4 is a specimen of the modern style.
Next in the programme are two pieces by Gabriello Puliti, who was born near Arezzo and made his way to Pola (now Pula) in Istria. His motet En dilectus meus, a setting of a text from the Song of Solomon, and his madrigal Donna ingrata show that there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular at the time. The madrigal is strophic, and in between the stanzas the instruments play short ritornellos. The next composer is Vinzenz Jelich or Vinko Jelić, who was from Fiume (now Rijeka), close to Pula. His music is not entirely unknown; like Usper, he sometimes appears in anthologies. At the time Fiume was under the jurisdiction of the Habsburg emperor. Jelich’s career is closely connected to the Habsburgs; he was a member of the chapel of Archduke Ferdinand in Graz, and later moved to Zabern (Alsace), where he became Kapellmeister to Leopold, Ferdinand’s brother. The two sacred concertos included here are both written in the modern monodic style, but are different in the way the voices are treated. Bone Jesu is for two tenors, who mostly sing in homophony; only towards the end each of them has a short solo. Exultate Deo, on the other hand, is a piece for bass solo, and here the declamatory style of the seconda pratica manifests itself.
Soranzo’s company also visited Sebenico (Šibenik), and the two next composers in the programme were from there. It is not known when Schiavetto died, but chronologically he is most close to Soranzo and his Ave Maria is a model of the stile antico. Before the other composer from Sebenico has a say, we get a madrigal by Bartolomeo Sorte, who is in no way connected to the region which is the subject of this disc, but who composed his madrigal I superbi colossi in praise of Soranzo. Then we hear three pieces by Ioannes Lukacich (Ivan Lukačić), who was a member of the Franciscan order. He studied in Rome, returned to Sebenico and moved then to Spalato (now Split). There he became prior of the Franciscan monastery in 1620. This duty he combined for the rest of his life with that of director of music at Spoleto Cathedral. His three pieces are perfect specimens of the new style. Quam pulchra es opens with a statement of the entire ensemble, and this is repeated between the sections allocated to a solo voice. Sicut cedrus is a setting of a responsory for the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, scored for soprano solo, in a purely declamatory style.
The last composer in the programme is Tomaso Cecchino, who was born near Verona and went to Dalmatia in 1603. For two different periods he was maestro de cappella in Spoleto and then moved to Lesina (now Hvar). That move may have been inspired by suspicions that he had Protestant sympathies. Bujić suggests that the limited scorings and the restraint in some of his works – here the three instrumental sonatas – are due to the forces he had at his disposal in Lesina. Surge propera is again a setting of a text from the Song of Solomon and Al vivo sol a madrigal on an anonymous text, scored for soprano and bass.
With Usper’s Battaglia per sonar e cantar we return to where we started. The piece opens with an instrumental episode, and then the text is sung, first by a tenor, then by an alto. The closing section is for the entire ensemble.
This compelling survey of music from the Adriatic coast has convinced me that it is worth to explore the musical heritage of this part of the world. I know very little about the early music scene in Croatia, and it seems that it took some time before the historical performance practice reached the Balkans. I hope that musicians from that part of Europe are willing and have the opportunity to thoroughly examine the available sources and surprise us with the results. The present disc is a good start.
I have greatly enjoyed this disc, not only because of the nature and quality of the repertoire, but also the performances. The Marian Consort’s singing is excellent, and its members do a fine job in their solos. I am especially impressed by the performances of the soprano Lucinda Cox and the bass Edmund Saddington. The Illyria Consort has developed into a top-class ensemble. Recently I have heard some fine recordings by Bojan Čičić and his colleagues, and this disc is another one. The participation of the brilliant cornettist Gawain Glenton is a further asset of this production.
If you like to broaden your musical horizon, don’t miss this disc.
Johan van Veen
Previous review: David Barker (December 2021)
Help us financially by purchasing from
Francesco Usper (c1560-1641)
Gabriele Usper (fl 1609-1632)
Sonata a 4
Gabriello Puliti (c1575-c1642)
En dilectus meus
Vinzenz Jelich (Vinko Jelić) (1596-c1635)
Ricercar a 3
Giulio Schiavetto (Julije Skjavetić) (fl 1562-1565)
Bartolomeo Sorte (?-c1601)
I superbi colossi
Ioannes Lukacich de Sebenico (Ivan Lukačić) (1587-1648)
Quam pulchra es
Tomas Cecchino (Cecchini) (c1583-1644)
Al vivo sol
Battaglia per sonar e cantar a 8