Out of the Box: Rarely-Heard Vivaldi with Contralto Delphine Galou

Oct 20, 2019

For almost two decades, Naïve Records has set about recording 450 of Vivaldi's works, many of which had never been recorded. It's a massive task, and the newest recordings, the impressive 59th and 60th volumes, exude the same incredible artistry and beauty as the first.

WHAT: Contralto Delphine Galou, Accademia Bizantina, and Ottavio Dantone: Vivaldi Edition, Sacred Music for Alto (Volume 59); & Arias and Cantatas for Contralto (Volume 60).

WHY I THINK YOU'LL LOVE THESE ALBUMS: The atmosphere is spellbinding, thanks in large part to Delphine Galou's voice, which is so agile and clear, especially for an instrument of such a deep, dark, rich timbre. Her contralto lives somewhere between a countertenor's airiness, a soprano's flexibility, and a baritone's grit, and is truly captivating. Also, the history and scope of the recording project is pretty cool too (see below).

MUST HEAR TRACKS: Salve Regina, RV 618 / Cantata, Cessate, omi cessate RV 684

THE VIVALDI EDITION

The Basics: For 20 years, the French record label Naïve has been recording a huge collection of Vivaldi's music, some 450 works, as part of the Vivaldi Edition project. The music was serendipitously salvaged (in manuscript form) in 1930. However, much of it hadn't been explored or recorded until 2000, when Naïve began the project. Today, the Vivaldi Edition is the definitive aural catalog of Vivaldi's music, and the only place to hear nearly all of his music. 

The Whole Story: In 1930, a huge collection of Vivaldi manuscripts - nearly 450 concertos, cantatas, and operas - was purchased by the Italian National Library in Turin. The collection had been exchanging hands, from one private collector to another, for nearly two centuries. Each passing year increased the very real likelihood that some fire, flood, or vigorous and misguided spring cleaning would doom the majority of Vivaldi's total artistic output to that saddest of all musical columns: Lost.

"[If] no new music by Vivaldi had been discovered after 1925... the great wealth of the vocal music he composed would have been regarded as entirely lost." - Musicologist Michael Talbot, on the Vivaldi Edition

But survive it did, and between 1930 and 2000 lived a quiet (one imagines dusty) life in an archive at that library in Turin. Every now and again, someone, like the publishing company Ricordi, would make a modern edition of a concerto manuscript or two and publish them, but for the most part the catalogue sat unexplored.

And then, with the new millennium, came an Italian musicologist named Alberto Basso.

Now, a lot had happened to the music industry since 1930. Most importantly for this story is the Baroque Revival of the 1960s and 70s, with its fierce interest in performing the music from Vivaldi's time in a “historically informed” way, meaning performances true to the instruments and performance practices of the day. With this development, alongside the swift maturity of the record industry, Alberto Basso had the ingredients he needed to do something with that dusty stack of Vivaldi manuscripts sitting in Turin: create a complete aural catalogue.

And so was born the Vivaldi Edition. Since 2000, they have released 60 albums, with several more to come in the next few years. And these aren’t higgledy-piggledy recordings, either. Above all, the Vivaldi Edition places an extremely high premium on quality. That makes it not only the single place where you can hear all of Vivaldi's music, but it's the one place where you want to listen to all of Vivaldi's music. 

For more on the Vivaldi Edition, including how a project like this is funded, I invite you to listen to my interview with the woman who has been part of the project since the beginning, Susan Orlando.

VOLUMES LIX & LX

These two newest albums from the Vivaldi Edition, like the others I have sampled, is of the highest standard of music making. Particularly engaging is Delphine Galou's contralto voice. As a low-voiced singer myself, I can attest to the temptation to relish your own rich, rumbly vocal chords, satisfying you, but leaving the listener with a guarded and hooded, sometimes "woofy" sound.

Delphine Galou has no such problems. Her singing is generous, and her voice, for all its depth, is elegant and agile while not sacrificing any lush sonorousness. More than once I found myself thinking that it has both a countertenor's lows and an alto's highs, and I confess that I've since hunted down other albums she's recorded because I've fallen for her voice. 

As for the albums themselves, they both feature what is probably the most significant music that was preserved by the Italian National Library in Turin when it bought that huge collection of Vivaldi manuscripts in 1930: the vocal music. 

As musicologist Michael Talbot writes in the liner notes to the Vivaldi Edition's 59th volume, Sacred Music for Alto, "[If] no new music by Vivaldi had been discovered after 1925... the great wealth of the vocal music he composed would have been regarded as entirely lost, and the very existence of the sacred music would have remained largely unsuspected." A sobering thought. 

Why? Well apparently, it was unusual for an Italian composer with Vivaldi's status as a teacher and composer of violin to have the chance to write sacred vocal music. That was left to the Directors of Music or for Choirmasters, or more generally "for men of a higher social status than Vivaldi" (Talbot, again). Who knew?

But, thanks to several instances where Vivaldi was called to fill in for said Directors and Choirmasters, individuals who had either died or resigned from the orphanage where Vivaldi taught, he did write sacred music, and it's great! The Salve Regina suggested above is a beautiful example. There are also five other Vivaldi Edition albums dedicated to his sacred music that show off this little-known area of Vivaldi's prowess. 

Meanwhile, Volume 60, Arias and Cantatas for Contralto, presents a form that was well-explored by Italian composers in the 18th century: the chamber cantata. These are secular works and were meant to be sung in "salon" settings. This became popular among the aristocracy but also the emerging "bourgeoisie" because it was a flexible genre, able to "assume the garb of a subtle, refined work for connoisseurs or, on the contrary, to offer itself for consumption by a wide audience of amateurs" (Cesare Fertonani, in the liner notes to Volume 60, which are also exceptionally good). Vivaldi wrote around thirty of these chamber cantatas, and Cessate, omi cessate RV 684 is one of his best.

The Basics, again: Ultimately, these two newest albums (and the entire catalogue) of the Vivaldi Edition help the composer of "The Four Seasons" to be experienced in a way that he rarely is, and in the way he wanted to be experienced: as an undisputed master of all genres of the 18th-century. I hope you enjoy!

For a complete Vivaldi Edition catalogue, visit the Naïve website.