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Milanese Mass and Motets

December 6, 2009


Magnificat’s dazzling singers have done it again. As part of their ongoing project to perform and record the complete works of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, four singers brought her glorious music vividly to life in a performance Saturday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. The four women sang music that Cozzolani wrote for the famous singing nuns in her convent, Santa Radegonda, in 17th-century Milan.

Cozzolani’s setting of a Christmas Mass, In nativitate Domini (The birthday of the Lord), was written to be sung by a male celebrant — in this concert, Hugh Davies, whose expressive chant framed the work. The women formed a chorus, chanting in unison, then blossoming into a quartet to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The quartets, originally sung by women, were published in Cozzolani’s time with tenor and bass parts, which have been given back to women in Magnificat’s performances.

The quartet for this concert consisted of sopranos Catherine Webster and Jennifer Ellis Kampani and altos Meg Bragle and Kristen Dubenion-Smith. Ellis Kampani sang the tenor parts transposed up, Bragle did some at pitch, and Dubenion-Smith, a real alto possessed of a lovely low range, sang bass, sometimes transposed and sometimes at pitch. A bass line provided by cellist Warren Stuart supported the harmony. Hanneke van Proosdij completed the continuo at the organ, playing with wonderful imagination, especially in a couple of solo motets.

Each of the outstanding singers has a unique and beautiful sound, and the combination of their voices, happily reinforced by accurate intonation and stylistic consensus, produces an exceptionally felicitous ensemble sound.

Listen to the Music Cozzolani, Messa a 4 - Kyrie

Cozzolani, O Dulcis Iesu
In addition to the five Mass settings, five motets have been substituted for the Gradual, Offertory, Elevation, Communion, and Deo Gratias of the Mass. The most striking, in composition and performance, was a solo motet, Ecce annuntio vobis (Behold, I announce a great joy), sung by Ellis Kampani. Cozzolani’s setting of the biblical nativity text includes wonderful word painting — cascades of notes for Alleluia, Gloriam, Laudantium (praising), Currunt (running) — and lovely, tender music describing the delicate baby. Ellis Kampani’s sound is gorgeous, and her technical mastery is such that her outpouring of florid passages seems totally inevitable and effortless.

Another solo motet, O praeclara dies (O glorious day), has been reconstructed from a soprano partbook, and this performance was “likely... a modern premiere,” according to the program notes. Webster sang it with lovely feeling. I especially liked her attention to individual words, such as misterium, and her fluid Alleluias.

Virtuosity to Inspire Repeat Visits Ellis Kampani and Bragle sang O dulcis Jesu (O sweet Jesus), a motet in which the two mezzo-soprano parts cross from time to time. The performance, voices matching and complementing each other, was elegant. Quis audivit unquam tale (Who has ever heard of such a thing?) was sung by the two sopranos and Dubenion-Smith — yet another distribution of voices, all three capable of virtuoso singing, and all deliciously suited to more word-painting, going low and high on “O descensum profundissimum, O ascensum sublimissimum” (O deepest descent, O highest ascent).

The Mass ended with a motet, Gloria in altissimus Deo (Glory to God in the highest), a final setting of the Nativity story. Each singer had a solo part, sopranos as angels and altos as shepherds, and together in a final quartet they created a depiction of rushing off to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus, singing successive Alleluias in a long diminuendo, ending pianissimo.

The audience gave Magnificat a well-deserved standing ovation. I heard one audience member tell Warren Stewart that she was going to go to San Francisco the next day to hear the concert all over again. I would have been happy to do likewise.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.