To an outsider, the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the more impenetrable aspects of Roman Catholicism. Renaissance painters were obsessed with her; but there must be many people who have stumbled from a church or a museum feeling that, really, one Virgin and Child is much like another. Similarly, there are times when the prospect of listening to yet more settings of the Salve regina, Ave regina or Stabat mater fails to lift the spirits.
On the face of it, this recording, subtitled ‘Motets to the Virgin from Rome and Venice’, could be expected to engender just such a depression. In fact, there is enough variety in the music to make the listening experience a pleasurable one. Philippe Jaroussky has the range of a soprano and sings with an even tone that is as pure in the upper register as in the lower. His coloratura is accurate and exciting, nowhere more so than in the Legrenzi piece, where he and Marie-Nicole Lemieux are beautifully matched.
Although not all the composers featured wrote operas, it is the operatic style that makes these pieces memorable, especially in the juxtaposition of recitative and aria. Sances’s Stabat mater, for instance, alternates declamation with arioso over a chromatically descending ground bass. At ‘Inflammatus’, Jaroussky cunningly intensifies his tone to signal the peroration.
Bassani’s Corda lingua includes some cheerful writing in thirds for the violins. And Grandi’s O quam tu pulchra es is quite irresistible: words from the Song of Solomon, sensuously sung, and with a languorous theorbo accompaniment that will put you in mind of Shakespeare’s ‘lascivious pleasing of a lute’.