Vivaldi's Gloria: a guide to the work and its best recordings
Andrew Stewart introduces Vivaldi’s much loved choral masterpiece, the Gloria, and finds the recordings which reveal its drama and expressive heart
Countless performances by choirs, both amateur and professional, and an enormous crop of recordings testify to the enduring popularity of one of Antonio Vivaldi’s greatest hits, Gloria.
His Gloria in D major RV589 is so deeply embedded in the choral repertory as to fall into the category of eternal fixtures, a billing that disguises its disappearance for almost two centuries after the composer’s death.
When, and for whom, did Vivaldi compose the Gloria?
Vivaldi's Gloria is a multi-movement setting of 'Gloria in excelsis Deo' – a multi-movement setting of a key text from the Latin Mass (there is also a popular Christmas carol with the same name). Vivaldi's setting was possibly written from 1713-17 – together with a now-lost Kyrie – for the residents of the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four charitable institutions for the orphaned and abandoned girls of Venice, many of whom had been fathered by philandering noblemen or Grand Tour visitors to the north Italian city-state. Vivaldi taught music to and composed for the Pietà’s girls, apparently trusting its talent pool of older singers to perform chorus parts notated for tenor and bass.
The work’s modern revival began in Mussolini’s Italy soon after the outbreak of the Second World War in the autumn of 1939. It was performed in company with Vivaldi’s Stabat mater under the direction of Alfredo Casella during his Vivaldi Week in Siena, a combination that introduced audiences already familiar with his instrumental concertos to the fact that the composer, an ordained priest, also wrote sacred music. It became established as the Vivaldi Gloria (despite the survival of an equally fine setting of the same text by the composer) following the post-war distribution of Casella’s 1941 edition.
The Gloria’s international reach was extended with help from conductor André Jouve’s pioneering recording, made in Paris in 1954, and David Willcocks’s best-selling album, set down in the chapel of Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 1966, before finding favour with period-instrument performers in search of bankable record releases.
What sort of music is Vivaldi's Gloria?
Vivaldi’s Gloria falls within the genre of cantata-mass, a hybrid form in which snippets of text are set for sundry permutations of solo voices, choir and instruments. The emphasis throughout is on textural contrast and expressive variety, and on the clear communication of emotions arising from the words of the mass.
Leaping octaves, rapid-fire trumpet figures and emphatic choral chords set the tone for the opening ‘Gloria’, a combination crafted to magnify God’s glory, plain and simple. A descending sequence in B minor, shared by first and second violins, marks a shift in mood for ‘Et in terra pax’, the longest of the work’s 12 movements; the passing dissonances of its choir parts suggest that earth’s peace is fragile at best and certainly transient.
Vivaldi sends introspection packing with the fiddle upbeat to ‘Laudamus te’, preface to an impassioned duet for solo sopranos that might have been written for the opera house, and gets to the heart of the liturgical matter with a resounding choral declamation of thanks to the creator, ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, and fleet-footed fugal setting of ‘propter magnam gloriam tuam’.
Little imagination is needed to detect echoes of Venetian street music in the instrumental introduction and walking-bass line of ‘Domine Deus’. The alto soloist soon enters into a tender duet with the solo oboist and develops the movement’s main theme with hypnotic melodic variations.
‘Domine Deus, Rex coelestis’ offers a textbook case of Baroque music’s love affair with repeated rhythmic patterns, built here from two-note units comprising a dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver. The figure pervades the movement’s relentless bass line and leaves its unmistakeable mark on a lively dialogue between the choir’s upper and lower voices.
‘Domine Deus, agnus Dei’, a prayer of intercession addressed to the Lamb of God, elevates a chamber aria for solo alto, cello and continuo with the simplest of chordal choir chants, like a call and response from priest to congregation.
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The sense of unfolding ritual continues with ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, an increasingly urgent choral plea for mercy, and the drama of the alto aria ‘Qui sedes’, a heroic projection of the redemptive power of God’s only-begotten son. Vivaldi offers a truncated version of the opening ‘Gloria’, modified to carry the word’s ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, before closing his work with a brisk fugal setting of ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ for choir, strings and solo trumpet, borrowed wholesale from a Gloria by his fellow Venetian, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri.
Do we hear Vivaldi's Gloria as the composer intended?
What successive generations of choristers knew as Vivaldi’s Gloria owed much to the editorial tweaks and ‘improvements’ made to the original score by the Italian composer and musicologist Gian Francesco Malipiero. His edition, published in 1970, has been challenged by recent scholarship and the appearance of new performing versions of the Gloria based on its manuscript source.
There have also been attempts, some more successful than others, to recreate the work as it might have sounded in the chapel of the Pietà as sung by an all-female choir. The evolving history of Vivaldi’s choral classic, like all enduring compositions from the past, contains room for fresh editions and radical approaches to its performance alongside old favourites, a point underlined by the striking diversity of the work’s discography.
The best recordings of Vivaldi's Gloria
Paul Agnew (conductor)
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Lucile Richardot (mezzo); Les Arts Florissants
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905358
If played straight, as it appears on the page, Vivaldi’s Gloria can easily confirm stubborn prejudices about the yawn-inducing predictability of his music. Paul Agnew’s interpretation with Les Arts Florissants is anything but predictable; rather, their recording, released only this summer, reveals fresh inflections and engenders musical and textual interest in each of the work’s movements, so much so that it restores a sense of wonder, even reverence, to the piece. The latter rises from the context that Les Arts Florissants have created for it, framing the Gloria as part of a ‘Great Venetian Mass’.
The speculative reconstruction addresses the perennial question of what to put with Vivaldi’s Gloria: Agnew’s answer is to place it in company with the composer’s Kyrie RV 587, the motet Ostro picta, armata spina, the Credo RV 591, and other liturgical works by Vivaldi, reworded to provide the rest of the Mass Ordinary. The combination works a treat, although anyone familiar with the well-known Beatus vir RV 807 might be thrown by its use here for the Sanctus and Benedictus.
Agnew judges each movement of the Gloria in relation to its part in the whole. He flags Vivaldi’s rhetorical flourishes with myriad details of dynamic shading, shrewdly judged changes of pulse and tempos that feel just right, a strategy ideally suited to the eloquence and elan of Les Arts Florissants and backed by recorded sound both clear and warm. Their opening ‘Gloria’, sprightly yet never rushed, sounds like a genuine response to God’s glory, as if caught in the moment of fervent prayer, likewise the conclusion of ‘Et in terra pax’, made all the more arresting by unwavering choral intonation.
The interpretative ingredients that make this recording special are rooted in Agnew’s long experience as a singer. He encourages his choristers to shine in ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ and ‘Qui tollis’, turning what can readily pass as choral filler into dramatic vignettes, complete with squeeze-box effects on the repeated ‘o’ of ‘gloriam tuam’.
His soloists, soprano Sophie Karthäuser and mezzo Lucile Richardot, take their place as first among chamber-music equals, alive to the admirable work of Les Arts Florissants’ instrumentalists and the meaning of what they are singing. Richardot’s sophisticated account of ‘Domine Deus, agnus Dei’ offers an object lesson in phrasing and the expressive use of consonants. This is one of those all too rare recordings that grow in stature with each repetition.
Hervé Niquet (conductor)
Alpha Classics ALPHA620
The Pietà’s foundling musicians, whose frequent concerts were screened from public view by metal grills, attracted an elite audience from across Europe. Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel imagine how their performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria might have sounded in the Ospedale’s chapel. The omission of trumpet parts is wholly offset by the light blend of all-female voices, six unison altos in the solo movements and a heady combination of continuo instruments. Recorded in 2015, Niquet’s experiment, with its brisk tempos and rhythmic vitality, magnifies the music’s radiant beauty.
David Willcocks (conductor)
Decca 458 6232
Originally released on the Argo label, David Willcocks’s 1966 recording is much more than a museum piece from the days before historically informed performers fully colonised Baroque territory. The rich sound of his King’s College choral scholars marries well with that of the choir’s boy choristers, especially so in the ‘Qui tollis’ and closing fugue, and complements ace playing from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Best of all are Janet Baker’s peerless performance of ‘Domine Deus, agnus Dei’ and the choir’s haunting ‘Et in terra pax’.
Harry Christophers (conductor)
In this 2018 release, Harry Christophers takes an unhurried, delightfully lyrical approach to Vivaldi’s score. The Sixteen’s singers and period instrumentalists let the music flow while mining copious details of articulation and colour: listen, for instance, to the ‘Domine fili’ for an introduction to the ensemble’s sympathetic interdependence or the delightful interaction between Lynda Russell, oboist Anthony Robson and the organ-and-theorbo continuo combo of Laurence Cummings and Robin Jeffrey.
And one to avoid...
Turkeys abound in the catalogue of Vivaldi Glorias. It is surprising that one of them was hatched by Hermann Scherchen, who so often produced persuasive insights into Baroque music. The German conductor’s 1963 live performance with the Choir and Orchestra of RAI Milan is scuppered by submerged recorded sound, a turgid ‘Et in terra pax’ and ditch-dull ‘Laudamus te’, and what today could fairly be called inappropriate choral singing. Compensation comes in the shape of Anna Reynolds’s ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’, although too little and too late.