Although much-travelled around Europe, Vivaldi is inextricably linked with Venice and the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage and music school in the city. “Women in Baroque Music” is the theme for the first London Festival of Baroque (the slimmed down successor to the Lufthansa Festival), so an exploration of Vivaldi’s sacred music for the Pietà seemed perfectly natural. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a dab hand at this sort of Baroque repertoire, but on this occasion, it was joined by a rather unnatural choir.

Church of the Ospedale della Pietà © Tony Hisgett | Wikicommons
Church of the Ospedale della Pietà
© Tony Hisgett | Wikicommons

Both boys and girls were educated at the Pietà until they were ten, at which point the boys were apprenticed. Girls were taught a trade, with those showing musical aptitude taken on as figlie in educazione, many staying at the institution into adulthood unless they left to join a convent or received an offer of marriage. A female choir and instrumentalists would perform for liturgical services and their reputation meant visitors flocked to Venice to hear them perform. Unlike other ospedali in Venice, choral music at the Pietà included parts for tenors and basses… and the singers in those parts were female! The tenor parts were written high enough to effectively be second altos. The bass parts, however, were either sung at pitch – when they had singers capable of reaching the low notes – or raised an octave.

The Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi is an amateur group trying to recreate the sound of Vivaldi’s all-female choir. On the evidence of this evening’s concert, it’s a brave attempt, but not without significant problems. As a choir, it makes a pleasant sound, light on the tenors (4) and basses (2) but with enough impact to make the opening of the Gloria RV589 go with a swing. The sound of women singing bass register is not easily forgotten. It is something that may haunt me for some time.

The best of the soloists included Clemmie Franks, who made a decent stab at the florid motet Clarae stellae, scintillate. Anna Shackleton and Clare Woodall duetted well in the Laudamus te in the Gloria. The motet Nulla in mundo pax sincera has become one of Vivaldi’s hit numbers thanks to exposure in the soundtrack to the film Shine. Therefore, Penelope Martin-Smith faced a tough job in such familiar music. She has a light, attractive soprano and her performance grew in confidence, although the voice lacked diaphragm support and there was a tendency to snatch at top notes.

Instead of using these same voices in the many solo roles in Vivaldi’s Gloria and Dixit Dominus and in Nicola Porpora’s very attractive Laetatus sum, the choir instead allotted these solos democratically among many members, with variable results.

Thankfully, the excellent OAE was on hand to provide spirited support, led from the violin by a bow-waving Kati Debretzeni who starred in Vivaldi’s Concerto “for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary”. Here, the orchestra was split into two bands, the finale notable for containing the longest Baroque cadenza I’ve ever heard, Debretzeni polishing it off with graceful charm. Gut strings of the OAE added grainy texture and vigour to proceedings, while David Blackadder’s trumpet contributed effectively to the outer movements of the Gloria.

While the concert had a weird fascination as some sort of laboratory experiment into how Vivaldi’s Pietà choir may have sounded, it’s going to need a more polished, professional vocal group to convince me of the merits.