Acqua Alta

Acqua Alta
Serikon, Erik Westberg
Footprint FRCD073. 79’30

Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon X à 8, Canzon II á 4, Omnes gentes plaudite minibus; Andrea Gabrieli: Domine ne in furore; Claudio Merulo: Sanctus à 16; Alexander Campkin: Colour Blinds the Eye; Adrian Willaert: De profundis; Barbara Strozzi: Salve Regina; Dario Castello: Sonata Duodecima – Libro II; Giovanni Rovetta: Domine Deus noster; Jan Sandström: Acqua alta.

What a fascinating CD! With music ranging from the Renaissance, via the early Baroque to a composer born in 1984, the programme explores the musical colours of Venice and a none-too-subtle focus on its current environmental issues. Acqua Alta is a collaboration between the Renaissance ensemble Serikon, conductor Erik Westberg and the Artists for the Environment organization, and apparently also involves a meteorologist and climate specialist. With Venice flooding from rising sea levels with increasingly frequently and with higher water levels, it is an obvious city to focus on.  

The CD starts at the time when Venice could be seen as the cultural centre of the world, with the splendidly grand Renaissance music by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo and Adrian Willaert and early Baroque pieces by Giovanni Rovetta, Barbara Strozzi and Dario Castello. Modern pieces composed for this project by Swedish composer Jan Sandström and the young British composer Alexander Campkin complete the programme. Sandström’s Acqua alta uses a description of Venice by the American poet Meena Alexander while Campkin’s Colour Blinds the Eye uses an excerpt from Tao Te Ching, a comment on overindulgence and greed that, incidentally, picks up on some of Venice’s history during the so-called Pax Mongolica. It picks up on Renaissance polyphony with its long intertwining melodic lines and almost chant-like intonations, making evocative use of Serikon’s range of period instruments. Along with several of the other tracks, it includes some delightful singing from soprano Anna Jobrant. She features as an outstanding soloist on Barbara Strozzi’s beautiful Salve Regina.

The use of the phrase Acqua alta to describe the high winter tides that flood the city of Venice goes back to the 9th century. But, as the programme note indicates, around nearly 90% of the highest flood levels have occurred in the past 50 years or so. A photo shows the floor of San Marco covered in flood water in 2008. Although not directly related to Venice’s flooding issues, Sandström’s 20 minute long piece Acqua alta focuses on other Venice issues, including the history of the Jews in Venice and the first ‘ghetto’.  Sandström makes very imaginative use of voices and instruments in a complex sound world with influences from several centuries of musical history and a prominent role for the harpsichord, all in support of the English text. Both these two modern pieces benefit from repeated listening.

The 8 singers and 13 instrumentalists of Serikon make a very impressive sound, with clear and focussed voices and well balanced use of the instruments. The artistic leader of Serikon, trombonist Daniel Stighäll, provides 21 pages of rather personal and extremely comprehensive programme notes, ranging well beyond the remit of the individual pieces. All the notes are in English, and give texts and instrumentation of all the pieces. Although Swedish based, the name of the group (which means ‘silk’) has Venetian influences with the exotic textiles that arrived in Venice from the east, and were further developed with the colours available in the city.

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