Chiara Margarita Cozzolani was a Milanese nun and the most conspicuous and prolific female composer of sacred music during the seventeenth century. The singing voices of the nuns of Cozzolani's order are spoken of in contemporary documents in the same exalted terms reserved for those who worked under Vivaldi's tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietà about 40 years after Cozzolani's passed into history. As singing leader, primary composer, and sometimes Mother Superior to the order, Cozzolani had a lot to do with their success, and her surviving output, while scant, takes us out of our time and back to the Convent of Santa Radegonda in which she held sway over the best musicians in Milan -- and not a man among them. Cozzolani's music represents some of the most complex and rhythmically vibrant to be found from the 1640s, and that's saying a lot, as Monteverdi was still around for part of that time and the Rossis, Lawes, Cavalli, and Schütz were all at their peak of activity. Cozzolani can be heard to great advantage on Musica Omnia's Chiara Margarita Cozzolani: Vespro della Beata Vergine, featuring the San Francisco-based early music ensemble Magnificat under the direction of Warren Stewart.
Only two of Cozzolani's publications have survived, and these vesper settings are derived from both volumes; this disc is the first in a series in which Stewart and Magnificat hope to record Cozzolani's complete output. All of the pieces are presented with appropriate incipits of chant that relate to the compositions, which range from rolling, highly ornamented pieces for two voices up to dense double choruses of eight voices. The mere sound of the women's voices swelling up into large chords formed from diverse lines of polyphony is in itself exhilarating to listen to, and the vocalists pulling for Cozzolani here are from among some of the best in the early music business -- Catherine Webster, Jennifer Ellis, Ruth Escher, and Andrea Fullington to name a few.
There are many moments in this collection that are as exciting as anything in the works of Hildegard, and far less conjecture in play as to the interpretation of the music. The set includes a useful third disc in which Stewart hits some of the high points in Cozzolani's oeuvre, presented in the manner of an informal radio program rather than a lecture-demonstration, and there is no extra charge for the presence of this disc. It is hard to see how those who already love Monteverdi, or Baroque vocal music of the seventeenth century, will want to resist Musica Omnia's Cozzolani: Vespro della Beata Vergine; however, it may also hold appeal for those whose enthusiasm runs to Hildegard, or to women composers in general. Cozzolani was unquestionably a breed apart from other composers, male or female, of her time or ours.