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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Vespro della Beata Vergine"

Netherlands Chamber Choir
Roberto Fernández de Larrinoa, violone; Menno van Delft, organ
Dir: Harry van der Kamp

rec: June 6 - 8, 2007, Amsterdam, St Augustinuskerk
ATMA - ACD2 2533 (© 2010) (59'46")

Ave maris stella a 4; Dixit Dominus a 5; Laetatus sum a 4; Lauda Jerusalem a 4; Laudate pueri Dominum a 5; Magnificat a 5; Nisi Dominus a 4

Barbara Borden, Margriet Stok, Tannie Willemstijn, soprano I; Karin van der Poel, Marjon Strijk, Willemijn van Gent, soprano; Dorien Lievers, Nine van Strien, contralto; Arnon Zlotnik, Paul Yuval Adam, alto; Marcel Beekman, Albert van Ommen, Marc van Heteren, tenor; Kees Jan de Koning, Hugo Oliveira, Peter Dijkstra, bass

Musical life in Rome in the decades around 1700 was incredibly rich and varied, and for many composers it was the place to be. But there was some kind of dichotomy. On the one hand there are the operas and oratorios, with often virtuosic solo parts. These were mostly performed in private circles. Musical practice at public occasions, on the other hand, was much more restrained, under an ecclesiastical regimen. As a result in particular sacred music showed strongly conservative traits, and was often written in the stile antico.

Alessandro Scarlatti was born in Naples where he also worked a considerable part of his life, but he also took positions in Rome. And his sacred music, including the compositions on this disc, reflects the ideals of the ecclesiastical authorities, which the Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini describes as "a sober, orderly style".

Although the title of this disc suggests that we have a Vesper service here, that is not the case. There are no antiphons, and the seven pieces brought together in this programme were not written as a unity. They are various in scoring and texture. The first two items, Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri Dominum, are both for five voices - two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass - with basso continuo. Both are divided into various sections, some of which are scored for one to three solo voices. The next three, Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem, are all for four voices and bc, and neither contains passages for solo voices. The fact that Laetatus sum contains only one verse makes it unlikely it was written for a Vesper service.

In particular Scarlatti's setting of Dixit Dominus is an example of the restraint which is a feature of sacred music in Rome in his time. There are many examples of quite dramatic settings of this text, for instance by Vivaldi and Handel. The latter's dates from 1707 and was also performed in Rome. In comparison Scarlatti is modest in his text expression. Certain words and phrases are singled out, but a verse like "He will shatter kings on the day of his wrath" is far away from the theatrical effects Handel uses here. And where Handel's composition has parts for strings and bc, whereas Scarlatti confines himself to a basso continuo part.

Nisi Dominus is a rather long text, but takes less than three minutes. It is one of the most antique and straightforward pieces at the programme. Much more time is taken for the setting of Ave maris stella. The tempo is slower, and Scarlatti pays much attention to the musical translation of the text. Here we also find examples of the harmonic tension and the dissonances which Scarlatti considered an important element of musical composition.

Harmony is also a means of expression in the last item, a setting of the Magnificat. Here we return to the start of the programme, as it were. Like the Dixit Dominus the Magnificat consists of tutti passages as well as episodes for one or two solo voices. The way Scarlatti dwells on the word "misericordiae" (mercy) is remarkable. The piece ends with the doxology, in which he writes two successive fugues, which once again demonstrate his mastery of the polyphony of the stile antico.

The Netherlands Chamber Choir is a professional ensemble which was founded in the 1930s. It covers a large repertoire from all periods in music history. It often works with specialists in various genres, like Paul Van Nevel, the director of the Huelgas Ensemble, in early music repertoire. The sound of the choir isn't marred by vibrato, and there is no stylistic clash between the tutti and the solo episodes which are sung by members of the choir. Under the direction of Harry van der Kamp, who is a former member of the choir, they give fine performances of these pieces by Alessandro Scarlatti.

A couple of issues have to be mentioned. The delivery isn't always as clear as one would wish, in particular in tutti passages. The basso continuo should have been given more prominence. Sometimes it is hardly audible. Harry van der Kamp has chosen to perform this repertoire with three singers per part. I don't know what kind of vocal forces were common in Scarlatti's time in Rome. It is interesting to compare the performance of the Magnificat with that by the Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini ( He performs it with one voice per part. His interpretation contains stronger contrasts between the various sections, and the harmonic tensions are more clearly exposed than in this performance. That could be the effect of using single voices or probably performing in a different tuning.

This doesn't diminish my great appreciation of this recording which sheds light on a lesser-known part of Alessandro Scarlatti's oeuvre. It makes curious to hear more from it.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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Netherlands Chamber Choir

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