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Orazio BENEVOLO (BENEVOLI) (1605 - 1672): Missa Si Deus pro nobis - Magnificat

Le Concert Spirituel
Dir: Hervé Niquet

rec: Feb 2018, Paris, Église Notre-Dame du Liban
Alpha - 400 (© 2018) (60'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Missa

ambrosian: Aeterna Christi munera; Orazio BENEVOLO: Magnificat a 16; Missa Si Deus pro nobis a 16; Regna terrae; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Canzon XXIX; Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643): Cantate Domino (SV 293); Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (1525-1594): Beata es, virgo Maria a 8; plainchant: Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini; Ne avertas faciem tuam

One of the features of Venetian music of the 16th and early 17th centuries is the use of the technique, known as cori spezzati: the performing apparatus was split into two (or more) choirs. This technique was not only applied in sacred music, but also in secular works and in instrumental pieces. Although Adrian Willaert did not invent it, he played a key role in establishing this technique in Venice, and the likes of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli followed in his footsteps. Composers in the making, who came to Venice to hone their skills, were strongly impressed by the effects and the compositional possibilities of the cori spezzati technique, and used it in their own compositions. The best-known example is Heinrich Schütz.

However, Venice was not the only place where composers wrote music for several choirs. In Rome Palestrina composed some music for double choir, and composers of the next generation followed his example. There was one important difference between Venetian and Roman polychorality. Venetian composers sometimes divided the ensemble in groups of different scorings, such as a choir of higher voices vs one of lower voices (for instance SSAT vs ATBB). Composers in Rome mostly split the ensemble in two equal groups. After the first quarter of the 17th century, polychorality became a marginal phenomenon in Venice, but continued to be popular elsewhere. At the end of the century, Biber created some impressive polychoral works for Salzburg. The most famoous of these works is the Missa Salisburgensis for 53 voices, which for a long time was attributed to Orazio Benevolo (or Benevoli). He was an exponent of a style baptized by musicologists as 'colossal Baroque'.

Benevoli was born and died in Rome; he was just 18 years of age when he was appointed maestro di cappella of S Maria in Trastevere. In 1630 he moved to San Spirito in Sassia, where he took a similar position as successor to Gregorio Allegri. From 1638 to 1644 he acted as maestro di cappella of S Luigi dei Francesi. From 1644 to 1646 he was in Vienna, and in 1646 he became maestro di cappella of Cappella Giulia at S Pietro, as successor to Virgilio Mazzocchi, one of Rome's main composers of sacred music. Despite his prominent position in Rome very few of Benevoli's compositions were published in his lifetime. He composed many works in polychoral style.

Denis Morrier, in his liner-notes, includes some interesting information about the way such music was performed. "André Maugars, in his Réponse faite ŕ un curieux sur le sentiment de la musique en Italie, written in Rome on 1 October 1639, describes the way the musicians were arranged in the church of La Minerva on the feast of St Dominic. There were ten cori: two in the fixed galleries situated on either side of the choir of the church, and eight others symmetrically distributed along the nave, on palchi (platforms) erected for the occasion. Each additional gallery was equipped with a positive organ. Maugars also mentions other instruments, accompanying the voices or performing instrumental pieces." Unfortunately he does not mention what kind of music was performed. One of the notable aspects of this recording of Benevolo's Missa Si Deus pro nobis, thought to be written in 1660, is that the sixteen voices are not divided into foir choirs, as one may expect, but in eight groups. Apparently, this was a decision taken by Hervé Niquet, as the score only refers to four choirs. Perhaps it was meant as an attempt to improve the intelligibility of the text. To no avail, but fortunately the text of the mass is well-known.

Unfortunately, the booklet does not provide us with any information about decisions concerning performance practice. It raises several questions, not only with regard to the line-up, but also about the way the programme has been constructed. At first sight the mass seems to be put into a liturgical context. The programme opens with the hymn Aeterna Christi munera, performed as a procession chant. Niquet opted for an Ambrosian chant, which is rather questionable, considering that this played a relatively marginal role in liturgical music at the time, and Ambrosian chant was also largely a Milanese speciality. Next is Claudio Monteverdi's motet Cantate Domino: this seems to be meant as Introitus, but the track-list doesn't say so. Moreover, how plausible is it that a motet by Monteverdi, published in 1620, was performed in Rome in 1660? The track-list does not give any indication as to which singers and players are involved in single parts of the programme, but it seems that this motet is performed with the full ensemble. Considering the scoring for six voices and basso continuo and the importance of the text in Monteverdi's sacred works, this was a pretty bad decision.

In Mass, Kyrie and Gloria are always performed without interruption. Here they are separated by Palestrina's motet Beata es, Virgo Maria. It is entirely unclear what this motet's liturgical function may be. And for what reason this particular motet was chosen? It is performed here instrumentally. The Gloria is followed by the gradual Ne avertas faciem tuam, sung in plainchant, the Credo by a canzona by Frescobaldi, substituting for the offertorio. After the Sanctus, we hear a motet by Benevolo, Regna terrae, a setting of two verses from Psalm 67. Apparently this is included by way of an elevation motet, but once again the track-list does not inform us about its function. The programme ends with a 16-part setting of the Magnificat, which is performed here as communion. This is a rather odd choice, as the Magnificat has its liturgical place in Vespers.

All in all, I am in two minds about this production. The singing and playing is fine, and there is little to criticise about the actual performance, except that the text is mostly hard to understand. However, in polychoral music that was probably not the main concern of composers and performers. Such music was mainly meant to make an impression, and Benevolo's Missa Si Deus pro nobis certainly does that. However, the line-up is debatable. As I indicated above, I am not sure why the ensemble was split into eight rather than four groups. The liner-notes should have been more specific about aspects of performance practice, and some information on what is known about performance circumstances in Rome at the time would have been useful. The construction of the programme is also rather mysterious.

In any case, it is nice that Orazio Benevolo, who receives not that many attention and who is not well represented on disc, is put into the limelight here.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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