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Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626 - 1690): La morte del core penitente

Hana Blažíková (Speranza), Cristina Fanelli (Penitenza), soprano; Raffaele Giordani (Peccatore), tenor
William Shelton, alto; Manuel Nunez Camélino, tenor; Romain Bockler, bass [Coro di Pene]
Ensemble Masques
Dir: Olivier Fortin

rec: August 2022, Corravillers (F), Église de la Nativité-de-Saint-Jean-Baptiste
Alpha - 975 (© 2023) (77'28")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sophie Gent, Tuomo Suni, violin; Kathleen Kajioka, viola; Mélisande Corriveau, cello; Benoît Vanden Bemden, double bass; Manon Papasergio, lirone, harp; André Heinrich, theorbo; Olivier Fortin, harpsichord

Giovanni Legrenzi has always been a pretty well-known figure in music history. Since the beginning of the revival of early music and in particular of historical performance practice, ensembles have played sonatas from his pen, especially from his collection La Cetra. If I am not mistaken, the interest in his vocal music is a more recent development. In recent years several discs have landed on my desk, either entirely devoted to his sacred music or including some vocal works. However, his oratorio La morte del cor penitente has been recorded before: in 1996 Divox released a recording by the ensemble Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca.

Legrenzi came from a relatively humble background: he was born in the village of Clusone, near Bergamo, where his father was violinist at the parish church. His first post was that of organist at S Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, where he restored the city to its former glory as music centre, which had fallen apart after the death of Alessandro Grandi during the plague of 1630. He left Bergamo in 1655 and became maestro di cappella in Ferrara the next year. By 1670 Legrenzi was living in Venice, where he worked at several ospedali. In 1681 he was appointed vice-maestro di cappella at St Mark's, and in 1685 he became maestro di cappella. During Legrenzi's years at San Marco the choir and the instrumental ensemble attained their largest recorded size.

The work-list in New Grove shows that he was a prolific composer. It comprises a number of operas, ten collections of liturgical music, to which have to be added many pieces preserved in manuscript, secular vocal music (three collections of which were printed), and six collections of instrumental works. Legrenzi's oeuvre also includes seven oratorios; four of these are lost. They all belong among the category of the oratorio volgare, the oratorio in the vernacular. The first extant oratorio is Il Sedecia (1676); it was recorded by Riccardo Favera. From that same year is La vendita del core humano which was recorded by the Ensemble Legrenzi (Tactus, 2004; reissued by Brilliant Classics, 93354).

La morte del cor penitente probably dates from 1671, which means that it was written shortly after Legrenzi's settling in Venice. It may have been written for Santa Maria della Fava, the church of the Oratorian Brothers of the Santa Maria della Consolazione, as its official name was. In 1670 Legrenzi had been appointed maestro di cappella of this church. The original score and libretto have not been preserved, but the oratorio was performed later at the imperial court in Vienna, and a copy of the score and a printed libretto dating from 1705 are available.

Italian oratorios of the 17th century, and in particular those which were performed in oratorian circles (following in the footsteps of Filippo Neri), are closely connected to the Counter-Reformation. Especially the oratorio volgare was considered a perfect instrument to communicate the message of the Church of Rome to the 'common people' - those who did not understand Latin. The content of La morte del cor penitente - translated: 'the death of the penitent heart' - is a clear demonstration of the church's doctrine, in sharp contrast to that of the Reformation. As usual, the closing chorus sums up what the oratorio is about. "Now no longer are you proud, Divine Love, of the life-giving temper of your darts, for the dart of suffering also gives eternal life." What this oratorio wants to say is that the sinner can only be saved by repentance. In this work that goes so far that the main character, the Sinner, wants his heart to die. He resists the plea of Hope to hope for the comfort of Heaven. This oratorio's message is diametrically opposed to the heart of Martin Luther's doctrine: that the sinner's salvation is the result of Christ's suffering and death, and that man cannot contribute himself to it.

The three main characters of the oratorio are Sinner (Peccatore; tenor), Penitence (Penitenza; soprano) and Hope (Speranza; soprano). The two parts each end with a five-part chorus. Three voices from that chorus (alto, tenor, bass) act also as a 'chorus of pains', and have short solos as 'one of the pains'. I don't know whether the tenor from the chorus was identical with the interpreter of the role of the Sinner in the first performance, as I have no access to the score. Given the importance of that role the decision to give the part of the tenor to a different singer here seems justified. The instruments are not specified; Fortin has opted for two violins and viola, which is in line with the habits of the time.

The oratorio opens with a long solo of the Sinner, who addresses his eyes and urges them to shed tears. It is one of the signs of true repentance. But it turns out that it is the heart that resists, and that makes the Sinner to look for the death of his heart. He points out his wrongdoings and repeats several times: "And yet you cry not, oh heart?" Penitence supports his attempts to make his heart cry: "Cry, yes, let each sob be worthy of a sinful past. (...) Penitence and sorrow are Heaven's desire." Then Hope enters: "No, no, temper your fury, merciful Heaven accepts the pledge of your Heart, content with your zeal: Would you have pity banished from Heaven?" The Sinner asks: "How is it possible, that such immense pity should be given for my terrible sins?" Hope answers: "Greater than your failures is His pardon." The Sinner rejects Hope's plea: "Of pain, and not of love I follow steadfast the trail; as I once was the lover of love, I am now lover of sorrow." In the second part the Sinner does everything to increase his suffering, with the help of a chorus of pains: "We are here, ready to torment, to dishonour. We are the inexorable pangs, indefatigable assailants, the scourge of mistakes, ministers of suffering." The Sinner reacts: "Oh my Heart, prepare yourself for death."

The oratorio consists of recitatives which often turn into ariosos, and (short) arias; there is mostly no clear distinction between these three forms. The recitatives are not like those of later times; Legrenzi rather follows in the footsteps of the pioneers of the monody. It has been suggested that he was a pupil of Giovanni Rovetta, who was a pupil of Monteverdi. Whether this is true or not, it is evident that he follows the ideals of the early 17th-century composers like Monteverdi in his treatment of the texts. The lyrical episodes show the development which we also observe in the operas by Cavalli. The text is always in the centre, and everything is set, through the use of musical figures and harmony, to bring across the message. The choruses, written in the stile antico, show Legrenzi's command of counterpoint.

The performance is nothing less than ideal. Raffaele Giordani is very impressive in his interpretation of the role of the Sinner. His declamatory way of singing is exactly what this part needs. He perfectly communicates the emotions of the Sinner and makes the listener feel them. Hana Blažíková is one of the finest singers in the early music scene, and she delivers a perfect interpretation of the role of Hope. Cristina Fanelli I have heard for the first time in a recording of music by Alessandro Stradella; I was impressed by her performances, and here she is excellent in her role of Penitence. The three other voices blend perfectly in the trios and choruses, and also leave nothing to be desired in their short solos.

Both parts open with a sinfonia; otherwise the ensemble only plays ritornellos. That is to say: according to the score. In this recording we also hear sinfonias following the recitative in track 06 and the aria in track 13. The booklet does neither inform us about the reasons for this decision by Fortin, nor where the music comes from.

This is a top-class performance of an oratorio, that shows why Legrenzi was held in high esteem in his time. It is regrettable that four of his oratorios have been lost, as this work - and the others that have been preserved - is of excellent quality, both musically and from a dramatic point of view.

On a technical note: the text in track 05 in the booklet is entirely different from that which is sung. I have not been able to figure out what has gone wrong, or where this text comes from. Thanks to the previous recording I was able to follow the singing; I have added the correct text in a text file, which can be downloaded here.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Romain Bockler
Cristina Fanelli
Raffaele Giordani
William Shelton
Ensemble Masques

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