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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Concerti sacri"

Raffaele Pe, alto
La Lira di Orfeo

rec: August 2018, Lodi (I), Teatro alle Vigne
Amadeus - AM 349-2 (© 2018) (62'57")
Liner-notes: I; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

De tenebroso lacu; Infirmata, vulnerata; Salve Regina; Totus amore languens

Andrea Rognoni, Luca Ranzato, violin; Maria Bocelli, viola; Anna Camporini, cello; Alberto Lo Gatto, violone; Chiara Granata, harp; Giangiacomo Pinardi, archlute; Davide Pozzi, organ

For most of his life Alessandro Scarlatti worked in Naples and Rome. He was the most prolific composer of chamber cantatas of his time, but he also composed a large amount of vocal music in other genres, such as opera, oratorio and serenata. His sacred music has received not that many attention. Especially in Rome, composers had to deal with the negative attitude of the ecclesiastical authorities towards opera and the style associated with it. As a result, they often turned to the stile antico, sometimes even explicitly to the style of its main representative, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. So did Scarlatti, but the present disc shows that he also composed sacred works in the style of his time. The pieces included here show strong similarity with his chamber cantatas. However, in one case it is not entirely clear whether it is a true sacred piece, and whether two other works were intended for the liturgy is rather questionable.

The disc opens with one of the texts most frequently set in music history. Salve Regina is one of the four Marian hymns sung during the ecclesiastical year. This particular hymn was intended for the period from Trinity Sunday to the first Sunday of Advent. Its liturgical role is one of the explanations of the many settings of this text. Another one is the importance of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic doctrine, especially since the introduction of the Counter Reformation. Moreover, the text offers quite some opportunity for expressive writing, especially the phrase "to you we cry out (...), to you we sigh, moaning and weeping". These words were frequently used for Seufzer, sighing figures which are part of the rhetorical repertoire of baroque composers. Scarlatti does not miss the opportunity in his setting included here. He also makes use of chromaticism, for instance on the word "flentes" (weeping). The opening is quite eloquent: the word "Salve" is sung three times, every time at a higher pitch, creating a strong sense of urgency. This is one of several settings from Scarlatti's pen. Its tessitura is quite high, and it does not surprise that in other recordings it is performed by a mezzo-soprano.

Next follows De tenebroso lacu, a motet which has come down to us in manuscript. It is about the souls in the purgatory who call out to the living to pray and work for the appeasement of their sufferings. This is the kind of stuff which was dealt with in oratorios in the 17th century. It is questionable whether this motet was intended for ecclesiastical use. It could well have been performed in a domestic environment, as part of private worship. It opens with repeated descending motives in the strings, playing staccato. Dissonances illustrate the word "purgentes" (suffering). The urgency of the incitement "Levate ergo fideles" (Give relief, o ye faithful) is illustrated by a fast tempo. There are quite some melismatic passages in this section. The piece ends with a clear reference to Psalm 129 (130), De profundis: "From the depths we cry, raising once more our plaintive voices, sighing and weeping". The text is illustrated by descending (de profundis) and ascending (nos clamamus) figures. The setting of the words "suspirantes et plangentes" include general pauses, and on the word "dolentes" the voice goes up and down, with frequent melismas and chromaticism. In this section Scarlatti returns to the descending motifs in the strings from the first section.

Totus amore languens is included in a collection of motets, published by Roger in Amsterdam in 1707/08. It is one of a number of motets which Scarlatti wrote for the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. The text has its roots in the mystic tradition of the Middle Ages which was still very much embraced in the Catholic Church of Scarlatti's time. "Its whole being languishing with love and inflamed with ardour for the sacrament at the altar (...)". In the penultimate section, the text says: "Away, earthly food and vain, away! I want you not, I desire not your delights". The word "not" is repeated a number of times, and the fast tempo and lively rhythm emphasize the desire expressed in the text.

Infirmata, vulnerata is an example of a piece of a hybrid nature. The text does not make it crystal clear whether it is secular or sacred. The Latin text suggests the latter, but there is no reference to anything spiritual. It could easily be a secular cantata: "Weak, wounded, vanquished by pure love and overcome with consuming ardour, the blessed soul languishes". Thus the opening aria. The last aria says: "Come, o come my beloved, full of grace, I will love you for all eternity". The latter words strongly refer to the Song of Songs, and this could suggest that the 'beloved' is the Virgin Mary. The most striking section is the aria 'Vulnera percute': "Wound, strike, pierce my heart. I have no fear of your torments". Here again Scarlatti makes use of chromaticism. Musically speaking this motet hardly differs from the chamber cantatas.

It is regrettable that the booklet includes only liner-notes in Italian and omits the lyrics. The latter is not so much a problem as far as the Salve Regina is concerned, which is well-known and can easily be found on the internet. That is different in the case of the three other motets. Those who have the recording by Gérard Lesne (Virgin Classics, 1994) in their collection, should turn to its booklet, as he recorded the same three motets (and another version of the Salve Regina as well). Overall I prefer his performances. However, the interpretations by Raffaelle Pe and La Lira di Orfeo are pretty good. I like Pe's voice, and there is certainly no lack of expression in his account of these four works. The Salve Regina comes off best, and Pe deals well with the high notes in this part. In the other pieces he now and then uses a bit too much vibrato, although it is by far not as bad as one comes to expect in so many performances of baroque vocal music these days. Therefore I am happy that this disc has come my way and I certainly have enjoyed it. The playing of the ensemble leaves nothing to be desired.

This disc seems not to be available from the main sources, such as Presto Classical, eClassical and Qobuz, but at least Discogs has it (see link in the header).

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Raffaele Pe
La Lira di Orfeo

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