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Benedetto MARCELLO (1686 - 1739): Estro Poetico-Armonico

Caroline Pelon, sopranoa; Mélodie Ruvio, contraltob; Antonio Magarelli, chantc
Dir: Guido Balestracci

rec: Sept 23 - 26, 2016, Molfetta (Bari), Museo Diocesano (Auditorium)
Arcana - A 441 (© 2017) (75'22")
Liner-notes: E/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Salmo XIV: O Signor, chi sarŕ maiac; Salmo XXI: Volgi, mio Dio, deh volgi un de' tuoi guardibc; Salmo XXVII: A te, Signor, che mio sostegno seiab; Salmo XXXVIII: In mezzo alle miserie ond'io son cintoa; Sonata a 3 in c minor, op. 2,2

Sources: Estro poetico armonico, 1724-1727; VI Sonata a tre, Due Violoncello/o/Due Viole di Gamba/e/Violoncello o Basso Continuo, c1736

Guido Balestracci, viola da gamba; Martin Zeller, viola da gamba, cello; Gioacchino de Padova, violone; Manuel de Grange, lute, theorbo; Paolo Corsi, harpsichord, organ

Today Antonio Vivaldi is undoubtedly the most popular Italian composer from the first half of the 18th century. Every year a number of discs with his music are released and his name frequently appears on concert programmes. In comparison his compatriot Benedetto Marcello receives much less attention. His name is far better known than his music. That was quite different in the past. Soon after his death Vivaldi was completely forgotten, and was only rediscovered in the 20th century, as part of the revival of early music. In contrast, Marcello was the best-known Italian baroque composer until the early 20th century. His reputation largely depended on his collection of 50 Psalm settings, which he published between 1724 and 1726.

Marcello was born into an aristocratic family, his father being both a violinist and a politician, a senator in the Venetian government. His mother was an artist and a poet. It was perhaps under her influence that Marcello valued the poetic use of words very highly. Like his father he was active in public life, as a lawyer and administrator. His aristocratic roots prevented him from being active as a professional musician and composer but he presented himself as a nobile dilettante.

Marcello published a treatise under the title Il teatro alla moda in which he dealt with the bad habits prevalent in the theatre at the time. He wanted to reform the style of singing and clear away exaggerated ornamentation. One could consider him an early advocate of naturalness, like Gluck and Tartini later in the 18th century. His ideals come to the fore in this collection of Psalm settings. They are made up of sections of a kind we also know from opera, such as arias and recitatives, but the arias are rather short and dacapo sections are omitted altogether. Marcello did not choose to set the Latin texts of the Vulgata, the then common translation of the Bible. He rather preferred versifications in the vernacular by the poet Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani who, like Marcello, was from Venice.

Most of the Psalms are scored for solo voice(s) and basso continuo. The scores are available on the internet, at the Petrucci Music Library. Here we find the addition "(soloist and chorus)". However, it is questionable whether the polyphonic episodes should be sung by a choir, even a small one, as these Psalm settings were clearly intended for performance in oratories or private academies and it is unlikely that such performances involved choirs. Only two of the Psalms include parts for strings: Nos. 21 (recorded here) and 50. These parts are indicated as being intended for violette. It is not entirely clear which instruments are meant, but Guido Balestracci believes viole da gamba are the most obvious option. Marcello apparently valued the viola da gamba, as he composed a set of six sonatas for two cellos or viole da gamba. The programme of this disc opens with one sonata from this set. Moreover, he described the violette as "instruments that, when played by an expert hand, can easily induce emotions and sadness". This description fits the viola da gamba pretty well.

It is also understandable that Marcello used them for his setting of Psalm 21 (22 in the King James Bible and other Protestant translations). This lament of King David has always been closely connected to Passiontide, as Jesus quotes this Psalm at the Cross. It is the longest, as well as the most expressive and dramatic work on this disc. The viols play a particularly notable role in the expression of the text, for instance in the sixth section: "I am surrounded by enemies, like ferocious bulls that proudly accompany me in this folly. (...) My courage dissolves like water, my bones are all shaken". It is preceded by an equally emotional long recitative.

There is one interesting feature of these Psalms. Marcello makes use of traditional chant, not only from the Christian Church - known as 'Gregorian chant' - but also Hebrew melodies, both liturgical and sephardic songs. In Psalm 21, for instance, he includes a melody of the Germanic Jews, which was also used by composers in the 19th century (for instance Rossini). It is to be sung here by a solo voice, without accompaniment, after the seventh section, in Hebrew. In Psalm 14 (O Signor, chi sarŕ mai), we also find such a passage. Here it is a melody from the Sephardic tradition on words from Psalm 118.

Also notable is that in Psalm 21 Marcello borrows material from a secular cantata from his own pen, Dove fuggisti, o Dio. That was a common practice at the time; Handel was notorious for it. The use of secular material for sacred music sometimes raises questions. However, composers at the time didn't see any problems here. Bach recycled secular cantatas for sacred subjects. Marco Bizzarini, in his liner-notes, mentions the similarity of the affetti between different texts. "It may seem far-fetched to suggest an analogy between David in his affliction, the figure of the crucified Christ on the cross and the amorous sighs of a forlorn and forsaken shepherdess, but the affects - or passions - evoked are certainly similar, despite the two different registers."

Considering the fame of Marcello's Estro armonico-poetico it is rather surprising and disappointing that so few recordings of Psalms from this collection are available on disc. This production is a substantial contribution to the revival of Marcello's collection. The performances are highly expressive, both vocally and instrumentally. Caroline Pelon and Mélodie Ruvio both have nice voices, and they do the text full justice, through the colouring of the voice, excellent articulation and diction and an effective dynamic shading. Unfortunately they mostly use a bit too much vibrato, but that does not withhold me from urging anyone to investigate this disc. The music is superb, and its qualities are convincingly conveyed here. Let's hope more of Marcello's Psalm settings will be recorded in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Mélodie Ruvio

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