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Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714 - 1774): Requiem

[I] "Requiem"
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Carlo Vistoli, alto; Raffaele Giordani, tenor; Salvo Vitale, bass
Coro e Orchestra Ghislieri
Dir: Giulio Prandi
rec: Nov 19 - 22, 2019, Dobbiaco, Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel (Gustav Mahler Hall)
Arcana - A477 (© 2020) (55'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Requiem & Miserere"
Il Gardellino
Dir: Peter Van Heyghen
rec: Oct 8 - 10, 2019, Antwerp, AMUZ
Passacaille - 1076 (© 2020) (64'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; Helen Charlston, Gaia Petrone, contralto; Daniel Johannsen, Valerio Contaldo, tenor; Sebastian Myrus, Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass

Miserere in g minor (HocJ C1.23) [II]; Missa pro defunctis in E flat (HocJ A1.3) & Libera me in c minor (HocJ E.2)


Once in a while two recordings of the same work are released at about the same time. That is not that surprising, if it is a famous piece, such as Bach's St Matthew Passion or Mozart's Requiem. It is remarkable, though, if it concerns a piece that was hardly known before. The reason may be the recent publication of a modern printed edition, but that is not the case with the Missa pro defunctis by Niccolò Jommelli. Even the composer, although certainly not an unknown quantity, is a relatively marginal figure in the performance practice of our time.

Jommelli is one of those composers who suffers from having lived in a time which was dominated by some of the greats of music history: the young Mozart and his older colleague Haydn. If that is not bad enough, one of the main developments in music history - the 'invention' of the crescendo, or, to be more historically correct, the 'ensemble' or orchestral crescendo - has been attributed to the Mannheim school and to Johann Stamitz as its main representative whereas it is very likely that Jommelli was the first to use it. His contemporary Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote: "It was said that when Jommelli first used this effect in Rome the listeners involuntarily rose from their chairs and they realised that they had stopped to breathe only when the music began to mute again". Rome was the city where Jommelli occupied the post of maestro di cappella at San Pietro. In this position he composed a large amount of sacred music.

His reputation was such that in 1753 he was offered three different positions, in Lisbon, Mannheim and Stuttgart. He chose Stuttgart: his future employer, Carl Eugen, Duke of Würtemberg, was a great lover of music and had been a pupil of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In Stuttgart Jommelli would have almost unlimited possibilities for the composition and performance of music, in particular operas. And here we have to note another tragic side of his biography. Peter Van Heyghen, in his liner-notes to his recording, points out the various features of Jommelli's operas written in Stuttgart, and concludes: "Jommelli and his Stuttgart librettist Mattia Verazi should be regarded as having prepared the way for the Viennese Reform operas of Gluck and Calzabigi". However, that historical role of Jommelli seems hardly to be recognized, and it has certainly not resulted in frequent performances of his operas.

Although Jommelli had written many sacred works during his time in Rome, in Stuttgart he hardly composed any music for the liturgy. That may be due to the fact that the court was Protestant, whereas the Duke was a Catholic. And so was his mother, Maria Augusta von Thurn und Taxis. It seems that Jommelli has written only four sacred works during his time in Stuttgart, and each of them was intended for a special occasion. One of them was his Requiem, which he composed at the occasion of the death of Maria Augusta on 1 February 1756. As there was obviously not much time for the composition of a Requiem mass, he reworked some music he had written earlier. A large part of the Missa pro defunctis is dominated by counterpoint. One could call this work conservative, as was so much music for the Catholic liturgy, known as stile antico or stile osservato. There are only a few moments where Jommelli's credentials in the field of opera manifest themselves. One of them is the Benedictus, a short but unmistakably operatic solo for soprano. The work is not very dramatic, but is rather characterized by "a luminous intimacy which does not, as is normally the case in Requiems of this century and the next, set out to terrify or to impress with spectacular effects, but aims for a beautiful singing style and a subtle narrative in sound, both of which convey a message of profound consolation", Raffaele Mellace states in the liner-notes to the Arcana recording.

The entire work is written in the key of E flat and closely related keys (c minor, B flat major). Mellace calls it a 'sacred key', and refers to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, who described it as the "tonality of love, devotion, intimate dialogue with God and symbolizing, with its three flats, the Holy Trinity". Despite being written in the stile antico, the work includes some graphic text illustration. Van Heyghen mentions some of them, such as two in the Offertorio: a descending chromatic line on "de poenis inferni" (from the pains of hell) and the figure of notes tumbling down on "ne cadant in obscurum" (lest they fall into everlasting darkness).

Jommelli's sacred music from his time in Naples and Rome was probably mainly known there and in other parts of Italy, but his Requiem soon disseminated across Europe. About 130 complete manuscript copies are known. It was regularly performed well into the 19th century, until it was overshadowed by Mozart's Requiem. The fact that so many copies are available, but no autograph, forces the performer to decide which one to use for a performance and/or a recording. In many later performances wind and brass instruments participated, but from the surviving list of payments of the performance at Maria Augusta's funeral it can be concluded that the vocal parts were sung by eight singers - one female and seven male - and the orchestra included four violins and organ. Nothing is known about the other parts. In these two recordings, the instrumental ensembles are of the same size: eight violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and organ. The main difference is in the vocal department. Van Heyghen confines himself to the eight singers involved in the first performance. It is not known whether the solo episodes were divided among all eight singers or four of them acted as soloists, and the other four as ripienists. Van Heyghen opted for the former possibility. In comparison, Prandi uses a choir of twenty singers and four soloists, who don't participate in the tutti. As a result Van Heyghen's performance has a stronger coherence between soli and tutti; the blending of the voices is also better than in Prandi's recording.

The singing of the four soloists in Prandi's performance is generally pretty good, even though it is noticeable that Sandrine Piau and Carlo Vistori take trouble to reduce their vibrato. They mostly succeed, but when in particular Piau is on her own, she let it go, for instance in the Benedictus. The choir is excellent, but because of the smaller number of singers, Van Heyghen's recording is more transparent in the tutti episodes. The eight singers are all in superb form, and as a result the solo passages come off better than in Prandi's recording.

The latter has an interesting advantage. Although Prandi does not pretend to offer a liturgical reconstruction, he did include some plainchant, for which he used sources from the 18th century. The way the plainchant is sung, is also based on 18th-century performance practice. Van Heyghen followed the same procedure in his performance of the second work on the programme, a setting of Miserere mei Deus. This is one of the penitential psalms, but as Jommelli in Stuttgart only seems to have written sacred music for special occasions, it may have been part of the same event as the Requiem. This psalm is also part of the Office of the Dead, which preceded the Requiem at the funeral. However, as the year of composition is not known for sure, this is a matter of speculation. It is an appropriate addition to the Requiem, though, and it is a very nice work, which may also be a useful addition to the music for Passiontide. Again, this work found a wide dissemination: 35 manuscript and printed sources are known. It is an alternatim composition: Jommelli only set the even verses, as well as the first half of the opening verse and the second half of the concluding verse. Most sources don't include any indication of plainchant. Here sources from the early 19th century are used, and the performance is based on treatises from the 17th and 18th centuries.

When two recordings of the same work are released at about the same time, and are reviewed together, the reader may want to know which one is to be preferred. In this case I find it hard to choose. As I have indicated above, I rate the performance of the Requiem by Van Heyghen above that by Prandi, especially because of the way the solo parts are sung. However, Prandi's performance is generally pretty good and I don't want to miss it. The addition of plainchant is a further asset of this recording, which I greatly appreciate. Therefore it can hold its ground alongside Van Heyghen's recording, which has the advantage of a stronger stylistic coherence and the addition of a fine setting of the Miserere. If you can afford it, you may well consider purchasing both discs.

Both recordings bear witness to the great qualities of Jommelli as a composers of sacred music. He and his oeuvre deserve much more attention.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Sandrine Piau
Carlo Vistoli
Il Gardellino

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