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"Miserere": Allegri/Bai, F Scarlatti, GM da Viadana, Leo

Ensemble William Byrd
Dir: Graham O'Reilly
rec: June 2001, Abbaye de Fontmorigny
Astrée - E 8846 (61'30")

Allegri/Bai: Miserere mei, Deus; Leo: Christus factus est; Miserere mei, Deus; F Scarlatti: Miserere mei, Deus; GM da Viadana: Miserere mei, Deus

Catherine Greuillet, Marie-Pierre Wattiez, Sophie Decaudaveine (soprano), Gemma Coma- Alabert, Brigitte Vinson (mezzosoprano), Vincent Darras, Christophe Laporte (alto), Bruno Boterf, Vincent Bouchot (tenor), François Fauché, Paul Willenbrock (bass), Virginie Descharmes, Meike Augustin (violin), Michel Renard (viola), Pauline Warnier (cello), Yannick Varlet (organ)

This CD is devoted to settings of one of the seven penitential psalms, Miserere mei Deus. Since the 18th century the famous setting by Gregorio Allegri was the setting, which everyone who visited Rome, should have heard. In the late 18th century VIPs went to Rome to hear it.
But it was certainly not the well-known version of today which they heard. That version, published in 1880 in Britain, is much more a reflection of Victorian ideals of how a choir should sound than historically accurate. For liturgical reasons, at the start of the 18th century, a "rival version" was used, composed in 1714 by Tommaso Bai. That setting had so many similarities with Allegri's that many listeners wouldn't have noticed the difference. But those who knew it wasn't the "real thing" were disappointed when they visited the Papal chapel on a day, when Bai's setting was performed. As a form of compromise later in the 18th century both settings were mixed. This version remained the Miserere until the papal chapel was dissolved in the late 19th century. The last 'maestro di capella', Domenico Mustafa, made a score of Bai's setting with one verse of Allegri's, and he added all sorts of indications reflecting the way he remembered the work was performed in the early 19th century. Tempo, dynamics, portamenti reflected the way early 19th century opera was sung.

The booklet contains the whole interesting story of the Miserere by Allegri/Bai, from which I have given a short summary above. The performance given here is based upon the edition by Hugh Keyte. The claim this is a world premiere is wrong. It was already recorded by the Westminster Abbey Consort, directed by Martin Neary (Sony - SK 66615).
Apart from this piece this CD contains a very expressive setting by Alessandro Scarlatti's younger brother Francesco, whose setting shows he was a good composer, but who - for whatever reason - never had any success as such. He seems even to have been in Britain to compete for a position, but didn't succeed. He was in Vienna for the same reason, but lost to Caldara. Then there is another expressive setting of only 4 verses by the unknown composer Giovanni Moro Da Viadana (c1560 - c1610). And the CD ends with the setting by Leonardo Leo, another highly expressive work with very unusual harmonies.

The setting of Allegri/Bai is for voices only, most other pieces with basso continuo, and Francesco Scarlatti with additional strings. All works are performed OVPP (=one voice per part), which is very convincing and gives the opportunity to follow the text very closely. Although I would have preferred a more rhetorical approach - meaning: stressing some syllables more and others less - this is very recommendable recording, in particular since it contains some little known music.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

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