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Tarquinio MERULA (1595 - 1665): "Musica Sacra"

Mélanie Remauda, Antonella Gianese>sup>b, soprano; Marta Fumagalli, contraltoc; Paolo Borgonovo, tenord; Salvo Vitale, basse
Il Demetrio
Dir: Maurizio Schiavo

rec: June 26 - 29, 2016, Lodi, Chiesa di S. Chiara Nuova
Brilliant Classics - 95270 (© 2017) (55'08")
Liner-notes: E/I; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cantate, jubilatea [1]; Confitebor tibi, Dominecd [2]; Confitebor tibi, Domine 'sopra alla chiacona'abe [3]; Credidie [4]; Favus distillans 'con tre viole, overo tromboni'b [1]; Gaudeamus omnesc [3]; Laetatus sumcd [2]; Laudate pueriabe [2]; Nisi Dominusade [2]; Nisi Dominusc [4]

Sources: [1] Il primo libro de motetti, e sonate concertati, a due, tre, quattro, e cinque voci, op. 6, 1624; [2] Concerto decimo quinto, nel quale, si contiene, Messe, Salmi di piu sorti, concertati in diversi modi, op. 15, 1639; [3] Pegaso, Opra musicale l'Undecima, ove s'odono salmi, motetti, suonate, e letaniae della B.V., libro terzo, [op. 11], 16402; [4] Il terzo libro delli salmi et messa, Concertati a tre e a quattro con istromenti & senza, op. 18, 1652

Ayako Matsunaga, violin; Maurizio Schiavo, violin, viola; Maurizio Less, viola da gamba, great bass violin; Antonio Papetti, cello; Cecilia Medi, dulcian; Andrea Antonel, theorbo; Danilo Costantini, organ

Tarquinio Merula is one of the main representatives of the stile nuovo which manifested itself in the early 17th century in Italy. One of its features was technical virtuosity, both in instrumental and vocal music. This aspect certainly comes to the fore in Merula's oeuvre.

He was born and died in Cremona but worked at several places during his career. In his birthplace he obtained his first job: at an early age he started to work as organist of S. Bartolomeo, the church of the Carmelite Fathers. Having acted as organist at another church in later years he went to Poland; in 1624 his position as organist of Sigismund III, King of Poland, is documented. In 1626 he was back in Cremona, where he was appointed provisional maestro di cappella for the Laudi della Madonna. In 1631 he was appointed in the same function at S Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, as the successor to the famous Alessandro Grandi, who had died the year before. Among the members of the chapel was Giovanni Battista Buonamente, one of the main composers of music for the violin. In the next decades we see him work in turn in Cremona and Bologna; it seems that the main reasons for his moving from one town to the other and vice versa were the unsatisfying working conditions and conflicts over his salary. Merula ended his career in Cremona as organist of the cathedral and as organist and maestro di cappella for the Laudi della Madonna. He held these positions from 1646 until his death.

Today Merula is especially known for one piece, the Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna, a lullaby for Christmastide which is often included in programmes of music for that period of the year and in CD recordings. Its fame is fully justified as it shows Merula's skills in setting a text. That same skills manifest themselves in the present recording of pieces for solo voices from several collections of vocal music, published between 1624 and 1652. Most of the texts are from the book of Psalms. The exception is Favus distillans which is from the Song of Songs: "Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon." It is not surprising that this piece is scored for a single soprano with instrumental accompaniment. Texts from this book are often characterised by a considerable amount of excitement, and that is expressed here in the brilliance of the vocal part, with much coloratura and some very high notes.

The pieces on this disc are all written in the monodic style which was propagated by Giulio Caccini and became the standard in writing for solo voices at the time. Especially in the solo pieces the vocal parts are highly virtuosic, particularly through the abundant inclusion of embellishments. In the pieces for two and three voices Merula is more restrained, but they often include solo passages or sections which are more like the solo pieces. It is quite interesting that some texts can be heard here in two different settings. The two settings of Confitebor tibi Domine have in common that they are both based on a basso ostinato, which greatly contributes to the abundant praise of God: "I will give thanks unto the Lord with my whole heart: secretly among the faithful, and in the congregation". In both pieces the various sections are connected through ritornelli by the strings. It is the scoring which makes them quite different: the first setting which opens the programme and which has the addition sopra alla chiacona is for two sopranos and bass and is very extraverted. The second setting is more restrained and has some intimacy, partly due to the scoring for alto and tenor.

Laetatus sum has the same scoring; the two voices sing in turn or together and also have some extended solo episodes to sing. The opening verse is repeated several times, as a kind of refrain. In Cantate, jubilate we not only hear coloratura but also several large jumps up and down in the soprano part. Not all Psalms offer much opportunity for text illustration. One of the most notable examples is the setting of the words "sicut sagittae" in Nisi Dominus (1639).

Considering that little of Merula's sacred music is available on disc, this is an important release. It clearly shows the composer's qualities and makes one curious for other pieces from this part of his oeuvre. The performances are very respectable. Most of the singers deal impressively with the requirements of Merula's music; only Paolo Borgonovo doesn't fully convince here. However, the singing and playing are not always refined. There are some rough edges: the two sopranos sometimes produce a rather sharp sound, Antonella Gianese sings with too much vibrato in Favus distillans and Salvo Vitale's voice is probably also not to everyone's taste. That said, I prefer such performances to those which are neat but bland and without emotion. You certainly won't get bored here. That is partly due to the performances but first and foremost to Merula's brilliant music.

It is a shame that the booklet omits the lyrics. Fortunately most of them are available on the internet; the best source is ChoralWiki which offers both the original texts and translations in several languages.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Paolo Borgonovo
Marta Fumagalli
Il Demetrio

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