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Alessandro MELANI (1639 - 1703): Concerti Spirituali

I Musici del Gran Principe
Dir: Samuele Lastrucci

rec: Feb 2019, Florence, Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Cappella di San Luca)
Brilliant Classics - 95970 (2 CDs) ( 2019) (2.15'07")
Liner-notes: E/IT; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ad arma cor meum a 2bh; Alma Redemptoris a 2df; Cantemus Domino a 2ac; Congregate caetum a 3ach; Date voces pueri a 3acg; Derelinquat impius a 3egh; Ecce salus a 2bd; Eia in arma a 2bd; Fallacicum sono a 2df; Iustus ut palma a 2df; O felix anima a 2eh; Peccantem me quotidie a 2eh; Quae est ista a 5bdfgh; Quid dormis a 3bdf; Recolite memoriam a 5acegh; Salve Mater et Regina a 2bd; Salve superum Regina a 2ac; Spirate zeffiri a 2ab

Francesca Caponia, Benedetta Cortib, Valentina Vitoloc, soprano; Margherita Tanid, Elisabetta Vuocoloe, contralto; Vincenzo Franchini, altof; Francesco Marchetti, tenorg; Alessandro Ravasio, bassh; Valeria Brunelli, cello; Nicola Domeniconi, double bass; Francesco Olivero, theorbo, guitar; Anna Clemente, harpsichord; Dimitri Betti, organ

The rather unusual name of the ensemble I Musici del Gran Principe can be easily explained. Its focus is the rediscovery of the repertoire linked to the dynasty of the Medici who ruled Florence from the first half of the 16th century to the early 18th century. One of the composers who had close ties to the Medici was Alessandro Melani. He dedicated his motets Op. 3 to Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany (1663-1713), who acted as his patron. He was very interested in music, and attracted some of the best musicians of his time, making Florence one of the main centres of music in Italy. Interestingly, it was under his patronage that Bartolomeo Cristofori developed the first fortepiano.

Melani was born in Pistoia as one of seven sons of the bellringer Domenico di Sante Melani. Most of his brothers were musicians, and it seems a number of them were castratos. It is assumed Alessandro was a castrato as well. The most famous singer of the family was Atto, who was also active as a spy. Alessandro started his career as a soprano in Pistoia cathedral, then became maestro di cappella in Orvieto and Ferrara respectively. After his return to Pistoia he was appointed in the same position at the cathedral there, but only four months after his appointment he moved to Rome where he became maestro di cappella of S Maria Maggiore, and about five years later at S Luigi dei Francesi. He remained in Rome until his death.

Melani's oeuvre is considerable, but some of it has been lost. He wrote a number of operas as well as ten oratorios; only four of the latter have been preserved. Melani published four collections of sacred works; one of them has been lost. In addition, many liturgical works have come down to us in manuscript. The present disc includes the complete Op. 3, a set of eighteen motets for two, three or five voices and basso continuo, which were published in Rome in 1682. Only a few are settings of liturgical texts, such as Alma redemptoris mater. Most of the motets are based on free poetry. Unfortunately, the booklet omits the lyrics, which means that it is virtually impossible to say anything about the content of the texts and the way Melani has set them to music. Thanks to the fact that the parts are available at the Petrucci Music Library, it is possible to say at least something about these motets.

The veneration of Mary was a major part of Roman Catholic doctrine and music in the 17th century. That comes to the fore in many collections of music, and these motets by Melani are no exception. Some titles are clear enough: apart from Alma redemptoris mater just mentioned, we have Salve superum Regina and Salve Mater et Regina. The latter is an extension of the antiphon Salve Regina. However, other pieces are also connected to Mary, such as Spirate zeffiri, Quae est ista and O felix anima. Ecce salus and Eia arma are motets for the Holy Sacrament. Recolite memoria and Date voces pueri are motets which can be sung on the feast of every saint. Most of the motets are omni tempore, meaning that they are not intended for a specific feast or time of the ecclesiastical year. Twelve motets are for two voices: six for two sopranos, three for soprano and alto, one for soprano and bass and two for alto and bass. Four motets are for three voices, three of which for two sopranos and alto, tenor and bass respectively, whereas one motet is for alto, tenor and bass. The remaining two motets are for five voices.

The first disc opens with Ad arma cor meum: "To arms, my heart!". The faithful is urged to take up the weapons - among them the "sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God", in order to fight the enemy of the faith. No wonder this piece includes passages of a belligerent character. Peccantem me quotidie ("I who sin every day and am not penitent, the fear of death troubles me"), on the other hand, is rather intimate and is dominated by descending figures. O felix anima opens with a typical rhetorical device: an exclamatio followed by a general pause. Cantemus Domino ends in quite ecstatic fashion as it expresses the joy about the unlimited mercy of God. Date voces pueri celebrates the victory of the saints over the dragon (Satan); the word "victoriam" is repeated many times in increasing exaltation.

It is a real shame that the listener has not access to the lyrics, because that would make the enjoyment of these motets so much stronger. Fortunately, even without them these motets make abundantly clear that Melani was an outstanding composer. This is the first complete recording of his Op. 3, and it is a very valuable and important addition to the discography. These pieces deserve more attention, and hopefully this recording will help to make them better known. The performances leave little to be desired. Only some of the voices are marred by a slight vibrato, but most of them are almost entirely free of them. The singing of all eight singers is excellent. The sopranos and altos play the main role, the tenor participates in only a few motets. I have slight reservations with regard to Alessandro Ravasio: sometimes I find his singing a little too harsh, especially in Ad arma cor meum.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

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