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Benedetto MARCELLO (1686 - 1739): "Conserva me Domine"

Terry Wey, altoa
La Gioia Armonica
Dir: Jürgen Banholzer

rec: Sept 15 - 18, 2015, Nieder-Rosbach (D), Burgkirche
CPO - 555 098-2 (© 2017) (69'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D/E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Marcello, Estro poetico armonico

Melchiorre CHIESA (fl 1758-1799): Sonata à due, salterio e basso obligatobfh; Benedetto MARCELLO: Salmo VIII: Domine Dominus noster (O di che lode) (S 608) [2]; Salmo XV: Conserva me, Domine (Signor, dall'empia gente) (S 615)abcdefh [2]; Sonata in g minor, op. 2,3 (S 771)bfh [1]; Giovanni Battista MARTINI (c1706-1784): Ex tractatu Sancti Augustini Episcopi super Psalmos (Protexisti me Deus)afgh; Antonio SACCHINI (1730-1786): Lamentazione Seconda del Giovedi [Venerdi] Santoabcfh

Sources: Benedetto Marcello, [1] Suonate a flauto solo, op. 2, 1712; [2] Estro poetico armonico, 1724-1727

Margit Übellacker, salteriob; Patrick Sepec, celloc; Matthias Müller, violoned; Loredana Gintoli, harpe; Michael Freimuth, lutef; Andreas Küppers, harpsichordg; Jürgen Banholzer, organh

The name of Benedetto Marcello figures prominently at the frontispiece of this disc. However, his music takes about 34 minutes, a little more than half of the programme. Strictly speaking the other composers are not his contemporaries, as they belong to later generations. So what then keeps the pieces in the programme together? Jürgen Banholzer, in his liner-notes, explains that Psalm 15 "like the other three vocal texts featured on our program, formed part of the liturgy during Holy Week: 'Conserva me Domine' was the third psalm of the first nocturn on Holy Saturday". The pieces by Martini and Sacchini are certainly also intended for Holy Week. In the case of Psalm 8 the connection to Holy Week is not entirely clear. There seems to be no liturgical connection, but Jesus quotes this psalm after his entry into Jerusalem in reply to complaints by the chief priests and scribes about the singing of the children. And Bach's St John Passion opens with a chorus, whose A section is a setting of the second verse from this psalm. Marcello's setting of Psalm 8 opens the programme. Obviously the instrumental pieces have no liturgical function at all. Another thread of the programme seems to be the prominent role of the salterio. It participates in every piece, but only in the compositions by Martini, Chiesa and Sacchini does it have an obbligato part. In the other pieces it is part of the basso continuo group.

Benedetto Marcello was one of the prominent composers of his time, but he was in one way very different from his peers. His aristocratic roots prevented him from being active as a professional musician and composer; therefore he presented himself as a nobile dilettante. It was mainly vocal music which was the focus of his attention. Although some collections with instrumental music - concertos and sonatas - and some harpsichord works were printed, it was through his chamber duets and his collection of Psalms that he became famous. The latter comprises the first 50 Psalms in an Italian paraphrase by the poet Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani. The name of the collection, Estro poetico armonico, is interesting as this was also the title of a collection of concertos by Vivaldi which he had published as his Op. 3 in Amsterdam in 1711. It has been suggested that Marcello's title could have been intended as a taunt in Vivaldi's direction. It may have been his way of indicating what he thought was lacking in Vivaldi's music: poetry. Marcello himself was praised for "strength and regularity of design", and for "noble simplicity". This simplicity was a feature associated with 'early music', meaning the music of the 16th century and early 17th century, in which Marcello was strongly interested. In a way one can see him as an early representative of what would become the standard in the time of Giuseppe Tartini. The ideal of 'naturalness' also comes to the fore in the scoring: all the Psalms are set for one or several voices and basso continuo; only occasionally does Marcello add an obbligato instrumental part. His being inspired by ancient music - meaning the music of Greek antiquity - also made him prefer the alto voice over the soprano. He attempted to prove that voices which exceeded the range of the alto voice "were excluded from the ancient tone systems and therefore apparently were felt to be unpleasant during ancient times", as Banholzer summarises his view.

His settings reflect his aiming at naturalness. In Psalm 8 the first two verses are set as a dacapo aria: the second verse is the B section. The next verses are alternatively set as recitatives and arias, but there are no dacapos. The lyrical character of this setting perfectly matches the content of this psalm. The text of Psalm 15 is different: it includes various passages in which the poet expresses his anger. To give just one example: "May every memory of them perish, and may the name of such impious and impure worship be removed from the earth." Marcello doesn't miss the opportunity to express this anger in his music, but never in a really operatic way. Again, in the arias he avoids dacapos, and obviously there are also no cadenzas.

The motet by Giovanni Battista Martini is very different. He has become famous as 'Padre Martini', who was the teacher of many composers, among them Johann Christian Bach, and who was also visited by the young Mozart. He was in contact with many of his contemporaries, and had a special liking for counterpoint. He was one of the few Italian composers who knew the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, in his own music he is often quite modern, and the motet recorded here is a good example. The title seems rather strange: Ex tractatu Sancti Augustini Episcopi super Psalmos - From the Tractate about the Psalms by Bishop St Augustine. This is not merely the title of the piece, but also the text of the opening aria, following an instrumental introduction of the two obbligato instruments: the salterio and the harpsichord. It is followed by a recitative on the third verse from Psalm 63: "You have protected me, O God, from the assembly of the wicked, from the multitude of evildoers". Next follows a sequence of recitatives and arias about the Passion of Jesus. The arias are very short, mostly just one line. Because of that there are no dacapos, but quite a lot of coloratura, and one aria has a cadenza.

The second vocal item with an obbligato part for the salterio is the Lamentazione seconda del giovedi santo by Antonio Sacchini. He was from Florence and made an international career which brought him to London and then to Paris, where he died. He is considered one of the main contributors to the genre of the opera seria in the second half of the 18th century. Apparently the title of the manuscript includes an error, because the text is in fact intended for Good Friday rather than Maundy Thursday. As was common practice the Hebrew letters are vocalises. The text itself is divided into recitatives and arias, including some dacapos.

Two instrumental pieces round of the programme. Marcello's Sonata in g minor is from a set of twelve sonatas for recorder and basso continuo which were published in Venice in 1712 and reprinted in London in 1732. It follows the then common pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa. Here the recorder part is played at the salterio. In contrast the Sonata a due by Melchiorre Chiesa is explicitly scored for an obbligato salterio and bass; the latter is performed here by lute and organ. Little is known about Chiesa; he worked most of his life in Milan where he participated in a performance of Mozart's opera Mitridate. His sonata has three movements: fast - slow - fast.

Despite my reservations about the way the programme has been put together, this is a most intriguing and captivating disc. Marcello's Psalms are really different from what was generally written at the time. Only a small part of his collection is available on disc, and Terry Wey's performance shows that this is very regrettable. It is music which still has much appeal, but requires a non-operatic approach. And that is exactly what we get here; Wey's pure voice is perfectly suited to these Psalms. However, the more dramatic elements of the music performed here are not lost on him either, as the setting of Psalm 15 proves. He has no problems with the coloratura in the pieces by Martini and Sacchini. Margit Übellacker is a specialist in music for the salterio, and over the years she has played a major role in bringing the important role of this instrument in the 18th century to our attention. She delivers fine performances in both the vocal and the instrumental items. I prefer Marcello's sonata in a performance on the recorder, but the salterio does quite nicely as well.

This is a musically satisfying disc which opens new horizons.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Terry Wey
La Gioia Armonica

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