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Alessandro MELANI (1639 - 1703): "L'Europa - Sacred Works"

Veronika Winter (Europab)acd, Cornelia Samuelisacd, soprano; Kai Wessel (Amoreb), altoacd; Benoît Haller, tenoracd; Ekkehard Abele (Gioveb), bassacd
Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: May 19 - 21, 2008, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 777 408-2 (© 2008) (75'45")

Beatus vira; L'Europa, Introduzioneb; Magnificatc; Requiemd

Alessandro Melani is one of the many composers from the second half of the 17th century who are almost completely forgotten today. In such cases I often refer to the fact that in their own time they were composers of a high reputation. In this case that is a bit different as he was the object of fiery attacks. It seems, though, that the reasons were not so much musical, but rather political.

Alessandro Melani was one of the seven sons of Domenico di Sante Melani, who was bellringer of Pistoia Cathedral. All of them made a career in music, some of them as soprano and alto castratos. It is assumed Alessandro was also a castrato. His older brother Atto was the most famous singer, who interpreted the title role of Luigi Rossi's opera Orfeo in Paris in 1647. In 1660 he was again in Paris to sing in Cavalli's Xerse. He was a favourite of the French king Louis XIV who hired him as a spy. As he visited many courts throughout Europe he was quite useful in this capacity, and it seems he performed his duties with great enthusiasm. The American musicologist Robert Lamar Weaver noted several examples of strong criticism, like the assessment that Melani's compositions were "fanfares for the devil". In his liner notes Thomas Höft suggests the activities of his brother could well be responsible for this kind of vicious criticism.

That is all the more plausible as Melani's career doesn't suggest he was considered a mediocre composer. He started as a singer in Pistoia Cathedral, then became maestro di cappella in Orvieto and Ferrara, and returned to Pistoia in 1667 to take over the same position in the Cathedral there. It lasted only four months, though, as he was appointed maestro di cappella of S Maria Maggiore in Rome. In 1672 he was maestro di cappella of S Luigi dei Francesci in Rome, which position he held until his death.

Melani composed eight oratorios, a large number of liturgical works, but also a considerable number of secular works, including operas. The main work on this disc is an Introduzione, in fact a kind of serenata. It revolves around Europe, a Phoenician woman of high lineage. When Zeus falls in love with her, he abducts her in the shape of a bull. In his L'Europa three characters appear: Amor (Amore), Europe (Europa) and Jupiter (Giove). It begins with Amor declaring his power which nobody can resist. Then we meet Europe, who complains of being captured by a bull, and then to her surprise discovers the beast changes into a human being. He explains that he is Jupiter and that he has been hit by Amor's arrows. She resists his advances, but then she is hit by Amor's arrows as well, and falls for Jupiter. The work concludes with a terzet: "May each loving soul know that love alone will always triumph over a heart. Whether it's mortal or divine, each heart is subject to the passion of the child god".

The three roles are appropriately scored. Kai Wessel gives a very subtle and effective account of the role of Amor. Veronika Winter is impressive in the way she portrays Europe. And Ekkehard Abele sings the role of Jupiter beautifully, without exaggerating the rude side of his character. There is nothing wrong with the music, on the contrary, and this piece supports the view that Melani deserves a place among the great composers of the late 17th century.

This view is underpinned by the three sacred pieces which are performed here. The Requiem consists of only three sections: the gradual 'Requiem aeternam', the tract 'Absolve Domine' and the sequence 'Dies irae'. It is scored for two solo voices - soprano and alto - with three additional ripienists, instruments and bc. It is an expressive work, and particularly 'Rex tremendae maiestatis' and 'Lacrimosa dies illa' stand out.

There are many expressive settings of Psalm 111 (112), Beatus vir, in music history, and Melani's is one of them. There are strong dissonants on the verse 'Exortum est in tenebris', and in the verse 'Jucundus homo' the soprano is supported by fierce chords in the strings on the passage "non commovebitur": "until he see his desire upon his enemies". The disc ends with a setting of the Magnificat and here again Melani has translated the text into music in a highly expressive way.

The performances of Melani's compositions on this disc leave nothing to be desired. All soloists have very fine voices and sing with great understanding and very stylishly. The instrumental ensemble acts at the same level.

The Introduzione is divided into three episodes with instrumental interludes by Georg Muffat and Bernardo Pasquini. I don't see the need for that, and in particular Muffat's pieces are stylistically a bit too far away from Melani's idiom. But this is only a small reservation about a recording which can only be strongly recommended.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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