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Girolamo ABOS (1715 - 1760): "A Maltese Christmas"

Maďlys de Villoutreysac, Zoë Brown (solob), soprano; Myriam Arbouz, contralto; George Pooley, tenor; Mauro Borgioni, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Jan 21, 2015 (live), Valletta, St.-Paul's Anglican Pro-Cathedral
CPO - 777 978-2 (© 2015) (67'53")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israela; Magnificatb; Messa a due coric

[coro II]c Charmian Bedford, Christiane Rittner, soprano; Dominique Bilitza, contralto; Vladimir Tarasov, tenor; Jonathan Brown, bass

Classical music which is documented on disc is mostly from the larger countries of Europe. Countries like Sweden, Poland or Portugal are at the borders of the musical landscape. That is even more the case with the Mediterranean island of Malta. In the experience of most music lovers it may even not be part of their musical map. I can't remember having ever heard any music written by a composer from Malta. That makes the present disc quite unique, even though the composer made a career in Italy.

The latter fact makes it less relevant to have a look at Maltese music history. Polyphony was introduced here in the mid-16th century. The names of several composers who acted as maestri di cappella in the cathedral of Mdina, then the island's capital, are known. The oldest extant composition by a composer from Malta is the motet Beatus vir from 1652 by Giuseppe Balzano (1616–1700). He was also the first homegrown composer who occupied that post. He was followed by other Maltese-born composers, but they all received their musical education at conservatories in Naples. That was also the case with Girolamo Abos.

His grandfather was from France and settled in Malta in 1660. As a child Girolamo went to Naples to study at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesů. Among his teachers was Francesco Durante; it is documented that Abos copied a work by his teacher. In 1742 Abos' first opera was performed; in the next years other operas from his pen were performed in Naples, Venice, Rome and Turin. He also contributed to pasticcios performed in the 1750s in various towns, including Vienna and London. In addition he wrote an oratio and a sacred melodrama.

His output of liturgical music is rather small. The work-list in New Grove mentions two masses, a Magnificat, a setting of the Litanies, a set of Lamentations for Holy Week, two settings of the Dixit Dominus, a Stabat mater and a handful of other pieces. His sacred works are written in the galant idiom which was dominant in his time, and they also show the influence of Durante, for instance in the mixture of traditional polyphony - of which Durante was a prominent representative - and the modern fashions. The latter come to the fore, for instance, in the solos in the sacred pieces recorded here which are in operatic style and include cadenzas.

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel is a setting of the Canticle of Zachariah. Frederick Aquilina, in his liner-notes, mentions that there are very few settings of this text by Maltese composers. It is my impression that this not only goes for Maltese composers but that in general there are not that many large-scale compositions of this text, unlike - for instance - choral settings in Services by English composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. This work is for five voices - tutti and solo - with an orchestra of strings (without violas), pairs of oboes and horns/trumpets, obbligato bassoon and bc. The bassoon plays a prominent role in the aria for the bass (In sanctitate) which includes some very low notes. According to Aquilina it was a Neapolitan habit to give the bass a part with wide intervals. It reminds me of the Mattutino de' Morti by Davide Perez - another composer from Naples - which includes a bass part with perhaps the lowest notes a bass can sing. Part of that work is a responsory in which the bass is accompanied by two bassoons. These are quite interesting parallels with this work by Abos. It opens with a section for the tutti which is followed by a duet for soprano and alto, solos for soprano, bass and alto respectively and ends with two tutti sections embracing another solo for the soprano. There is quite some text expression, for instance through modulations, harmonic progressions and chromaticism. The work concludes with a doxology which is not - as tradition would have it - in stile antico but rather in modern style, with voices and instruments largely moving forward in parallel thirds and sixths.

The Magnificat is for four voices - tutti with short solo interventions - and an ensemble of strings, two horns and bc. It is divided into five sections. Again it includes some modulations and a solo for bass with wide leaps. In this piece Abos links up with tradition in the doxology which is written in the stile antico.

Aquilina suggests these two pieces may date from the last decade of Abos' life. In the case of the Messa a due cori the year of composition is known: 1756. It is scored for two choirs of five voices each (SSATB) and orchestra. The latter comprises two oboes, two horns/trumpets, strings and bc. This is a so-called missa brevis, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria. The Kyrie is for the tutti; the Christe eleison - in the form of a double fugue - includes daring harmonic progressions in the interest of text expression. The Gloria is divided into eight sections: four for the tutti, three for soprano solo; one is a trio for soprano, alto and bass. As in so many mass sections the 'Laudamus te' is for soprano solo (cf. Bach's Mass in b minor). It is remarkable that the two sections before the doxology are both solos for the soprano. Like in Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel the solos are in operatic style. The doxology is again in the stile antico.

Obviously these pieces are recorded here for the first time. They are certainly well worth being explored and I hope that other pieces from Abos' oeuvre will be performed and recorded in the future. I have especially enjoyed the Magnificat and the Mass. I was a little less impressed by Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel but that is probably largely due to the performance which I am not that happy about. That is especially because of the soloists using quite a lot of vibrato, in particular Maďlys de Villoutreys. That not only damages her solos, but also the tutti sections as this is a one-to-a-part performance, with the soloists also taking care of the choral parts. I am a bit surprised by this as I have heard several recordings with Ms de Villoutreys where I admired her singing. It could well be due to this being the recording of a live performance. In the other two works the soloists are not completely free from vibrato but there it is not obtrusive and didn't spoil my enjoyment. Mauro Borgioni deals well with his demanding part but the lowest notes in the bass aria don't fully come off. The Kölner Akademie delivers good performances of the orchestral parts.

On balance this is a disc which is well worth investigating. Especially if you like Neapolitan music of the mid-18th century this seems an interesting addition to your CD collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Maďlys de Villoutreys
Kölner Akademie

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