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"Totus amore"

Ryland Angel, altoa
Les Folies Françoises
Dir: Patrick Cohën-Akenine
rec: July 2003, Upper Woolhampton (Berkshire, UK), Douai Abbey
Deux Elles – DXL 1054 (© 2006) (66'00")

Giovanni Battista Bassani (1654-1716): Salve Reginaa, antiphon; Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713): Sonata for violin and bc in D, op. 5,1; Sonata for 2 violins and bc in d minor, Op. 1,11; Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725): Follia in d minor, variations for keyboard; Infirmata vulnerataa, motet; Totus amore languensa, motet [1]; Alessandro Stradella (1644-1682): O vos omnesa, motet

(Sources: [1] A Scarlatti, Concerti sacri, 1707-08)

Patrick Cohën-Akenine, Hélène Houzel, violin; François Poly, cello; Pascal Monteilhet, theorbo; Béatrice Martin, harpsichord, organ

It is difficult to find the denominator of the programme on this disc. All music is written by Italian composers somewhere around 1700. Nearly all of them worked in Rome, Giovanni Battista Bassani being the exception: he was called 'Bassani of Ferrara', as he played an important role in the musical life of that city. The character of the music performed here is also very different: chamber music by Corelli, two sacred vocal works and a keyboard piece by Alessandro Scarlatti and two sacred works by Bassani and Stradella respectively. Although Alessandro Scarlatti is the only composer mentioned at the front of the disc, in fact his pieces take less than half of the programme.
This seeming lack of a clear programmatic concept doesn't take anything away of the virtues of this recording, which is an attractive mixture of rather well-known pieces and compositions which are far less frequently performed.

The best-known works are the sonatas by Corelli, of course. Even so, especially the trio sonatas are not that often performed and recorded, and the number of really satisfying recordings is rather small. Here Les Folies Françoises give a very fine performance of the Sonata No 11 from the first opus Corelli published. The contrasts between the movements of this sonata, which follows the pattern of the sonata da chiesa, are well realised. In the basso continuo we hear an organ, although that instrument is nowhere mentioned. The Opus 5 is more popular, and there are a number of very good performances available. Here the Sonata I from the collection is given a very colourful and gestural performance by Patrick Cohën-Akenine.

The two motets by Alessandro Scarlatti are very similar in character. In that time the term 'motet' was used for a composition with a sacred, but non-liturgical text in Latin. Musically the motets are not very different from the secular cantatas of which Scarlatti also composed a large number. Sometimes the texts are not very different either. That is especially the case in the best-known of the two, Infirmata vulnerata, a motet about a 'blessed soul' tormented by love. A line like "O dear, o sweet love, how can you be so cruel to me" could easily be used in a secular cantata as well. And there is no difference in the use of affetti either. Scarlatti uses the voice very effectively, for instance when he sets the word "gravis" (harsh) to a low note. For many male altos this is rather uncomfortable, if they only use their head voice - as most altos in the Anglo-Saxon tradition do. But although Ryland Angel is from that tradition too, I notice with satisfaction that he goes into his chest register to sing the lowest notes, which makes those particularly striking. And he does so with great ease.

Far lesser-known, but certainly not less in quality is the other motet by Scarlatti, which gave this disc its title: Totus amore languens. It is from Scarlatti's only collection of sacred music ever published, Concerti sacri (1707/08). This motet is a contemplation of the Holy Eucharist. The first section sets the tone: "Wholely languishing in love and inflamed with ardour for the sacrament at the altar, the soul that was faithful burned and spoke in rapt ecstasy".
Ecstasy is also characteristic of many pieces about the Virgin Mary. Giovanni Battista Bassani's setting of the Salve Regina is no exception. In the tracklist this is called a 'motet', but in fact it is an antiphon, and part of the liturgy. Like Alessandro Scarlatti Bassani makes use of the low register of the singer's voice, for instance on the word "flentes" (weep). In this part of the work Bassani uses some chromaticism.

The last item is by Alessandro Stradella, like Scarlatti mostly famous for his secular cantatas. O vos omnes is not, as one would expect, set on the well-known text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and part of the liturgy for Holy Week (the fifth of the nine responsories for Matins of Holy Saturday). It is a free text, using elements from the Song of Songs, and is a kind of love song for "sweetest Jesus, beloved Christ". It says farewell to "worldly glory": "only the love of Jesus delights me, in him I live, die and find rest". It closes with an 'Alleluia', as many motets of the time.

As I have already indicated I am pleased by this recording. The instrumentalists, which give such fine interpretations of Corelli's sonatas, are also contributing to the expression in the vocal items. And I am impressed by the singing of Ryland Angel, whom - as far as I can remember - I haven't heard before, but definitely hope to hear more often. He has a beautiful and flexible voice, and expresses the emotions in the texts very well. He also deals admirably with the dramatic contrasts in some pieces, like Infirmata vulnerata. But he could use the messa di voce more often and be a bit more generous in the use of ornamentation. As a result the longer notes would be somewhat less static than they sometimes are here. I also would like him to take a bit more rhythmic freedom in the recitatives.
But this is a most enjoyable recording which I wholeheartedly recommend for the quality of music and performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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