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George Frederic HANDEL, Domenico SARRI, Antonio VIVALDI: Dixit Dominus

[I] George Frederic HANDEL, Antonio VIVALDI: Dixit Dominus
Lucy Crowe, sopranoc
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates
rec: March 2012, London, Lyndhurst Hall, (Air Studios)
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807587 (© 2012) (75'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Score Handel

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)a; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Dixit Dominus (RV 807)b; In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626)c

[LNM, soli] Augusta Hebberta, Helen-Jane Howellsb, Anna Dennisa, Esther Brazilb, soprano; Christopher Lowrey, altoab; Simon Wall, Tom Raskin, tenorab; James Arthur, bassab

[II] Domenico SARRI (1679 - 1744): "Dixit Dominus - Missa"
Anja Zügner, Mari Perlt, soprano; Annakathrin Laabs, mezzo-soprano; Andreas Post, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass
Sächsisches Vocalensemble; Batzdorfer Hofkapelle
Dir: Matthias Jung
rec: Jan 1 - 3, 2011, Dresden, Lukaskirche
CPO - 777 726-2 (© 2012) (73'24)
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Dixit Dominus; Missa

Psalm 109 (110), Dixit Dominus, is one of the most frequently set psalms in the baroque era. "The reason is simple: it so happens that within the cycle of five psalms sung daily at Vespers the Dixit Dominus is prescribed as the invariable opening psalm, whereas the choice of the remaining four alters from day to day", Michael Talbot states in the liner notes to the Harmonia mundi disc. There could well be another reason: some verses of this psalm are very dramatic. "The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries" - these lines must have been a great challenge to composers. This reference to Judgement Day is one of the reasons that composers often included a trumpet part in their settings. That makes it all the more remarkable that Domenico Sarri confines himself to an instrumental scoring for two violins and bc.

David Bates juxtaposes two settings by contemporaries which are Italian in style but otherwise quite different. We know three settings of this text from Vivaldi's pen. The composition recorded here is the most brilliant, and has only been authenticated as a Vivaldi composition in 2005. It was part of the library of the court orchestra in Dresden, but catalogued under the name of Baldassare Galuppi. The court was under the spell of the Italian style, and had purchased many pieces by Vivaldi. But when the latter had died, Galuppi became the new star composer, and it is only natural that the best-known copying shop in Venice, owned by a priest with the name of Don Giuseppe Baldan, sold this Dixit Dominus as if it was a new piece, written by the celebrated Galuppi. It is a virtuosic work with solo parts which are technically demanding. The connection with Vivaldi's operas comes especially to the fore in the brilliant tenor aria 'Dominus a dextris tuis' which is based on the A part of an aria from the opera La fida ninfa. However, it is particularly the treatment of the instrumental parts which contributes to the work's dramatic character.

Handel's setting is by far the most dramatic of the two. That goes especially for the tutti episodes: the choir is used to great dramatic effect. There are some solo parts but it seems that these emerge from the chorus. In David Bates' performance these parts are sung by members of the vocal ensemble. Handel also explores the dramatic qualities of the orchestra. La Nuova Musica is well up to the task, and the vocal ensemble deals admirably with the tutti parts in both Vivaldi and Handel. The various members of the vocal ensemble sing the solo episodes (Handel) or arias (Vivaldi) quite well, although here and there a wobble creeps in, especially in the singing of the sopranos and the alto. Simon Wall is admirable in the demanding aria from Vivaldi's setting which I already referred to. That said, the performance of Handel's Dixit Dominus by the Balthasar-Neumann-Choir and -Ensemble, directed by Thomas Hengelbrock (deutsche harmonia mundi, 2003), is not surpassed here. That is partly due to the tempi which are a bit too slow in this performance. That goes especially for 'Juravit Dominus' and 'Dominus a dextris tuis'. In the latter part the strong staccato chords on "Conquassabit" are more effective than in Bates' performance.

The two settings are separated by Vivaldi's motet In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626), scored for soprano, strings and bc. On the one hand it is a virtuosic showpiece, especially in the first aria, but on the other hand it includes a fair amount of expression in the second aria. Lucy Crowe delivers a brilliant performance, but unfortunately I noticed the kind of aberrations which seem to be common these days. The ornamentation and cadenzas are sometimes highly exaggerated - the opening of the dacapo in the first aria and the cadenza at the end of its B part - and exceed the range of the solo part. Reaching the top notes of their tessitura was not the ideal of singers of that time; that is rather something of the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, in the dacapo so many liberties are taken that it can hardly be called 'ornamentation', but rather a recomposition of what the composer has written down. This is a serious defect of this disc.

Domenico Sarri is a rather unknown quantity. In our time he is mainly known for his recorder concertos which are part of the Manoscritto di Napoli 1725. He settled in Naples at the age of seven or eight, studied at the conservatoire S. Onofrio and remained in Naples for the rest of his life. In 1702 his first composition was performed, a sacred opera. He composed many more in this genre, as well as oratorios and some liturgical music. In addition he wrote many (secular) operas and cantatas as well as occasional works. The latter indicates that he was held in high esteem. The sacred compositions recorded by Matthias Jung are remarkable for the large role of the soloists. Whereas most sacred works of that time begin with a tutti episode, the Mass and the Dixit Dominus begin with an episode for solo voices. Many sections have the character of opera arias. They are in the typical Neapolitan style, with long melismas and vituosic coloratura. In comparison with the settings by Vivaldi and in particular Handel Sarri's Dixit Dominus is not very dramatic.

Both pieces include some notable episodes. 'Qui sedes' (Mass) is a solo for soprano, with an obbligato part for transverse flute. The second section of Dixit Dominus, 'Virgam virtutis', has an obbligato part for cello. The second half of the opening section of this psalm is remarkable for its frequent modulations. In the first Kyrie of the Mass Sarri juxtaposes high and low voices in the solo sections. In the 'Domine Deus' the text of the 'Laudamus te' is repeated - with different music - and this seems to have inspired Jan Dismas Zelenka who follows the same procedure in his Missa Dei Filii. Sarri's Mass - a missa brevis, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria - has been preserved in the Sächsisches Landesbibliothek - where the library of the Dresden court chapel is kept - and this makes it plausible that Zelenka has known this piece. The manuscript is dated 1739, whereas the Dixit Dominus is of a much earlier date and has been found in Prague. The dissemination of the music by a composer who never left Naples shows that his works were in high demand. Towards the end of his life he was considered rather conservative, and in the 1730s he was overshadowed by younger composers in his own city.

These two pieces have considerable qualities and a recording is fully justified. Fortunately they come off very well in these interpretations. Only now and then the female soloists use a little too much vibrato, but on the whole these are stylish and fully convincing performances. The five soloists have nice voices which blend well in the ensembles. The choir comprises 26 voices and is remarkably transparent. Add to that an orchestra who fully explores the qualities of the score. This is a most enjoyable disc which sheds light on a composer who doesn't deserve to be overlooked.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

La Nuova Musica
Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle

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