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Benedetto MARCELLO (1686 - 1739): Psalms

[I] "Psalms and Sonatas"
Ensemble Salomone Rossi
Dir: Lydia Cevidalli
rec: July 2018, Crema, Sala musicale Giardino
Dynamic - CDS7882 (© 2021) (65'18")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Salmo XXI (Volgi, volgi, mio Dio); Salmo XLII (Dal tribunal augusto); Sonata for keyboard No. 4 in g minor (toccata); Sonata for keyboard No. 5 in F (larghetto); Sonata for violin and bc in e minor, op. 1,10

Marta Fumagalli, mezzo-soprano; Laurence Meikle, bass; Lydia Cevidalli, violin, viola; Andrea Vassalle, viola; Issei Watanabe, cello; Roberto Panetta, double bass; Diego Cantalupi, theorbo; Giovanni Togni, harpsichord

[II] "Psalm 42 & 50"
Nina Cuk, contralto; Diego Buratto, tenor; Raffaele Zaninelli, bass; Alberto Funaro, chanta
Coro Istituzione Armonica; Ensemble Il Narvalo
Dir: Alberto Turco
rec: July 2019 & June 2020, Verona, Chiesa di S. Giacomo (Centro di canto gregoriano e monodie Jean Claire); Sept 2020, Rome, Tempio Maggiorea
Brilliant Classics - 96135 (© 2021) (57'46")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Salmo XLII (Dal tribunal augusto); Salmo L (O d'immensa pietà)

[CIA] Danilo Pastore, Rita Mondo, contralto; Angelo Goffredi, Lars Magnus Hvass Pujol, tenor; Piero Facci, Diego Castello, bass
[EIN] Valerio Losito, Alfonso Guerrero Ortega, viola; Ulrike Pranter, cello; Carlo Calegari, double bass; Federico Del Sordo, harpsichord, organ, percussion

Scores Estro poetico-armonico

The name of Benedetto Marcello doesn't appear all that often on concert programmes. He is almost completely overshadowed by his contemporary and compatriot Antonio Vivaldi. There was a time that it was the other way around. In 1841, when Vivaldi's music had long sunk into oblivion, a complete edition of Marcello's collection of 50 Psalm settings, with the title Estro poetico-armonico, was published in Paris. In that edition the basso continuo part had been replaced by a piano accompaniment. It was a token of the great admiration for these compositions which lasted from the years of the original publication (1724-1726) until well into the 19th century.

Benedetto Marcello was born into an aristocratic family, his father being both a violinist and a politician; he was a senator in the Venetian government. His mother was an artist and a poet. It is perhaps under her influence that Benedetto valued the poetic use of words very highly. Like his father, Benedetto was active in public life, as a lawyer and administrator. His aristocratic roots prevented him from being active as a professional musician and composer, and he presented himself as a nobile dilettante. It seems there was a strong rivalry between Benedetto and his older brother Alessandro, who has become best known for his oboe concerto. According to one story Alessandro didn't think very highly of his brother's musical skills. The success of the latter's collection of Psalms proved him wrong.

The name of the collection 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 "noble simplicity". This simplicity was a feature associated with 'early music', meaning the music of the 16th and early 17th centuries, 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, who was also very critical of Vivaldi's music, especially his compositions for his own instrument, the violin. Marcello's criticism was particularly directed towards the music for the stage. In 1720 he published a treatise under the title Il teatro alla moda, in which he dealt with the bad habits prevalent in the theatre at the time. He wanted to reform the style of singing and clear away exaggerated ornamentation.

This preference for naturalness comes clearly to the fore in his Estro poetico-armonico and explains why these Psalms remained popular throughout the 18th century and beyond. They were performed across Europe, often in translations, including English, French, Swedish and Russian. They are made up of sections of a kind we also know from opera, such as arias and recitatives, but the arias are rather short and dacapo sections are omitted altogether. Marcello did not choose to set the Latin texts of the Vulgata, the then common translation of the Bible. He rather preferred versifications in the vernacular by the poet Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani who, like Marcello, was from Venice.

The text, divided in sections in the form of recitatives, ariosos and arias, is always in the centre. Marcello's main aim is to express its content. In order to achieve that he avoids excessive ornamentation and coloratura, and omits dacapos in the arias. The Psalms are scored for solo voice(s) and basso continuo. Only the two Psalms included on the two discs under review here - 21 and 50 - have additional parts for two string instruments, indicated as violette. It is not entirely clear which instruments Marcello had in mind. Guido Balestraci, who recorded four of the Psalms (Arcana, 2017), considers viole da gamba the most obvious option. It seems that Marcello valued the viola da gamba, as he composed six sonatas for two cellos or two viols, which is rather unusual for a composer from Italy, where this instrument had become almost completely obsolete. His interest in early music may well have to do with this. However, both Alberto Turco and Lydia Cevidally opted for violas instead. It is seems unlikely that we will ever know who is right.

The main work in Cevidalli's recording is Psalm 21 (22 in the King James Bible and other Protestant translations). This lament of King David has always been closely connected to Passiontide, as Jesus quoted this Psalm at the Cross. It is the longest, as well as the most expressive and dramatic work on this disc. The violas play a particularly notable role in the expression of the text, for instance in the sixth section: "I am surrounded by enemies, like ferocious bulls that proudly accompany me in this folly. (...) My courage dissolves like water, my bones are all shaken". It is preceded by an equally emotional long recitative. This Psalm includes also more intimate episodes with the character of a prayer, as well as expressions of desperation, and these contrasts are masterfully depicted by Marcello. The last sections are expressions of hope and trust.

Marta Fumagalli delivers impressive performances, in which all these different aspects come off to full extent. One may assume that Marcello opted for a scoring for alto with a purpose, as its rather dark sound perfectly fits the tenor of the text. Although it was undoubtedly sung by a male performer in his days, Fumagalli's voice suits this Psalm perfectly. Now and then she uses a bit too much vibrato, but it does not really compromise my appreciation of her performance.

The largest work in Turco's recording is Psalm 50 (O d'immensa pietà), one of the seven penitential psalms, known under the Latin title Miserere mei, Deus. Like Psalm 21, it is associated with Passiontide, or more generally with Lent; in that period the penitential psalms were sung. It is scored for three voices: alto, tenor and bass. This suggests a performance by three soloists. However, the score includes indications solo and tutti, which suggests the participation of a choir or at least some ripienists. As these pieces are settings of paraphrases of the Psalms in the Old Testament, and written in the vernacular, they were not suitable for liturgical use. Marcello performed them for the first time in Venice, in a building known as the Cavallerizza. Federico Del Sordo, in his liner-notes, writes: "Marcello recommended having a sufficient number of voices for the tutti parts: '(...) it would be reasonable to multiply (with due proportion in their distribution) the voices; in the first place because there should always be a full Chorus in exalting divine greatness'." The question, then, is what a 'full Chorus' means. Turco decided to add seven ripienists (AATTTBB) to the soloists, who also participate in the tutti sections. That seems a reasonable solution. In the editions printed by Domenico Lovisa in Venice ten of the fifty Psalms include cantillation melodies used in the synagogues of the Sephardic Jews. Psalm L is not one of them, but Turco nevertheless decided to add such a melody. It is sung here by Rabbi Alberto Funaro of the Jewish Community in Rome.

The three soloists do a fine job, and the character of this Psalm comes off rather well. However, it is a mystery why in versetto 4 it was decided to add percussion. That seems entirely inappropriate.

Both recordings comprise Psalm 42, Dal tribunal augusto, known with its Latin title as Judica me Deus. It is scored for bass and basso continuo. The text is divided into several sections, which all have the character of arias or ariosos; there are no recitatives. This psalm includes more coloratura than the larger Psalms and the singer needs to have a wide tessitura. Both Laurence Meikle and Raffaele Zaninelli deal well with its technical requirements and there is no lack of expression. I personally would prefer a different types of voice, but that is obviously a matter of taste.

The number of recordings of Marcello's Psalms is rather limited, which is regrettable. These are very fine works and seems the perfect expressions of the composer's aesthetical ideals. A complete recording of his Estro poetico-armonico is long overdue. From that angle these discs are most welcome. Psalm 50 is only available in a recording from 1980, with René Jacobs, Guy De Mey and Kurt Widmer, which was reissued in 2011. However, in that recording the differentiation between solo and tutti is ignored. Psalm 42 seems to be new to the catalogue.

On the Dynamic disc the two Psalms are separated by some instrumental music. It is a bit of a mystery why Giovanni Togni plays the first movements of two sonatas. Why did he not opt for one entire sonata? The playing time of this disc is such that both sonatas could have been recorded. The violin sonata also raises questions. Marcello did never publish a set of violin sonatas as Op. 1. I assume that we get here a sonata from the collection of twelve recorder sonatas that was printed as Op. 2 in Venice in 1712 and reissued as Op. 1 in London in 1732. Lydia Cevidalli produces a rather weird sound, which I find unpleasant to listen to. The miking is too close for comfort, and in the basso continuo the cello and the theorbo are clearly audible whereas the sound of the harpsichord is almost unnoticeable. The instrumental pieces are the least satisfying part of this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Raffaele Zaninelli
Ensemble Salomone Rossi

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