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Francesco CAVALLI (1602 - 1676): "Hymns and Psalms"

Cristina Fanelli, Carlotta Colombo, soprano; Andrea Arrivabene, alto; Raffaele Giordani, tenor; Alessandro Ravasio, bass
Coro & Ensemble Claudio Monteverdi di Crema
Dir: Bruno Gini

rec: August 30 - Sept 2, 2020, Abbadia Cerreto (LO), Chiesa Cistercense
Dynamic - CDS7902 ( 2021) (74'45")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave maris stella a 3; Credidi a 5; Domine probasti a 3; Iste confessor a 2; Jesu corona virginum a 3; Laudate pueri a 5; Nisi Dominus a 4

Source: Musiche Sacre, 1656

Sara Fusar Poli, Elena Ghidelli, Ayako Suemori, Ambrogio Alghisi, Fabiana Nisoli, Francesca Tommaseo, soprano; Francesca Cella, Eliana Filipponi, contralto; Igor Denti, alto; Tarcisio Fossati, Michele Guerrini, Stefano Piloni, Matteo Sansonetti, tenor; Riccardo Dennini, Valeriu Popa, Giampietro Spoldi, Luca Tommaseo, bass
Giorgio Tosi, Claudia Combs, violin; Alessia Travaglini, viola da gamba; Nicola Barbieri, violone; Paolo Tognon, bassoon; Maurizio Mancino, organ

Francesco Cavalli is one of the great names in the history of Italian, and particularly Venetian, music. He was the city's main composer after the death of Monteverdi in 1643. Today he is mostly associated with opera. In that department he is still in the shadow of Monteverdi but there is an increasing interest in his music for the stage.

In comparison his sacred music is not given that much attention. The number of recordings devoted to this part of Cavalli's oeuvre is fairly limited. That is partly due to the fact that it is not very sizeable. This can be explained by the fact that he was reluctant to commit his music to print as he confessed in the preface to Musiche Sacre of 1656, the first collection which was entirely devoted to his own compositions. Before that some of his pieces had been included in anthologies.

Cavalli may have become best known for his operas, but his musical education did not point in the direction of opera. He received his first music lessons from his father, the organist Giovanni Battista Caletti, and sang as a treble in the choir of the cathedral at Crema, where he was born in 1602. He attracted the attention of the Venetian ambassador Frederico Cavalli who persuaded Caletti to let him take the boy to Venice. Cavalli would act as his protector which inspired Francesco to adopt his surname. In 1616 Cavalli entered the chapel of St Mark's which was then under the direction of Monteverdi. In 1620 he was appointed organist of the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; he was dismissed in 1630 as he was too often absent from his duties. An advantageous marriage gave him some independence which allowed him to travel. The 1630s also saw his first activities in the field of opera.

In 1639 he succeeded Giovanni Pietro Berti as second organist of St Mark's; in 1644 Massimiliano Neri was appointed first organist but in fact it was Cavalli who acted as such and received a higher salary than Neri. His skills as organist were highly praised and a contemporary compared him to Frescobaldi. Neri departed in 1665 and Cavalli was appointed his successor. In 1668 Giovanni Rovetta who had succeeded Monteverdi as maestro di cappella of St Mark's, died and his position was given to Cavalli who held this post until his death eight years later.

It is not known whether Cavalli ever formally was a pupil of Monteverdi, but his early compositions are showing a strong influence of the maestro di cappella of San Marco. It was also Cavalli who was responsible for the publication of the last collection of sacred music by Monteverdi in 1650, to which he added a setting of his own of the Magnificat. The first publication of sacred music by Cavalli is the above-mentioned collection Musiche Sacre. It represents the second stage in his career as a composer of religious music. It comprises 28 pieces, ranging from compositions in the style of the cori spezzati to pieces for solo voice and bc. Six of the pieces are instrumental: sonatas and canzonas in 3 to 12 parts.

The disc under review here is part of a cycle of recordings of Cavalli's sacred music. Earlier two discs with Vesper music from his second printed edition, the Vesperi a 8 voci of 1675, were released, and another disc included the above-mentioned Magnificat and four other settings of this canticle as well as two psalms for three and eight voices respectively. The latter are from the same collection as the music on the present disc.

The programme opens with three hymns. Ave maris stella is a hymn at Vespers on feasts of the Virgin Mary; Cavalli's setting is for three lower voices (alto, tenor, bass). The first and last stanzas are scored for all three voices, the stanzas in between each for one voice. Jesu corona virginum (Jesus, crown of virgins) is a hymn, founded on various texts from the Bible (among them verses from Isaiah and Revelations). The text has been attributed to St. Ambrose, but that has not been established. It is an office hymn that was historically used at Vespers and Lauds of the Common of Virgins. The scoring is the same as in the previous hymn. Iste confessor (Worshiping this Confessor of the Lord) is a Latin hymn used in the Divine Office at Lauds and Vespers on feasts of confessors. The earliest versions of the hymn can be found in 8th-century manuscripts for the feast of St Martin of Tours. Cavalli's setting is for two sopranos, which creates a strong amount of excitement that fits its content.

The remaining four pieces are all settings of Psalms. Domine probasti me is a setting of Psalm 138 (139): "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me". This is a long psalm: Cavalli has divided it into 25 sections. Because of that there is no much text repetition, in contrast to shorter psalms. It is again scored for three voices: soprano, alto and bass. Psalm 126 (127), Nisi Dominus, is for four voices (SATB) and here Cavalli takes his time to illustrate elements in the text. He dwells on "surgite postquam sederitis" (sit up late) and uses dissonances to depict "panem doloris" (the bread of sorrows). There is also some vivid text illustration on "sagittae" (arrows). The conclusion, "Beatus vir" (Happy is the man) is emphasized here by the entrance of the choir which also participates in the doxology.

Credidi is a setting of the second half of Psalm 115 (116): "I believed, therefore I have spoken". In the second section, the word "omnis" is repeated in order to emphasize the text: "All men are liars". In the seventh section the words "nomen Domini" (the name of the Lord) is singled out. This setting is for five voices (SSATB). The disc ends with one of the Vesper psalms, Laudate pueri (Psalm 112/113): "Praise, ye servants, the Lord". It is again scored for five voices. Here Cavalli creates an eloquant contrast between the two lines in the eighth verse: "He maketh the barren women to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children". The closing word "laetantem" (joyful) is repeated several times. In this recording the piece is closed by the choir.

Especially considering that Cavalli's sacred music is not that often performed and recorded, a disc like this one is of great importance. This recording, and the previous releases that I mentioned above, bear witness to the quality of Cavalli's sacred works. They definitely deserve much more attention. Overall I am quite happy with this disc as far as the performances are concerned. The singers do a good job and have found the right approach to these pieces. The two sopranos are particularly good as is the tenor Raffaele Giordani. Andrea Arrivabene has a nice voice, but is a bit too weak; in some episodes he suffers from a less than ideal balance between the voices. Alessandro Ravasio, on the other hand, has a quite powerful voice, but with some sharp edges, which are less appropriate here. I am sceptical about the (limited) role of the choir. Basically this is ensemble music, not music for solo voices and choir. A smaller group of singers in which the soloists participate, would have been preferable. Which episodes in the pieces for four and five voices Cavalli wanted to be performed by solo voices and which by a larger ensemble, is probably hard to decide. Here I can't see any reason for the participation of a larger ensemble.

These issues don't take anything away of my great appreciation of this disc. If you have little or nothing of Cavalli's sacred music in your collection, this disc offers an excellent opportunity to fill that gap.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

Relevant links:

Andrea Arrivabene
Carlotta Colombo
Raffaele Giordani
Coro Claudio Monteverdi

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