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"Italian Music in the Low Countries"

Claire Lefilliātre, sopranoa; Marnix De Cat, altob; Han Warmelinck, tenorc
Dir: Erik Van Nevel

rec: Feb 20 - 22, 2009, Mechelen, Kerk van Sint-Jan de Doper en Sint-Jan Evangelist
Et'cetera - KTC 4031 (© 2009) (79'42")

anon: Confitebor tibi, Dominea; In deliquio amorisa; Lauda Jerusalemabc; Francesco MANCINI (1672-1737): Missa Septimusabc

Marina Smolders, Sarah Van Mol, Sarah Abrams, Annelies Van Gramberen, soprano; Kerlijne Van Nevel, contralto; Bart Uvyn, alto; Patrick De Brabander, Lode Somers, tenor; Paul Mertens, Walter Van Der Ven, bass; Heidi Erbrich, Mimi Mitchell, violin; Rene Van Laken, viola; Frank Wakelkamp, cello; Hendrik-Jan Wolfert, violone; Jurgen De Bruyn, theorbo; Bart Naessens, organ

The title of this disc is intriguing. Italian music isn't immediately associated with the Low Countries. But there is enough evidence that music by Italian masters made its way to the Netherlands during the 17th century. In the Northern Netherlands it was mainly instrumental music in small scoring which was included in collections of pieces which were played at home or in social gatherings. They can be found, for instance, in 't Uitnement Kabinet. But there was no use for sacred vocal music: the Northern Netherlands were dominated by the Reformed Church, and the Roman-Catholics could only celebrate mass in conventicles. It was different in the Southern Netherlands where Roman-Catholicism was the dominant religion.

The music on this disc has been found in the archive of the Archbishopric of Mechelen. This city, half way between Brussels and Antwerp, is dominated by the church of St Rombout which was promoted to cathedral in 1559. Mechelen had been a musical centre since the early 15th century, and cultural life in the city was further stimulated by the presence of Margaret of Austria who ruled the Southern Netherlands in the name of her father Maximilian I and later her nephew Charles V. It is generally assumed the level of musical practice in St Rombout's cathedral deteriorated during the late 17th and the 18th century. But there is evidence that musicians of considerable talent were working at the Cathedral. The chapter also purchased new music, for instance in 1728 some pieces by the then popular German composer Valentin Rathgeber.

The pieces recorded here are from a collection with exclusively Italian music which was donated to the chapter by the nobleman Cornelius Vanden Branden de Reeth in 1739. All compositions are sacred, and written on Latin texts: masses, Magnificats, Psalms and motets. Of the 140 pieces in the collection almost 80 have been preserved complete. Among the composers are Francesco Mancini, Nicola Porpora and Francesco Durante. There is no evidence that these works have actually been performed in the cathedral.

The scoring is for solo voices, four-part tutti and an instrumental ensemble of strings and basso continuo. This probably reflects the forces the cathedral - like most large churches at the time - had at its disposal. The four pieces on the programme are various in character and structure. The disc begins with an anonymous setting of Psalm 147, Lauda Jerusalem, which is scored for three solo voices - soprano, alto and tenor -, four-part tutti, two violins, viola and bc. It begins with the tutti singing "Lauda", then the strings play a short sinfonia after which the tutti return. 'Quoniam confortavit' is an expressive trio for the three solo voices. The piece contains several episodes for soprano and for alto solo as well as some duets for them. The tenor only returns in the Gloria. There are several passages with eloquent text expression. As so often in this kind of compositions the closing episode - 'et in saecula' - is fugal.

Confitebor tibi, Domine is a setting of Psalm 110 (111), again by an anymous composer, for soprano, two violins, viola, cello and bc. There are several passages with brilliant coloraturas, and particularly notable is the episode in the middle in which the cello has an extended obbligato part. 'Sanctum et terribile nomen ejus' (holy and reverend is his name) is particularly dramatic, whereas the next verse, 'Intellectus bonus' (a good understanding have all they that do his commandments), is lyrical in character.

The third piece, In deliquio amoris, also anonymous, is again scored for soprano solo, with two violins, viola and bc. It is different from the previous piece because of the non-liturgical text, as these lines show: "O sweetness of my love, dearest and beloved grace, may you cause my heart always to rejoice the imitation of the passion of Christ our God". It is also different in structure, as it consists of a sequence of recitatives and arias. The opening recitative is a recitativo accompagnato, the other two are secco recitatives. This piece is comparable to the sacred motets written by someone like Vivaldi. The arias are of a highly operatic character, and technically virtuosic. Notable is the contrast between the A and B part of the second aria, 'Celi rorantes'.

The disc ends with the Missa Septimus by Francesco Mancini. It is a missa brevis which consists of a Kyrie and Gloria only. Mancini was from Naples, and this piece is one of the about 30 compositions from the collection which can be associated with Naples. Music by Neapolitan composers was the most fashionable Italian music at the time the collection was donated; another Neapolitan master represented in this collection is Porpora. This mass contains three solos for soprano, alto and tenor respectively. The largest part is for tutti, sometimes with short solo entries. The setting of the words "miserere nobis" shows some spicy harmonies. It is a relatively conservative piece in comparison with other Neapolitan music, as the fugal passages show (laudamus te, cum Sancto Spiritu, Amen).

The four compositions which are brought together here are all of high quality, and it is intriguing to think about the identity of the anonymous composers. Their works are certainly not inferior to what was written by well-known contemporaries. This recording also makes curious about other pieces in the collection. I am glad to say that the performances are excellent. Claire Lefilliātre is brilliant in the two solo works, and in her solos in the other pieces. Marnix De Cat is up her level; he delivers some fine solos and he matches Lefilliātre well in the duets. Han Warmelinck is competent, but his parts don't really give an opportunity to shine. In the two trios in Lauda Jerusalem he is a little overpowered by the soprano and alto.

The tutti are immaculately sung by Currende, consisting here of four sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses. The sound is a bit larger than one may expect on the basis of the number of singers, but that is probably due to the acoustics of the church where the recording took place. But as most pieces on this disc were written for liturgical use, that seems quite appropriate. The instrumentalists are doing a fine job as well. I should particularly mention Frank Wakelkamp, who plays the obbligato cello part in Confitebor tibi, Domine impressively.

The booklet contains informative programme notes by Erik Van Nevel (in Dutch, English, German and French), as well as the lyrics with an English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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