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Lamentations from Naples

[I] "Notturno"
L'Escadron volant de la Reine
rec: July 2015, Prouais (Eure-et-Loir), Église de Saint Rémi
Evidence Classics - EVCD021 (© 2015) (52'10")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Caresana

Cristofaro CARESANA (c1640-1709): Lectio I del Venerdi Santo a voce sola con violini; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Agar e Ismaele Esiliati, oratorio (sinfonia); Lamentazioni per la Settimana Santa (Lectio Prima Feria V in Coena Domini); San Filippo de Neri, oratorio (sinfonia); Sinfonia a 4 senza cembalo; Gaetano VENEZIANO (1665-1716): Lectio III del Primo Notturno del Venerdì Santo a voce sola con violini

Eugénie Lefebvre, soprano; Josèphe Cottet, Marie Rouquié, violin; Benjamin Lescoat, viola; Antoine Touche, cello; Sanne Deprettere, double bass; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Clément Geoffroy, organ

[II] "Sacred Salterio - Lamentations of the Holy Week"
Miriam Feuersinger, soprano
Il Dolce Conforto
rec: April 3 - 6, 2016, St. Gerold (A), Propstei St. Gerold
Christophorus - CHR 77408 (© 2017) (55'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/I; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Atto di dolore di Metastasio; Lamentazione seconda p(er) Giovedi Santo la Sera; Gennaro MANNA (1715-1779): Lezzione terza del Venerdi Santo; Domenico MEROLA (?-?): Lezzione seconda

Franziska Fleischanderl, salterio; Jonathan Pesek, cello; Deniel Perer, organ

From an early stage in the history of the Christian church some feastdays through the ecclesiastical year were open to popular influences. That is especially the case with Christmas which can be explained by the time of the year, old traditions connected to the turning of the sun and, obviously, the subject of a little child in a manger, angels and shepherds. In comparison celebrations during Lent and in particular during Holy Week were much more introverted. However, with time some countries and regions developed traditions which had a much more extroverted and often dramatic character. We know traditions of public exhibitions of Jesus's Passion, including people carrying a cross through the streets, from several regions in Europe. Once I heard Passion music from Sicily which was quite theatrical.

Whereas in countries which embraced the Lutheran Reformation it became a tradition to perform an account of the events on Good Friday as described in the gospels, in Catholic countries it were the Lamentations of Jeremiah which took a central place in Passiontide, alongside the seven penitential psalms. In France the performances of Leçons de Ténèbres were so popular that they often took the form of public concerts which people had to pay for in order to attend them. In Naples a comparable tradition developed. This city was one of Italy's main centres of music, and in particular of opera. The dramatic character of the events celebrated during Holy Week and of the texts which are found in the Lamentations of Jeremiah must have held a great attraction, both for composers and audiences. The present two discs include some specimens of settings of these texts by composers from two very different periods in the history of Neapolitan music: the second half of the 17th and the second half of the 18th century respectively.

There is a remarkable similarity between the lectiones which were written by Caresana, Veneziano and Alessandro Scarlatti on the one hand and the Leçons de Ténèbres by French composers of about the same time. Such pieces were intended for the last three days of Holy Week, known as Triduum sacrum. Each day had a similar structure: three nocturnes, each of them divided into three antiphons, three psalms and three lessons. The lessons are settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. In the Christian tradition these texts were connected to the Passion of Christ and a call for conversion was added: "Jerusalem convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum" (Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God). One of the features of this book from the Old Testament is the use of Hebrew letters as an acrostychon. These were set by composers as vocalises. That is one of the similarities between the settings by French composers and those included in the programme recorded by L'Escadron volant de la Reine.

But stylistically they are very different. The Italian settings are much more dramatic; the contrasts within the text are fully explored. Cristoforo Caresana was from Venice but settled in Naples at the age of 18 and remained here the rest of his life. He was educated as an organist and a singer; the latter explains that his entire oeuvre consists of vocal music. Notable are a couple of collections with vocal exercises. According to New Grove he composed 33 lectiones; here the first lesson for Good Friday is performed. This is not a very dramatic work, which is largely due to the character of the texts. But there are some significant moments of text expression, for instance the pauses after words like "silentio" and "tacebit". The most dramatic passage is "ponet in pulvere": "Let him put his mouth in the dust, there may yet be hope".

The third lesson for Good Friday is performed here in a setting by Gaetano Veneziano. He was born in Bisceglie in Bari by the Adriatic Sea. At the age of ten he entered the conservatory S Maria di Loreto in Naples; his teacher was Francesco Provenzale. He developed into a key figure in the Neapolitan music scene as he held positions at the court (the Real Cappella), the church of Carmine Maggiore and at his old conservatory. His oeuvre also comprises only vocal music; recently I have reviewed here several discs with Nocturns for the Dead and for Flores RosarumChristmas. The work-list in New Grove mentions 22 lessons for Holy Week. In the Lectio III we find several dramatic episodes, for instance "Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens". There is a strong contrast in the verse 'Cervicibus nostris': a dramatic setting of the words "Our necks are under persecution, we labour" vs "we have no rest", eloquently illustrated by long held notes, sung piano.

Alessandro Scarlatti was one of Italy's main composers in the decades around 1700 who worked alternately in Naples and in Rome. He also mainly composed vocal music, especially chamber cantatas but also operas and oratorios. His Lamentazioni per la Settimana Santa comprise two lessons for each of the three days: the first and third for Thursday, and the first and second for the two other days. It is generally assumed that they were the result of a commission, probably by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. They were recorded complete by Enrico Gatti. Scarlatti often turned to the stile antico for his sacred music, especially in pieces written for Rome where the ecclesiastical authorities didn't like operatic influences in music for the church. But here Scarlatti clearly felt more free to set the text in a dramatic way when needed. Two sections from the first lesson for Maundy Thursday are especially notable. Beth opens with an expressive instrumental introduction. The soprano then joins the strings with descending figures to the text "Plorans ploravit in nocte" (she [Jerusalem] weeps bitterly in the night); the introduction and these four words take about three minutes. It ends with a dramatic outburst on the closing phrase: "All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies". Another expressive highlight is the fifth section, Daleth. The word "gementes" (groan) is set to descending figures and strong dissonants; the latter are also used for "amaritudine" (bitterly). The lesson ends abruptly, another token of its dramatic character.

The sequence of these three lessons results in a highly compelling programme to which the instrumental works from Scarlatti's pen further contribute. This is the first disc of this ensemble, and these artists could hardly have made a better start. I have nothing but admiration for the way Eugénie Lefebvre explores the content of these lessons. She is very responsive to the text, and the contrasts with the various pieces come off perfectly. Now and then she uses a little too much vibrato but that is hardly disturbing as she has a very beautiful voice and her performance is very expressive. The playing of the instrumentalists is of the highest order as well; the expression in the string parts, especially in Scarlatti, is fully conveyed.

Having listened to this disc I turned to the second, and that caused quite a shock. With the programme we move about 80 years forward in time. The pieces selected by Franziska Fleischanderl, whose salterio plays a key role in the programme, demonstrates how much had changed in regard to style and the treatment of sacred texts. The pieces are all from Naples, but the most of the composers are hardly known or have remained anonymous.

The atmosphere of the music recorded here immediately manifests itself in the opening track: the Hebrew letter Vau which has been set by Domenico Merola to open his second lesson for Maundy Thursday. There is no vocalise here, as was customary about a century ago, but a full-blood operatic aria, including a cadenza, taking nearly two minutes. The various verses are treated the same way. There is little connection between music and text, if we compare this lesson with the pieces on the previous disc. A different text would probably have made little difference to the music. It may be no coincident that the two most dramatic verses are set as recitatives; did the composer have no idea how to express those texts in the form of an aria? Apparently nothing is known about Merola; he has no entry in New Grove and the liner-notes don't give any information about him either.

The second lesson for Good Friday is performed here in an anonymous setting. It opens with an instrumental introduction for salterio and bc; then the soprano joins attacca with Lamed. The verse following the Hebrew letter Nun is the most dramatic: "Your prophets have seen for you false and vain things. Neither have they seen your iniquity, that they call you to repentence; but they have seen for thee false burdens and banishments". Here the tempo accellerates and the rhyth becomes more vivid. The next verse - "They clap their hands at thee, all that pass by" - is set as a recitative, and so is the penultimate verse. The closing verse, 'Jerusalem, convertere', opens with a solo of the salterio which lasts almost one minute and it also plays a postlude of about the same length.

The Lezzione terza by Gennaro Manna is considerably more demanding than the previous pieces, especially in regard to the tessitura of the singer as the vocal part includes some very high notes. This betrays his credentials as an opera composer. Manna's oeuvre also includes a considerable number of sacred works; György Vashegyi recorded the Responsories for Holy Week (Hungaroton, 2010). Two sections are set here as recitatives. The closing verse ends rather abruptly.

The disc ends with an another anonymous piece, Atto di dolore, on a text by the famous opera librettist Pietro Metastasio. The title page indicates that it was written for Giuseppe d'Alfonzo, who is called a dilettante, which usually refers to an aristocratic person active as a musician or composer. As the vocal part is for soprano one has to conclude that d'Alfonzo was a castrato.

This piece is not from the same source as the three lessons for Holy Week. These are all taken from the music library of the Benedictine women's convent of San Lorenzo in San Severia in Apulia. This could explain why all these pieces are for soprano. The archive includes quite a number of virtuosic pieces for this type of voice. It is possible that they were intended for one of the nuns, Alba Maria Santelli, who came from a rich family of San Severo. Teresa Chirico, in her liner-notes, mentions that her name appears in more than twenty works for soprano and various instruments between 1762 and 1785. Interestingly there could be a connection here between the pieces on this disc and the lectiones by Caresana and Veneziano. Although the latter were probably written for the Real Cappella or the Tesoro di San Gennaro, both composers also wrote music for female religious houses in the city, and therefore it is quite possible that these pieces have been sung there as well.

Lastly, the Christophorus disc sheds light on a most interesting issue: the use of the salterio. Instruments of this kind were frequently used, but only fairly recently the role of the salterio has been paid attention to. Its participation in performances at the imperial court in Vienna is well documented; one of the members of the chapel had been educated by the famous Pantaleon Hebenstreit. This disc includes four pieces with a solo part for the salterio; the liner-notes refer to its wide dissemination across Italy. In the second half of the 18th century it came into fashion in sacred music and seems to have been particularly used in women's convents. In the musical inventory of the San Severia convent the salterio appears in 21 lamentations as well as in other works by various composers, including the likes of Sacchini and Piccinni. Apparently the nuns had one or more highly skilled salterio players in their ranks. The popularity of the instrument was short-lived; its decline started around 1800 and in the course of the next decades it completely disappeared from the music scene.

Undoubtedly this is a most fascinating disc, for historical and musical reasons. The music is of fine quality, although probably not specifically suitable for Passiontide. There is just too little connection between text and music. From a historical point of view it is very interesting to see how religious texts were treated during the second half of the 18th century. The pieces recorded here show the increasing influence of opera and of vocal virtuosity; the process of 'secularisation' which can already be observed in an evergreen like Pergolesi's Stabat mater carries on in these lessons. The role of the salterio makes this disc even more interesting and important as it documents a musical practice which is hardly known as yet. Franziska Fleischanderl deserves much praise for her exploration of this instrument and its repertoire and for the way she plays the salterio here. We can only hope that more repertoire with salterio will appear on disc. I am also impressed by Miriam Feuersinger's interpretations of the vocal parts. She deals with the demanding coloratura impressively, and she shows that it is perfectly possible to sing expressively without turning to an incessant and wide vibrato. Previously I had heard here only in German sacred works, but she is completely convincing in this Neapolitan music as well. Operatic this music most certainly is, but fortunately Ms Feuersinger doesn't overstate that aspect. Her restraint seems well judged.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Miriam Feuersinger
l'Escadron volant de la Reine
Il Dolce Conforto

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