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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): Lamentazioni per la Settimana Santa

Cristina Miatello, sopranoa; Gian Paolo Fagotto, tenorc; Ensemble Aurora
Dir: Enrico Gatti

rec: Sept 1992, Bologna, Eremo di Ronzano
Glossa - GCD 921205 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2011) (1.53'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I/S; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

(in order of appearance)
plainchant: Prologusb; Alessandro SCARLATTI: Lectio Prima Feria V in Coena Dominia; Lettione del Mercoledi Santoa; Lectio Prima Feria VI Maioris Hebdomadea; Lectio Secunda Feria VI in Parascevea; Prima Lettione del Venerd́ Santoa; Seconda Lettione del Venerd́ Santob

Enrico Gatti, Odile Edouard, violin; Enrico Parizzi, viola; Alain Gervreau, cello; Paul Beier, archlute; Guido Morini, organ

In his time Alessandro Scarlatti was considered one of Europe's greatest composers. He was especially famous for his operas and his chamber cantatas. In modern times it has taken much time before his oeuvre was discovered. Today singers like to explore his output in the genre of the chamber cantata and several of his oratorios have been recorded. But his liturgical music is still largely ignored. To that category also belong his settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The Lamentations were set to music by many composers since the renaissance. The texts were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah in reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who also deported the largest part of the Jewish people. In the Christian Church the fate of Jerusalem was connected to the suffering of Christ, as both were the result of the disobedience of mankind towards God. A refrain was added to every chapter: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God", from the prophet Hosea (ch 14, vs 2). Liturgically the Lamentations are part of the Matins (or Tenebrae) on each of the last three days before Easter, the Triduum sacrum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Originally the Lamentations were sung in the early morning. But from an early date the performance of the Matins was removed to the late afternoon of the previous day. This is reflected by the titles of settings of the Lamentations which refer to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively.

Composers didn't always set all the parts of the Lamentations. Scarlatti composed two for each of the three days: the first and third for Thursday, and the first and second for the two other days. It isn't known for sure for which occasion he wrote his Lamentazioni, but it is generally assumed they were the result of a commission, probably by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. For some time Scarlatti tried to enter the service of the Grand Duke, but to no avail. The scoring is the same for the first four Lamentations: soprano, 2 violins, viola and bc. The last two are different: the first is for soprano, the second for tenor, and in the instrumental ensemble a part for the viola is omitted.

I don't know how many Italian composers of the 17th and early 18th century have set the Lamentations of Jeremiah. I checked the work-lists of some of Scarlatti's most famous contemporaries, like Caldara, Giovanni Bononcini and Benedetto Marcello, and only in the case of the latter a single setting of one of the Lamentations is mentioned, which is lost. It wouldn't surprise me if very few composers have composed Lamentations. The reason could well be that the ecclesiastical authorities were not very positive about the concertato style which was the name of the game in Italy. They rather preferred the stile antico, and the music of its main representative, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, was still considered the ultimate model for liturgical music. And therefore it is quite possible that during Holy Week still settings from the 16thn century were sung.

Composers sometimes conformed to the preference for the stile antico, and so did Scarlatti. He referred to his compositions in this style as written alla Palestrina. But he didn't avoid the musical means which composers of his time had at their disposal to express the meaning of texts. The Lamentations also bear witness to that. Musical figures are frequently employed in order to communicate the various affetti in the text. In his liner-notes Enrico Gatti gives various examples. Harmony also played a major role, like chromaticism, modulations and some sharp dissonances. A striking example of the latter is the fifth verse - Daleth. Viae Sion - of the Lectio Prima Feria V in Coena Domini. One expects slow tempi and long melismas in musical lamentos, but Scarlatti's Lamentations are rather declamatory and the melismas are mostly confined to the Hebrew letters which open every verse.

Gatti writes that "the Lamentations of Alessandro Scarlatti are characterised by a notable severity of style, quite unlike the fashionable music of contemporary operatic scores (...)". That may be true, but the text includes several passages in which anger about the enemies of the Jewish people is expressed, and these are set in a pretty dramatic way. The 8th verse of the Lettione del Mercoledi Santo is a good example: "The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; she has seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom thou didst forbid to enter thy congregation".

The last two of the Lamentations differ from the previous four, not only because of the different scoring, but also because of their content. The first contains passages in which the praise of God is sung because of his faithfulness. As the first verse says: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end." This mood is evocatively translated into music. In several verses of these two settings the Hebrew letters are fully integrated into the musical discourse. The pathos of the first four Lamentations returns fully in the last.

As far as I know this is the only complete recording of the set which dates from 1992 and was released by the Italian label Symphonia. It is great that Glossa has reissued it, not only because there are no other complete recordings on the market (*), but also because it is a breathtaking interpretation which - despite its age - is hard to surpass. Cristina Miatello takes the lion's share of the performance, and she is simply fantastic. She has the perfect voice, and her breath control is immaculate which is especially important in the long vocalises on the Hebrew letters. But she also digs deep to fully explore the intense emotion of the texts, and realises the often strong contrasts of feelings perfectly. The instrumental ensemble follows her every step on the way, and brings out all fine details of Scarlatti's score. Gian Paolo Fagotto only sings in the last Lamentation, but he does so very well, although one probably needs to adjust to his voice. But there is no lack of expression in his interpretation.

In short, this is one of the best recordings of music by Scarlatti ever made, and cannot be recommended enough.

(*) The first four Lamentations have been recorded by Le Parlement de Musique, directed by Martin Gester (Opus 111).

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Aurora

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