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"All'amore immenso - Celestial & Worldly Love from the Two Maries"

Josè Maria Lo Monaco, mezzo-soprano
Divino Sospiro
Dir: Massimo Mazzeo

rec: Nov 11 - 14, 2020, Lisbon, Capela da Bemposta
Glossa - GCD 923532 (© 2022) (70'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): La Conversione di Maddalena (Al sibilar tremendo - In tepidi fiumi, rec & aria; Fugge il tempo); La Maddalena a' piedi di Cristo (Voglio piangere); Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): La Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (In lagrime stemprato); Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Salve Regina in c minor; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Il trionfo della Divina Giustizia (Sinfonia in d minor); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Il Giardino di Rose (Mentr'io godo; Starò nel mio boschetto); Salve Regina in c minor; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Salve Regina in a minor

Iskrena Yordanova, Mauro Massa, Andrea Vassalle, Archimede de Martini, Elisa Bestetti, Lorenzo Gugole, Ulrike Slowik, violin; Nuno Mendes, Pedro Pereira, viola; Rebecca Ferri, Ana Raquel Pinheiro, cello; Jonathan Alvarez, double bass; Pietro Prosser, lute; José Carlos Araújo, harpsichord, organ

On the reverse of this disc its title is followed by a subtitle, or rather an explanation of what it is about: "Celestial and Worldly Love from the Two Maries [sic]". The two Mary's are the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene respectively. The former is represented here with three settings of the Salve Regina. However, the text is not about the love of Mary herself, but rather an expression of the love of the faithful for her.

The Salve Regina is one of the most used texts for compositions in the history of Western music. The reason is that it belongs to the core of the Roman Catholic liturgy. It is one of the four Marian antiphons which are sung at different seasons in the liturgical calender. The Salve Regina is sung in the time from Trinity Sunday to Advent. It is not quite clear who the author is, but it seems to have its origin in the circles of the Cistercians. In the course of history a large number of settings have been written, due to the expressive nature of the text, but also to the growing veneration of Mary. The Salve Regina was also sung outside the liturgy. Carlo Vitali, in his liner notes, writes that it was sung by students, mariners, or common people at the end of the day. "Roman poet Giacchino Belli says in his sonnet La bona famija (1831) (...): 'We go to toilet, we sing Salve Regina, and then we can finally go to sleep'". In the 18th century in Naples, settings were usually scored for a solo voice with string accompaniment, and became increasingly operatic. The Salve Regina in c minor by Leonardo Leo is a perfect example. The contrasts in the text are eloquently translated into the music.

Domenico Scarlatti is better known for his keyboard sonatas than for his sacred music. However, in the course of his life he has written quite a number of sacred works, among them two settings of the Salve Regina. The first, in A minor, is not dated , but may have been written while Scarlatti was still in Italy. The second setting is in A major; the cover includes the text: "The last of his works, composed in Madrid not long before his death". It is scored for soprano, but in a relatively low tessitura, which makes it perfectly suitable for a mezzo-soprano like Josè Maria Lo Monaco. It may have been performed at the Royal Chapel in Madrid. Again, it shows the influence of opera, but in a somewhat more restrained manner than Leo's version.

Domenico's father Alessandro composed five settings of this text. The third, performed here, is the best-known, and it is also the most intimate of the three settings on this disc. That makes the sudden exclamation "Ad te clamamus" all the more effective. Overall, this work has the emotional depth that one expects from a composer of his stature, who in many ways laid the foundation of the Neapolitan style.

The second Mary has not the status of Mary the mother of Jesus, but she is a saint, and often composers have taken her as the subject of compositions. In this case the words "love of" are appropriate, as her love for Jesus cannot be doubted. She was one of his followers, and became a witness of his suffering at the cross and his resurrection.

As so often with biblical characters worshipped as saints, a whole web of myths has been woven around her. Very little about her is known from the gospels. The facts which are told were used to create a picture of a sinful woman, saved by Christ, and therefore ideally suited to model the Church and the (sinful) believers. According to the Bible seven devils were driven from her. These devils were associated with specific sins. Pope Gregory the Great, in the late 6th century, associated her with the 'sinful woman' from Luke 7, who washed Jesus' feet, and also with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. One of the sins associated with her - probably referring to the woman Luke reports about - is prostitution. As a repentant sinner, seeking forgiveness from Jesus and being forgiven by him, she was the ideal role model for the Church. Being originally peccatrix (sinner) and meretrix (prostitute), she became dilectrix Christi (lover of Christ) or even - in a typical medieval metaphor - sposa Jesu Christi (bride of Jesus Christ). She was asked for intervention on behalf of the sinners, and even was hailed as "blessed woman" who was able to dissolve all our sins.

Carlo Vitali opens his liner-notes thus: "Most recent biblical scholarship rejects the idea that Maria of Magdala, whom Jesus 'healed of evil spirits' and 'out of whom went seven devils,' is the same woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears in Simon's house." This is rather surprising: in the 16th century, as part of humanism and Reformation, this identification was already criticized. Obviously that had no effect on composers from those parts of Europe that were dominated by Catholicism, but it is rather odd to suggest that this insight is of recent date.

The arias inserted between the settings of the Salve Regina are taken from oratorios about Mary Magdalene. Giovanni Bononcini wrote two oratorios about her. The first is La Maddalena a' piedi di Cristo of 1690; it is the first oratorio in history on this subject. It was performed in Bononcini's hometown Modena, and again in Bologna. From this work Magdalene's lament 'Voglio piangere' is taken: "I want to cry till I break the knots that tie me. Heaven is always friendly to the sighs of a praying soul". The same libretto was set in 1713 by Antonio Caldara; it is one of his best-known works, recorded several times ('In lagrime stemprato'). The second of Bononcini's oratorios dates from 1701: La conversione di Maddalena, which was dedicated to emperor Leopold I. From this work the programme includes two arias, the second of which is preceded by a recitative. 'Fugge il tempo' includes an obbligato cello part; this can be explained from the fact that Bononcini was a virtuosic cellist himself.

Alessandro Scarlatti was also a prolific composer of oratorios. To my surprise, the oratorio Il giardino di Rose, o sia la Santissima Vergine del Rosario, seems never to have been recorded. It was performed in 1707 in Rome, and is about Our Lady of the Rosary, one of the titles of the Virgin Mary. Arias from this work open and close the programme. The former, 'Mentr'io godo', is one of the best-known parts of the oratorio; here Scarlatti uses meandering figures to depict murmuring, breezing and the movement of the waves.

Little of this programme is entirely unknown. All three settings of the Salve Regina are available in more than one recording, and the oratorios from which the arias have been taken, have been recorded complete, except the Scarlatti. That does not devaluate its meaning, especially as the oratorios - except Caldara's - are not that well-known, and as the performances are generally very good. Josè Maria Lo Monaco has a lovely voice, rather dark-coloured, which suits the lamenting nature of the arias very well. Her performances are very expressive, and she really knows how to communicate their content to the listener. The settings of the Salve Regina also come off well; I have heard quite some performances I was not that happy with. That is different here. The more dramatic episodes are also well realized. It is only here and there that I noted a little too much vibrato, but otherwise Lo Monaco keeps it nicely in check. The ensemble Divino Sospiro is a perfect match, with differentiated and expressive playing.

There is just one issue: in the last track, the aria 'Starò nel mio boschetto' from Alessandro Scarlatti's Il Giardino di Rose, the performance is accompanied by bird chirping. That is inspired by the text: "I will stay in the woods like a sweet nightingale", but it is artificial nonsense. It is a little blot on this otherwise fine production.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Josè Maria Lo Monaco
Divino Sospiro

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