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Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (c1681 - 1732): Missa Sancti Pauli

Adriána Kalafszky, sopranoa; Péter Bárányi, altob; Zoltán Megyesi, tenorc; Thomas Dolié, bassd
Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi

rec: Jan 22 - 24, 2017, Budapest, Liszt Academy of Music (Grand Hall)
Glossa - GCD 924004 (© 2018) (67'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fastos caeli audite, motet (attr)b; Missa Sancti Pauliabcd; Pie Jesu, ad te refugio, ariac; Sonata in B flat (attr)

For several centuries the imperial court in Vienna was one of the centres of culture and music in Europe. In the early 17th century, it came under the spell of the Italian style, and this explains why for nearly two centuries Italian musicians and composers played a leading role in music life at the court. One of them was Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, born in Florence and educated at the theorbo. In 1701 he was given the position of one of the theorbists at the court, alongside Orazio Clementi. When the latter died in 1708, Conti succeeded him as principal theorbist. He held this position until 1726, when he had to retire due to illness. In 1713 he was also appointed court composer. Several of his operas and oratorios were performed.

The present disc includes one large work from his sacred output. Apparently the Missa Sancti Pauli was highly appreciated. A fair copy of this mass has been preserved in a Viennese convent, and its cover lists performances over a period of more than one hundred years, from 1746 to 1857. Interestingly, another copy has been found in Dresden, where it was probably performed under the direction of Jan Dismas Zelenka. He made several changes in the score, as was common at the time. Zelenka spent some time at the Viennese court in the late 1710s, and may well have taken a copy of this work with him back home. As the Viennese copy, used for this recording, mentions the year 1715, one may assume that the work was written at that year. However, it is possible that this date only concerns the Kyrie and Gloria. The mass has been preserved in two folders, comprising the first two sections and the latter three respectively. This suggests that the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were added later. That goes in particular for the last two sections, which are copied in another hand than the previous three.

The scoring of this mass is for four voices - soli and tutti - and an ensemble of strings and basso continuo. Notable is the inclusion of a viola da gamba in the ensemble. This instrument had become obsolete in a part of Europe, and certainly in Italy, but the Habsburg emperors were rather conservative. Around 1700 music for viol consort was still played at the court, and counterpoint was held in high regard. That manifests itself in Conti's mass too, as several sections end with a fugue.

One of these is the second Kyrie. The first Kyrie and the Christe are dominated by dotted rhythms, both in the instrumental and the vocal parts. The Gloria opens with an instrumental introduction; then the soprano enters, followed by the tutti. 'Et in terra pax' is sung at a slow tempo, and in the 'Laudamus te' the dotted rhythm of the first Kyrie returns. In the 'Domine Deus' the viola da gamba has an obbligato part. The first section is for alto solo, the second is a duet for soprano and bass. It is followed by a highly expressive 'Qui tollis'.

The Credo opens with an instrumental episode; then the tutti sing "Credo", which is repeated several times throughout the first section, until the 'Crucifixus', which is a separate episode. In this the words "passus et sepultus est" are set for solo voices. The last section opens with the resurrection, and here the voices are accompanied by lively movements in the strings. It ends with a fugal 'Et vitam venturi'. In the baroque era, it was common practice to set the Benedictus and the second section of the Agnus Dei for solo voices. That is the case here as well. The mass ends with 'Dona nobis pacem', which is dominated by descending figures.

This recording is not a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction', but the Gloria and the Credo are separated, as they were in the liturgy, by other pieces. In the Vienneses manuscript mentioned above, two pieces are inserted before the Credo: a Sonata in B flat for strings and basso continuo, and the motet Fastos caeli audite in g minor, comprising a dacapo aria, a recitative and an Alleluia. The composer of these two pieces is not mentioned, but on stylistic grounds they are attributed to Conti. The sonata consists of two sections; the second is a fugue, which opens in the basso continuo. In the opening aria of the motet, the alto is supported by strings, whose broad gestures illustrate the text: "Hear the heavenly feasts, take heed, all you people. Today the full glory of the victorious church is being celebrated".

The disc ends with a separate piece, which is undoubtedly from Conti's pen. The dacapo aria Pie Jesu, ad te refugi (Merciful Jesus, unto you as my refuge, in repentance, let me make my way), scored for tenor, strings and basso continuo, has come down to us in a copy in Dresden, which was in the possession of Zelenka. It bears witness to Conti's ability to use harmony for expressive reasons.

Conti is not exactly a household name, although in recent years several of his compositions have been recorded (and reviewed on this site). He was held in high esteem in his time. Johann Joachim Quantz called him "an inventive and fiery, occasionally somewhat bizarre composer". In his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732 Johann Gottfried Walther described him as "an excellent master". Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have appreciated him as well, as Conti's cantata Languet anima mea has been found in his library. And Johann Mattheson, in Der Vollkommene Capellmeister of 1739, called him "the great musician" and "an excellent scholar".

This recording may well help to give Conti his rightful place in today's performance practice. The mass and the other pieces included here are marvellous works, which show that he was indeed an outstanding composer. The performances do them ample justice: the choir and orchestra are excellent ensembles, which bring out the dramatic and expressive features of these works to the full. The soprano, alto and tenor act at the same level. The latter two make a very good impression in their respective solo pieces. I am less enthusiastic about Thomas Dolié. He does sing well, but he uses a bit too much vibrato and his overall style of singing does not fit that well into the ensemble as a whole.

It does not prevent me from emphatically recommending this disc. It is a highly valuable addition to any collection of baroque vocal music.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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