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Pietro GNOCCHI (1689 - 1775): "Musica Sacra per le chiese di Brescia"

Zara Dimitrova, sopranoa; Anna Bessi, contraltob; Gianluca Ferrarini, tenorc; Gianluca Buratto, bassd
Coro Claudio Monteverdie, Ensemble Pian & Forte
Dir: Bruno Gini

rec: Sept 2009, Abbadia Cerreto (CR), Abbazia Cistercense; Oct 2009, Alfianello (BS), Chiesa dei SS. Ippolito e Cassiano*
La Bottega Discantica - 234 (© 2010) (65'37")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Ave maris stellaa; Ave maris stella concertato a 4 vociabcd; Concerto secondo; Magnificat primo a 8 vocie; Magnificat secondo a 8 vocie; Mass in Dabcde; Mass in Fe*

Luca Risoli, Elisa Bognetti, horn; Aviad Gershoni, Federica Inzoli, oboe; Alberto Stevanin, Chiara Zanisi, Massimo Percivaldi, Fabio Ravasi, Mauro Massa, Isotta Grazzi, violin; Gianni De Rosa, viola; Claudio Frigerio, cello; Paolo Rizzi, double bass; Antonio Frigé, organ

As a reviewer one encounters remarkable characters every once in a while. Pietro Gnocchi is definitely one of them. In the entry on Spoof articles in the 2001 edition of New Grove David Fallows mentions Gnocchi as an example of "bona fide musicians whose names and lives look like outrageous fiction". Gnocchi's biography supports his verdict that "[While] such men exist in the history of music, spoofs may seem superfluous".

The first thing which attracts the attention is Gnocchi's long life: he reached the age of 86 which was quite unusual at the time. He was born and died in Brescia, but he was anything but a stay-at-home. He studied in Venice, and then travelled for several years, visiting Hungary, Bohemia, Saxony, Vienna and Munich. After his return to Brescia in 1723 he became maestro di cappella of Brescia Cathedral. His attempt to become also the cathedral's organist was unsuccessful. He tried again in 1762, and from that year until his death he held both positions.

He was active not only as a composer. His interests also included geography, history and archeology. This resulted in a history of ancient Greek colonies in 25 volumes. It was never published but has been preserved in manuscript. His various interests left their mark in the names of some of his works, like a Missa Europa or Missa Africa, and a Magnificat Il capo di buona speranza (Cape of Good Hope). His music was also never printed. Apparently the publication of a series of twelve volumes was planned, but only a title page and dedication are known. His oeuvre consists mainly of sacred vocal music and includes many masses and Requiems, various sets of Vesper music for the entire church year, and much else. In addition he composed a small number of canzonettas as well as a few instrumental works.

His studies in Venice resulted in many sacred works being scored for eight voices in two choirs. Two of them are included in the present programme, the two Magnificat settings which are from the planned publication of Salmi brevi of 1750. There is little polyphony in Gnocchi's music, and these two Magnificats are strictly homophonic. The same is true for the Mass in F which concludes this disc. Two settings of the Ave maris stella are for solo voices, one for SATB and bc, the other for soprano solo, two violins and bc. The Mass in D is divided into various sections for either tutti or one to three solo voices. In one section oboe and violin have obbligato parts.

If the music on this disc is representative of Gnocchi's oeuvre I have to conclude that his music is largely unremarkable. There is little which catches the ear. One of the nicest pieces is the 'Gratias agimus tibi' from the Mass in F. The Ave maris stella for solo soprano, on the other hand, has too much pattern repetition. The only instrumental piece, the Concerto II, is scored for four violins, viola and bc, in four movements, concluding with a pastorale. Again there is little that deserves notice.

I have to add, though, that the performances make an assessment of Gnocchi's music far from easy.They are adequate, but nothing more. I suspect that this kind of music needs more to reveal its true character. The solo voices are mostly so-so; the tenor makes the best impression, whereas soprano and bass are too operatic. In the four-part Ave maris stella and in the solo sections of the Mass in D they don't blend that well. The singing and playing is generally too straightforward. More differentiated articulation and greater dynamic shading would have resulted in more convincing performances. The generous reverberation is also problematic. It especially damages the performance of the Concerto II. The Mass in F has been recorded live, and here the synchronisation between choir and orchestra is imperfect. Lastly, the booklet fails to list the members of the choir, and the acoustic makes it impossible to guess how large it is. It is my impression, though - also on the basis of previous recordings of this choir - that it is larger than was probably common in Gnocchi's time.

The booklet includes an essay in Italian on Gnocchi and his music. The record company didn't bother to translate it into English. Those who don't understand Italian get the Wikipedia article on Gnocchi instead. This is the first time I have seen a booklet where Wikipedia is used as the main source of information. The English reader deserves better. The lack of lyrics is easier to overcome as the texts are well-known and can easily be found on the internet, including translations.

All in all, this disc isn't much more than a curiosity. Gnocchi may be an interesting figure, but so far his music hasn't convinced me that we miss a lot if it remains in the archives. Maybe a performance by a first-rate ensemble would make me change my mind.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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