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Francesc VALLS (c1671 - 1747): Misa Scala Aretina

La Grande Chapelle
Dir: Albert Recasens

rec: June 28 & 29, 2014 (live), Lleida, La Seu Vella
Lauda - LAU014 (© 2014) (74'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/S/Cat; lyrics - translations: E/F/S
Cover & track-list

Ave Maria a 8 (Invitatorio a la Expectación de Nuestra Señora); De lamentatione Ieremiae prophetae a 8; Domine vim patior a 4; Ed el misterioso circo a 4 (Tono al Santísimo Sacramento); Lauda Ierusalem a 10; Misa Scala Aretina a 11; Plorans ploravit a 4; Sancta et immaculata a 8 (Responsorio a la Virgen); Sombras cobardes a 12 (Villancico a santo Tomás de Aquino); Surrexit pastor bonus a solo (Motete para el día de Pascua)

María Eugenia Boix, Alicia Amo, Aina Martín, Laia Cortés Calafell, soprano; Gabriel Díaz Cuesta, Rupert Enticknap, Beat Duddeck, alto; Gerardo López Gámez, Thomas Hobbs, Albert Riera, tenor; Javier Jiménez Cuevas, bass
Siegfried Koch, Kresimir Fabijanic, trumpet; Joaquim Guerra, bassoon; Andrea Keller, Petar Mancev, violin; Marta Vicente, double bass; Johanna Seitz, harp; Herman Stinders, Marta Klimczyk, organ

Francesc Valls is almost exclusively known for his Missa Scala Aretina, mainly because it caused a fiery debate among composers of his time. "The polemics to which the mass gave rise centred on the second soprano's entry on an unprepared 9th at 'miserere nobis' in the Gloria. Gregorio Portero, maestro de capilla at Granada Cathedral, fired the first salvo in 1715", Craig H. Russell states in New Grove. "What had started as a debate among professionals was gradually heating up to reach boiling point in the spring of 1717, when many of the masters of the peninsula took sides", according to Álvaro Torrente in the liner-notes to the present recording. However, this debate wasn't just about musical matters. It had everything to do with politics which played a major role in Valls' career and even caused his dismissal as maestro de capilla of Barcelona Cathedral in 1719.

A significant part of his career took place in the years of the War of the Spanish Succession. It was the result of Charles II, the last Habsburg King of Spain, dying without a heir in 1700. Attempts to solve the problem by dividing the empire among the candidates for the throne failed. Charles II designated Philip, Duke of Anjou, the second-eldest grandson of King Louis XIV of France (representing the house of Bourbon), as his successor. But a coalition of other countries, fearing French dominance of the continent, supported Emperor Leopold I's claim to the whole Spanish inheritance for his second son, Archduke Charles. The strong anti-French feelings in Catalonia led to support for Charles and the Allied cause. In 1705 Barcelona was taken by the Allied forces and Charles settled here until the city was conquered by the Bourbon party in 1714. As in the previous years Valls had cooperated with Charles in musical matters he fell out of grace and was removed from his post in 1719. Gregorio Portero who initiated the debate about Valls' Missa Scala Aretina was known for his strong Bourbon profile. "[If] we analyse its context in detail (...) and the biography of the key protagonists, Valls' detractors mostly held a clearly pro-Bourbon affiliation, while among his defenders were many musicians from the regions supporting the Hapsburgs. It is thus patently clear that the argument over aesthetics was merely one of the dimensions of the controversy but perhaps not the most relevant one." (Torrente)

Various works recorded here include parts for trumpets, and that could well be explained by the fact that they were written in the time Charles resided in Barcelona. He and his wife often attended feasts and some of the music by Valls may have been performed during such occasions, for instance the villancico Sombres cobardes a 12. When Charles came to Barcelona he was accompanied by his Italian musicians. This resulted in an increasing influence of the Italian style in Spain. However, even before Valls had already adopted some elements of the Italian idiom in his compositions. The Missa Scala Aretina is a specimen of the mixture of Italian and traditional Spanish elements. It is basically written in the stile antico but Valls adds characteristics of the concertante style in vogue in Italy. Listening to this mass I was reminded of the multi-choral music written in cities like Rome and Bologna in the late 17th century, sometimes described as 'colossal baroque'. It is not just the splendour of the scoring which impresses. There are also passages of strong expression, for instance the closing episode of the second Kyrie, 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' from the Gloria - including the chord which inspired the above-mentioned debate - and the use of dissonants to depict the words "passus et sepultus est" from the Crucifixus (Credo). At the end of the Credo the words "peccatorum" and "mortuorum" receive special treatment. The mass is for 11 voices, but includes sections for reduced voices and even passages for only a pair of them, such as 'Domine Deus' (Gloria) for two sopranos, the second imitating the first.

This disc offers a survey of the various styles which Valls made use of. Some pieces are - like the mass - in the stile antico, such as Sancta et immaculata a 8 and the motets Domine vim patior and Plorans ploravit. The former is a remarkable piece for its heavy chromaticism which is reminiscent of Carlo Gesualdo or the chromatic experiments by Jacobus Handl-Gallus in his motet Mirabile mysterium. Plorans ploravit, a text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, also includes some strong dissonants. At the other end of the spectrum we find the Easter motet Surrexit pastor bonus, in which the solo voice dialogues with a violin.

One of the features of the Italian style is the close connection between text and music. That comes to the fore in Lauda Ierusalem a 10, with triplets on the words "velociter currit sermo eius" (his word runneth swiftly) and dissonants on "ante faciem frigoris eius quis sustinebat" (who can stand the cold). Italian influences also shine through in Valls' villancicos, a typically Spanish genre. In En el misterioso circo this influence is represented by the use of ritornellos for the strings instead of the traditional repetition of the final part of the refrain. In Sombras cobardes Valls omits the stanzas but includes a recitative.

This production is of great importance. The Missa Scala Aretina may be quite well-known by name, there are hardly any recordings available. Probably the first dates from 1980, with John Hoban directing the London Oratory Choir and The Thames Chamber Orchestra on modern instruments. In 1992 Gustav Leonhardt recorded the mass with the Netherlands Bach Society on period instruments. It seems that no other recordings have been made since then. It hardly needs saying that a new recording is most welcome. Álvaro Torrente writes that the first and second choirs seem designed for soloists, considering the many solos, but the third choir "involved tutti in the chapel". This is probably comparable to the use of a capella in many works by Heinrich Schütz. Albert Recasens opted for a strictly one-to-a-part performance. That seems perfectly legitimate, but leaves room for a performance with a larger ensemble. One of the virtues of this modest line-up is the transparency and the clarity of the text, which is extended by the lack of vibrato in the voices and the excellent diction and articulation of the singers. At the same time the use of solo voices doesn't go at the cost of the monumental nature of the mass. The rest of the programme receives the same high-standard performance. The good intonation of the singers guarantees that the pieces or passages where Valls uses harmonic tension or dissonances in the interest of text expression come across perfectly.

The fact alone that we get here a differentiated picture of Valls' oeuvre speaks in favour of this production. The quality of the music and the performance, and the outstanding documentation in the booklet only add to its value.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

La Grande Chapelle

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