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Pietro Paolo BENCINI, Alessandro SCARLATTI: "Vêpres romaines"

Ensemble Jacques Moderne
Dir: Joël Suhubiette

rec: May 20 - 23, 2021, Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, Église Abbatiale
Mirare - MIR602 (© 2023) (65'11")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Pietro Paolo BENCINI (1675-1755): Deus in adiutorium; Ave maris stella; Laeva eius; Dixit Dominus; Dum esset Rex; Beatus vir; Nigra sum; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Laudate pueri Dominum; Magnificat

Cécile Dibon-Lafarge, Cyprile Meier, Juliette Perret, Julia Wischniewski, soprano; Margot Mellouli, contralto; Guilhem Terrail, alto; Marc Manodritta, Guillaume Zabé, tenor; Didier Chevalier, Matthieu Le Levreur, bass
Hendrike Ter Brugge, cello; Rémi Cassaigne, theorbo; Emmanuel Mandrin, organ

The two composers whose music is included in the programme recorded by Joël Suhubiette with his Ensemble Jacques Moderne, are different in the way they are treated in our time. Alessandro Scarlatti is very well represented on disc, albeit more with his secular works than with his sacred oeuvre, whereas Bencini is largely overlooked. A search on the internet revealed that the ensemble A Sei Voci recorded two discs with sacred music by Bencini; other discs may include some of his music as part of an anthology. It is rather odd that he receives so little attention, as he occupied several pretigious posts, and his music found a wide dissemination across Italy and beyond. Some of his works were still performed in the early 19th century.

Bencini was born in 1675 in Rome and worked there all his life. He seems to have made an early start as a composer: several copies of his secular cantatas are dated 1696, and in 1698 his first oratorio was performed. This was in Latin; in 1700 he composed his first oratorio in the vernacular. All his contributions to this genre are lost, except Il sacrifizio d'Abramo (1708). In 1702 he was already mentioned among the most celebrated composers in Rome. In 1703 he was appointed maestro di cappella of the German church of Maria dell'anima. In 1705 he became the assistant to Giovanni Bicilli, maestro di cappella of S Maria in Vallicella. When the latter died that same year, Bencini succeeded him. In 1743 Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni died, and Bencini succeeded him as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter's. The largest part of Bencini's sacred output has been preserved in the Vatican's archives, but may have been written before he took up the post at the Cappella Giulia.

Joël Suhubiette has selected pieces for a Vespers service, which was one of the main parts of the Liturgy of the Hours, and celebrated throughout the year. However, this is not a kind of liturgical reconstruction, as we get only three Vesper psalms and a few antiphons. The programme is divided into two sections: first we hear works by Bencini, and in the last section two pieces by Scarlatti.

Bencini's music is scored for voices and basso continuo; instruments don't participate. The tutti are mostly in homophonic style, but the solo episodes and solo pieces are written in the concertante style of around 1700. The introductory prayer, Deus in adiutorium, is often performed as plainchant, but here we hear a setting by Bencini for six voices, in alternation with a solo voice. The hymn Ave maris stella - which, as far as I know, was always performed between the last Psalm and the Magnificat - is for soprano solo and tutti, singing the various stanzas in alternation. Laeva eius is an antiphon for soprano solo, which precedes the first Psalm, Dixit Dominus, which is for eight voices in two choirs, and written in antiphonal style; here Bencini links up with a tradition of polychorality in Rome, going back to the time of Palestrina. This psalm includes several dramatic verses which were often set with elements of the stile concitato, and Bencini is no exception.

The antiphon Dum esset Rex, again for soprano solo, is followed by Beatus vir, scored for soprano and alto solo and a four-part choir. The solo parts are written in the concertato style, and include virtuosic coloratura. In the first verses, the two solo voices sing together, after which the choir comes in singing the same text. The last phrase of the third verse - "manet in saeculum saeculi" (his justice remains for ever and ever) - is repeated a number of times. The antiphon Nigra sum for alto solo closes the first part of the programme.

Alessandro Scarlatti was from Palermo in Sicily but spent most of his career in Rome and Naples. He was important as a composer of music for the theatre, of oratorios and serenatas and especially as the composer of more than 600 chamber cantatas. But as he was one of the main composers of his time in Italy he also took a prominent position as a composer of sacred music. Not that much of his output in this department is available on disc. The two pieces included here, both likely written before 1715, demonstrate how regrettable this is.

Laudate pueri Dominum is for five voices and basso continuo. It does not, as one may expect, open with a tutti section, but rather a solo for bass. In the second section, for the entire ensemble, the second soprano sings a plainchant melody. This work includes a number of solo episodes in concertato style, some of which to virtuosic coloratura. Imitation and homphony alternate in this Psalm setting.

The Vespers close with the Magnificat. Again, it is scored for five voices and basso continuo. Scarlatti does not miss an opportunity to depict the text in music. Examples are the rising figures on "potentes" (the mighty) and "et exaltavit" (and he raised) in 'Deposuit potentes'. The word "misericordiae" (of his goodness) in 'Suscepit Israel' is repeated a number of times at the same interval (a diminished fourth). In the doxology Scarlatti moves from a binary to a ternary rhythm and back.

The combination of Bencini and Alessandro Scarlatti makes sense from a musical and historical point of view. Bencini suffers from a general lack of interest, Scarlatti from a one-sided focus on his secular oeuvre. Moreover, a disc with music by Scarlatti may attract more attention than one entirely devoted to Bencini. Those who want to hear the two pieces by Scarlatti may discover how good Bencini's music is. Both composers are served very well by the Ensemble Jacques Moderne, which performs most of the pieces with two voices per part. Only Bencini's Dixit Dominus is performed with one voice per part. I don't know about the number of singers involved in performances at the time, but this line-up results in an optimum transparency, which helps in making sure that the text is clearly intelligible. The ensemble is excellent, and the singers individually deliver fine performances of the solo parts.

This disc wants to give some idea of the quality of sacred music written in Rome in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. That goal has been achieved, and one can only hope that more sacred music of that time, including pieces by Bencini, are going to be recorded in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Jacques Moderne

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