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Alessandro SCARLATTI: "Magnificat - Dixit Dominus"

Concerto Italiano
Dir: Rinaldo Alessandrini

rec: Feb 2000, Rome, PIM'S
Nave - OP 30350 ( 2007) (58'35")

Arsi un tempo a 5; Dixit Dominus a 5; Magnificat a 5; Mori, mi dici a 5; O morte a 5; O selce, o tigre, o ninfa a 5; Sdegno la fiamma estinse a 5

Anna Simboli, Elisabetta Tiso, soprano; Paolo Costa, alto; Gianluca Ferrarini, tenor; Sergio Foresti, bass; Eduardo Eguez, chitarrone; Ignazio Schifani, organ

Gramophone companies work in mysterious ways. This programme of vocal music by Alessandro Scarlatti was recorded in 2000 and has only be released in 2007. Why this recording has collected dust on the shelves of Nave is a complete mystery to me, in particular as both music and performance are of a superior quality.

For a long time Alessandro Scarlatti was mainly known as the father of Domenico, and if his music was performed, it was mostly the genre of the chamber cantata which received the performers' attention. That is understandable as he was a very prolific composer of music in this genre: about 600 cantatas of this kind have been written by him. In recent years his oratorios have enjoyed the attention of performers and audiences. This disc presents a far lesser-known side of Alessandro Scarlatti, and - more in general - of the musical world of his days.

Since the middle of the 17th century religious music was more and more influenced by opera, at the cost of polyphony. But this tendency didn't go down that well in eclesiastical circles. In particular in Rome they had a strong preference for the stile antico. When Scarlatti was appointed chapelmaster in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1707, as the successor to Francesco Foggia, that preference was something he couldn't ignore.

But there is no reason at all to believe he wanted to ignore it. On the contrary, Scarlatti was not the kind of composer who simply rode on the waves of fashion. He deliberately wrote sacred music in old-fashioned style. He once characterised his sacred works as written "in the solid style of Palestrina". One shouldn't interpret this as if his music of this kind could be taken for 16th century music by mistake. Scarlatti may have advocated the stile antico in church music, he certainly incorporated elements of the stile moderno in his compositions.

What is most striking in the two sacred compositions on this disc is how well Scarlatti manages to combine the principles of the stile antico with the text expression of the modern style. That is made crystal clear in the setting of Dixit Dominus: in the section 'Dominus a dextris tuis' God's wrath over his enemies is expressed in a most dramatic fashion. In the Magnificat the 'Quia respexit' is given to a soprano, but on the words "omnes generationes" she is joined by the other voices. There is a strong contrast in tempo and rhythm between the two halves of 'Deposuit': "he hath put down the mighty from their seats - and hath exalted the humble and meek". Scarlatti also uses harmony to express the text. A striking example is 'Esurientes', in particular the last two lines. "He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel" is set to sweet consonant harmonies, which - in addition to the slow tempo - creates a mood of peace and quiet which perfectly illustrates the content of the text.

Harmony is also an important element in the five madrigals - of the total of eight Scarlatti has composed - which are sung between the two sacred pieces. The programme notes don't tell for what reason or occasion Scarlatti has written them, but suggest they must have been written for professional singers to be performed "in some private academy whose patron was a nostalgic devotee of polyphony". There are some pretty strong dissonances here, but nowhere as strong as in music by, for instance, Monteverdi. As the programme notes say: "the key role is assigned to the organisation of the madrigal (...) in closed, contrasting structures." Through contrasts in tempo and rhythm - often complicated and technically demanding - Scarlatti achieves a very incisive expression which in no way is inferior to what we usually hear in the more fashionable music from Scarlatti's era.

The brilliance and expressive power of Scarlatti's music is fully exposed here. The Concerto Italiano goes to the bottom of these pieces and explores the depth and range of their emotional content. The prerequisite is a perfect intonation and a large amount of experience in singing together as an ensemble. Concerto Italiano has both, as this disc amply demonstrates.

In short, this is a superb release which I can't recommend enough.

Johan van Veen ( 2008)

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