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Bonifazio GRAZIANI (1604 - 1664): Oratorios & Motets

[I] "Adae Oratorium, Filli Prodigi Oratorium & Five Motets"
Consortium Carissimi
Dir: Garrick Comeaux
rec: July 21 - 25, 2014, Marystown, Shakopee, MN, Church of St Mary of the Purification
Naxos - 8.573256 (© 2015) (71'20")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Adae, oratorio Beati mundo corde, motet [3]; Filli Prodigi, oratorio; O miracula, motet [4]; Quis dabit capiti meo, motet [4]; Quid est hoc, motet [1]; Venite, audite, motet [2]

[II] "Cantatas, Op. 25"
Consortium Carissimi
Dir: Garrick Comeaux
rec: July 21 - 25, 2014, Marystown, Shakopee, MN, Church of St Mary of the Purification
Naxos - 8.573257 (© 2016) (71'05")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Amici pastori [5]; Crudelissime spine [5]; Ecco aperto l'abisso [5]; Generoso pensiero [5]; Germoglino a mille [5]; Gran tesoro dei mortali [5]; Mal'accorto pensiero [5]; Mobile nave è nostra vita [5]; Non ho voglia di penar più [5]; Peccator dimmi perché [5]; Siamo qui Suore fatali [5]; Su lieto mio cuore [5]

Sources: [1] Motetti a due, tre, quattro, cinque e sei voci, op. 1, 1650; [2] Sacrae cantiones una tantum voci cum organo decantandae, op. 19, 1672; [3] Motetti a due, tre, quattro e cinque voci, op. 20, 1672; [4] Mottetti a due, tre, quattro e cinque voci, op. 24, 1676; [5] Musiche sagre e morali composte ad una, due, tre e quattro voci, op. 25, 1678

Berken Baker (II), Heather Cogswell, Linh Kauffman, Michelle Liebl, Marita Link (I), soprano; Clara Osowski, mezzo-soprano; Roy Heilman, Steve Staruch (I), tenor; Michael Schmidt, (I); Douglas Shambo II, bass; Mary Burke, viola da gamba; Garrett Lahr, sackbut; Mike Pettman, archlute; Phil Rukavina, theorbo; Bruce Jacobs, harpsichord; Don Livingston, organ

At page 4 of the booklet to the first of the two discs to be reviewed here we read: "Dedicated to the City of Marino (Rome) on the occasion of the 350th Anniversary of the death of Bonifazio Graziani (1604-1664)". It is rather odd then to see the year of Graziani's death given as 1674 on the rear inlay and in the track-list as well as in the liner-notes by Garrick Comeaux. Someone from the Naxos production staff must have had a bad day at the office. The second disc has the correct data.

San Marino is the town where Graziani grew up. It should not be confused with the republic of San Marino, an enclave near the Adriatic coast. This San Marino is near Rome and now part of the province of Rome. It was also the town where Giacomo Carissimi was born. As they were almost exact contemporaries they must have known each other, probably from early on, but certainly when they both worked in Rome. Graziani served as a priest in Marino and in nearby Frascati. In 1646 he moved to Rome where he was appointed maestro di cappella at Il Gesù and the Seminario Romano. Under his guidance the choir of Il Gesù grew considerably and it seems likely that he composed his large-scale vocal works for this choir. In the 1650s his compositions started to be published. In 1658 he was appointed cappellano at the Jesuit novitiate house of S Andrea and he was also active in the Congregazione dei Musici di S Cecilia.

The two main works on the first disc are two oratorios, a genre which was rapidly growing in popularity, largely due to Carissimi's activities in the composition of such pieces. There is a remarkable similarity between the oratorios of the two composers. Both preferably use biblical subjects and use texts in Latin. The testo - here called textus - or historicus tells the story; he was the model for the Evangelist in German Passions of the 17th and 18th centuries. This role can be given to any voice; in the oratorios by Graziani this part is sometimes sung by a tenor, but also by a bass or a soprano and sometimes this part is for three voices. The accompaniment is confined to basso continuo. However, according to Garrick Comeaux Filii prodigi "has solo figured bass lines in three sections entitled Ritornello in Part I and six sections entitled Symphonia in Part II. One can only speculate that there were obbligato instrumental parts above this bass line. In these sections of Ritornelli and Symphonia, we have reconstructed a solo line for tenor sackbut".

Filii prodigi and Adae are the only extant oratorios from Graziani's pen. The first is about the prodigal son - Jesus' parable as told in the gospel of St Luke (ch 15). The oratorio is divided into two parts: the first tells about the son leaving his fatherly home and later returning when he has spent all his money; the second part is about the way the older brother reacts when his father celebrates the return of his lost child. Both parts end with a four-part chorus.

Adae is the story of the fall of mankind as told in Genesis 3: the serpent (the devil) tempts Eve to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, against God's commandment. She then tempts her husband Adam to do the same. The first part ends with a chorus which expresses the effect: "O bitter sweetness, o traitorous pleasure! Sweet apple that poisons, that kills mortal beings. Eve tastes, and Adam, and along with Eve, along with Adam – alas! – it kills us all." In the second part God visits Adam and Eve but they hide themselves. When he finds them and they tell Him what happened he curses the serpent and tells Adam and Eve what the effects of their disobience will be. The oratorio closes with another four-part chorus: "How little sweetness, how much, how much bitterness – alas, alas! – an apple brought to all!"

In particular the closing chorus from the first part of this oratorio is quite expressive as it opens with a descending line and includes harmonic progressions which reflect the bitterness that the text speaks about. These two oratorios are nice but not comparable with those by Carissimi. He was a master of text expression and was also able to create a real drama in a short space of time. However, it seems to me that it is also down to the performance that these oratorios come across as not really dramatic. The performances are a little too straightforward and not theatrical enough. The Consortium Carissimi has nice voices in its ranks but some are a bit bland. The text should also have received more attention. Filii prodigi is more theatrical than Adae and there the role of the textus comes off better than in the latter oratorio.

The disc starts with five motets for solo voices and basso continuo. They are taken from three collections which were printed in 1650, 1672 and 1676 respectively. The collection mentioned first is Graziani's op. 1 and was the first publication of compositions from his pen. They seem to have been written for various ecclesiastical feasts. O miracula, o prodigia is probably intended for the Advent period as it speaks about shepherds and ends with the words "behold, he is already near, behold, he comes". Quis dabit capiti meo may be written for Holy Week and Quid est hoc for Pentecost. The performances are generally good but again there are some issues which make the interpretations less than ideal. Some of the singers have problems with the coloratura, in other cases the parts include low notes which are a little uncomfortable for others. In Venite, audite the lowest notes are too weak. That could be due to the pitch which is a=415'. Maybe in this case a high tenor would have been more suitable than a mezzo-soprano as used here.

The second disc focuses on Graziani's motets, and more in particular, the motets which his brother Graziano published posthumously as his op. 25 in 1678. I don't understand why the cover calls them cantatas. In his liner-notes Garrick Comeaux states that "Graziani preferred to use the term motet instead of cantata for his Italian vernacular compositions". The titlepage of the op. 25 uses neither word but rather Musiche sagre e morali. This sums up the collection's content pretty well. Some of the pieces have a moral tenor. Siamo qui Suore fatali which opens the programme is a dialogue about the parcae spinning human life. It includes a warning to "highest monarchs, strongest warriors": "[This] is how your life progresses - like a weak spindle, like a loose thread is your age. (...) But faith and piety do not fall." The disc closes with Mal'accorto pensiero, "about the vanity of life". The moral comes at the end: "Even the greatest empire ends in darkness. An entire world can give no peace to the soul".

Such pieces indicate that this collection was not meant for liturgical performance. Ecco aperto l'abisso also attests to that. It is again called a dialogo and focuses on the fate of the living and those condemned to hell. The text refers to a number of characters from classical mythology, such as Pluto, Cerberus, Bacchus and the Sphinxes. Such texts are used as allegories to bring home a spiritual message. Some other pieces also have strong secular connotations, such as Germoglino a mille which is in two parts. The first ends with the line "A true lover knows the toil and struggle". But the second part reveals what this motet is about: "Dying for Jesus is a welcome death". We find the same thought in Generoso pensiero.

A number of pieces are for Christmastide. Gran tesoro del mortali has the subtitle al Santo Bambino. Amici pastori is a lullaby with the refrain "Fra la nanna, fra la ninna". A collection like this cannot do without a piece about the Virgin Mary: Su lieto mio cuore. There are also some pieces for Lent which are about sin or Jesus' Passion. The text of Peccator dimmi perché is put into the mouth of Jesus: "O sinner, tell me why, why does your heart disdain me so". Crudelissime spine is about the "cruel thorns that wound my Lord".

Most pieces for two and three voices are a mixture of largely homophonic episodes and short solo passages. The dialogues are not really dramatic and not comparable to oratorios. That even goes for Ecco aperto l'abisso; here the tenor takes a role comparable to that of the historicus in oratorios. But these motets are very well worth listening to. Overall I rate the performances higher than those on the previous disc. Among the sopranos Linh Kauffman plays the main role and she makes a very good impression. My main problem is the fact that there is too little dynamic shading and that in general these performances are not as expressive as they should be. I sorely missed the use of the messa di voce, for instance on exclamations like "ahi" and "ah".

The Consortium Carissimi deserves praise for bringing the music of Bonifazio Graziani to our attention. These discs are well worth exploring, even though the performances - especially those on the first - don't full justice to what he has to offer. But they are good enough to make me wish to hear more from him.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Consortium Carissimi

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