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Gaetano VENEZIANO (1656 - 1716): "In Officio Defunctorum - Nocturns for the Dead"

Jenny Högström, soprano; Filippo Mineccia, alto; Kevin Skelton, tenor; Marc Pantus, bass
Sofia Pedro, soprano (rip)a; Sophia Patsi, contralto (rip)a
Ensemble Odyssee
Dir: Andrea Friggi

rec: May 20 - 26, 2014, Diemen (NL), Schuilkerk De Hoop
Pan Classics - PC 10319 (© 2015) (68'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Sinfonia di Concerto grosso IV in e minor; Gaetano VENEZIANO: Miserere a 4 voci con li violini as placituma; Notturno Primo; Notturno Secondo; Notturno Terzo

Gaetano Veneziano enjoys quite some interest in recent years. In 2014 two recordings were released: his oratorio La Santissima Trinità, directed by Antonio Florio, and Nocturns for Christmas, by the same ensemble which also recorded the Noturns for the Dead, the subject of the present disc.

Veneziano was born in Bisceglie in Bari by the Adriatic Sea. At the age of ten he entered the conservatory S Maria di Loreto; his teacher was Francesco Provenzale. He developed into a key figure in the Neapolitan music scene as he held positions at the court (the Real Cappella), the church of Carmine Maggiore and at his old conservatory. In 1703 Alessandro Scarlatti left Naples, and the next year Veneziano was appointed as his successor in the position of maestro di cappella of the Real Cappella. However, only three years later he lost his job when Naples was captured from the Spaniards by Austria. Veneziano left a considerable number of compositions; more than 120 have been authenticated and these include mainly sacred works, such as Passions and oratorios and a number of liturgical pieces. These have been preserved in the library of the Oratory of St Philip Neri congregation to whom Veneziano bequeathed his personal library at his death.

Part of Veneziano's liturgical music are the Nocturns. They are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, a set of prayers to be recited by clergy at various times of the day. The morning prayers or matins are divided into three nocturns which derive their name from the fact that they are performed when it is still dark. Every nocturn comprises psalms and three lessons whose texts are taken from the Old Testament or early Christian authors. The common texts may change according to the time of the year. Hence the Christmas Nocturns which the Ensemble Odyssee recorded some years ago. The same is the case here: the Nocturns for the Dead should not be confused with a funeral proper which consists a Requiem mass. "The nocturns of the officium defunctorum were part of the normal repertoire of every church and would have been performed every time a nobleman died", Andrea Friggi writes in his liner-notes. The texts are taken from the Book of Job in which the central figure suffers heavy losses: first all his possessions, then his children and lastly his health. In the extracts taken from this book he bitterly complains about his fate.

Neither the reason for the composition of these nocturns is known nor whether the various settings belong to a kind of cycle. Twelve nocturns from different stages in his life have been preserved. The fact that some of them were copied several times in later years shows that they were intensively used. Friggi suggests that the nocturns which Antonio Nicola Porpora composed around 1740 were to replace Veneziano's settings. That would be remarkable as it was not common practice to perform music which was several decades old. For the present recording Friggi has turned to a set of parts which were copied in 1724, probably the latest copies of these works. This set comprises nine nocturns, seemingly selected to be performed as a cycle. Unfortunately the second violin part for the first lesson of the third nocturn is missing; this has been reconstructed.

Such a reconstruction is not that complicated as the nocturns are dominated by counterpoint. They are not divided into recitatives and arias; what we have here is a stream of music with elements of recitative - especially used for strongly emotional passages -, arioso and aria. Stylistically these nocturns remind me of the St John Passion (Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem) by Alessandro Scarlatti. The role of the instruments - apparently not specified, but almost certainly strings - is not confined to the playing of ritornelli as in much music of a later date; they are involved in the proceedings from start to finish. As I already noted in my review of this ensemble's recording of the Nocturns for Christmas there is relatively little text expression. However, there are some moments when Veneziano makes use of harmony, including dissonants and chromaticism, to depict some words. The most striking examples are in the last nocturn, which includes words like "sorrow", "darkness" and "shadow of death". The third lesson from the second nocturn open with agitated figures on the text: "O that Thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that Thou wouldest keep me secret, until Thy wrath be past". Something comparable happens in the first lesson from this nocturn: "Dost Thou show forth Thy power against a leaf driven to and fro by the wind?" In the first lesson from the first nocturn we find some examples of different forms, such as recitative ("What is man, that Thou shouldest magnify him? Or that Thou shouldest set Thine heart upon him?") and aria ("How long wilt Thou not depart from me, nor let me alone, till I swallow down my spittle?"), with some imitation between voice and strings.

The programme ends with a setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus which is not connected to the Office for the Dead. But as it ends with the opening words of the Requiem mass it fits well into the programme. It is for four voices and two violin parts ad libitum; remarkable is the addition of two ripieno voices to the soprano and alto parts. "It is unknown whether this is a deliberate musical choice by Veneziano or whether some of the original parts are simply missing. For the present recording we opted for the former hypothesis, attempting to reconstruct how a performance by students from the Loreto conservatoire would have sounded."

In my review of Veneziano's Christmas Nocturns I stated that these works "suggest that Veneziano was a fine composer whose oeuvre deserves to be further explored." The present recording confirm my positive assessment of his qualities. I have listened with great interest and I find this music quite compelling. The performers are also responsible for these nocturns making such an impact. The singers and players deliver impeccable readings and they have found exactly the right approach to this repertoire in order to make it come across to maximum effect. Let's hope that Friggi will continue exploring Veneziano's oeuvre. I very much look forward to further recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Jenny Högström
Filippo Mineccia
Marc Pantus
Kevin Skelton
Ensemble Odyssee

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