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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): Sacred Music

[I] Messa Clementina
Le Parnasse français
Dir: Louis Castelain
rec: Nov 2014, Yvelines, Saint-Lambert-des-Bois
Paraty - 316153 (© 2016) (51'06")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): Surrexit pastor bonus a 8, motet; Tu es Petrus a 6, motet [1]; Alessandro SCARLATTI: Missa Clementina (I) a 5; O magnum mysterium a 8, motet; Salve Regina (II) a 4, motet

[1] Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Motettorum liber secundus, 1572

Edwige Parat, Axelle Bernage, soprano; Gabriel Jublin, Yann Roland, alto; Jeffrey Thompson, Vincent Bouchot, tenor; Guillaume Olry, Marc Busnel, Emmanuel Vistory (incipit)bass

[II] "Vespro della Beata Vergine"
Gli Scarlattisti
Franziska Finckh, viola da gamba; Ulrike Klamp, violone; Thorsten Bleich, lute; Stephan Leuthold, bass
Dir: Jochen M. Arnold
rec: May 2012, Völksen (D), St. Johannis
Spektral - SR4-15142 (© 2015) (61'01")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Ave maris stella a 4; Dixit Dominus a 5; Laetatus sum a 4; Lauda Jerusalem a 4; Laudate pueri Dominum a 5; Magnificat a 5; Nisi Dominus a 4

Iris-Anna Deckert, Susan Eitrich, Melanie Thamm-Beck, soprano I; Fanie Antonelou, Konstanze Fladt, Katja Schild, soprano II; Tabea Fischle, contralto; Jochen Patscheke, alto; Daniel Schreiber, alto, tenor; Christoph Claßen, Tobias Meyer, Dieter Wagner, Dietrich Wrase, tenor; Matthias Begemann, Willie Pirzer, Jens Hamann, bass

[III] Missa Defunctorum
Dir: Paolo Da Col
rec: Dec 5 - 8, 2015, Lucca, Oratorio degli Angeli Custodi
Arcana - A 398 (© 2016) (76'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Magnificat a 5 voci e bc; Miserere mei, Deus a 9 voci in doppio coro; Missa defunctorum a 4 voci e bc; Salve Regina a 4 voci con violini e bc

Alena Dantcheva, Jennifer Schittino, soprano; Alessandro Carmignani, Matteo Pigato, Gabriel Jublin, Andrea Arrivabene, Gianluigi Ghiringhelli, Renzo Bez, alto; Alberto Allegrezza, Gianluca Ferrarini, Vincenzo Di Donato, Paolo Fanciullacci, tenor; Giovanni Dagnino, Enrico Bava, Marcello Vargetto, bass
Anaïs Chen, Hedwig Raffeiner, violin; Marc Vanscheeuwijck, bass violin; Giangiacomo Pinardi, archlute; Liuwe Tamminga, organ

Alessandro Scarlatti was from Palermo in Sicily but spent most of his career in Rome and Naples. He was particularly 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. This part of his oeuvre has received not that much attention, although the Vesper psalms which Gli Scarlattisti recorded, are already available in two previous recordings.

Scarlatti's sacred music bears witness to the dichotomy of sacred music in Italy and especially in Rome in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was the time of the stile nuovo which emphasized a close connection between text and music and the importance of a musical expression of human emotions. As this style was closely associated with opera the ecclesiastical authorities didn't approve its application in music for the liturgy. In the Sistine Chapel - the private chapel of the Pope - only music in the old style of the 16th century was performed and instruments were not allowed. At the same time music in the modern style was written - also by Scarlatti - for performance outside the main churches, for instance in private chapels and in the palaces of the aristocracy. It is not without irony that the Missa Clementina which Le Parnasse français has recorded, has been preserved in an autograph whose title page includes a statement by Cardinal Ottoboni, who was a great mecenas of the arts and a promotor of the kind of music the ecclesiastical authorities rejected as being unfit for liturgical use.

This mass is dedicated to Pope Clemente VI, who belonged to the Albani family with which Scarlatti had a close connection. It was written for performance at the Sistine Chapel which explains why it is scored for voices without instrumental accompaniment. Even the way the mass has been laid out is old-fashioned: the autograph manuscript which is preserved in the Vatican Library is a choirbook that was meant to be placed on a music stand or lectern, to be read by a group of singers. It is for five voices and in the Agnus Dei two further voices are added. These aspects again are reminiscent of the renaissance: this extension of the number of voices in the Agnus Dei was common practice in masses of the Franco-Flemish school. Taking these features into account it is perfectly logical to include some pieces by Palestrina whose music was considered the most perfect demonstration of what the stile antico was about. However, the juxtaposition of motets by Palestrina and sacred works by Scarlatti not only shows the similarities but also the differences. Formally the mass is written in the stile antico but Scarlatti included elements of the music of his own time, especially in regard to text expression and harmony. That comes especially to the fore in the Credo: the section 'Et incarnatus est' is singled out with melodic and harmonic means and on "resurrectionem mortuorum" we notice a sudden and pretty succinct modulation.

The same goes for the two motets. O magnum mysterium is a motet for Christmastide and dates from 1705; it is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Although it is again written in the polyphonic style of the 16th century it is remarkable for its declamatory character, quite different from the fluent legato style of Palestrina. It bears witness to the importance of the text which was a feature of the style of Scarlatti's own time. The programme ends with a four-part setting of the Salve Regina that was written after a series of earthquakes in the Apennines which had caused considerable damage in Rome. The number of victims was relatively small and there were many processions and masses to thank the Holy Virgin for her protection. As the autograph manuscript of the Salve Regina carries the date of February 1703 this piece may well have been written for performance during one of the masses. "There is an almost excessive build-up of dissonances and chromatism in its musical discourse, which give this prayer to Mary a sense of human distress in the face of tragedy", Louis Castelain states in his liner-notes. This again shows how much Scarlatti integrated modern elements in his a cappella compositions, despite their being old-fashioned in texture.

The performances are very good. The pieces by Scarlatti and Palestrina are basically performed the same way, and rightly so. The singers show a full command of legato which is a prerequisite for the performance of music in the stile antico. At the same time the differences between Palestrina and Scarlatti are clearly exposed: there is much attention to the text and several episodes of text illustration and there is also some dynamic differentiation, but all in a modest way.

The Vespro della Beata Vergine which was recorded by Gli Scarlattisti, directed by Jochen M. Arnold, is largely in the same style. In the oeuvre of Scarlatti one won't find a composition with this title. The Vespers performed here are a compilation of music for a Vesper liturgy, edited by Jörg Jacobi. It has already been recorded some years ago by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, directed by Harry van der Kamp, and two uears later by the Berliner Vokalakademie, directed by Frank Markowitsch. The pieces in this edition were certainly not conceived as a unity considering their difference in scoring and texture. They have in common that they all include a basso continuo part and that several of them have episodes for solo voices. The first two items, Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri Dominum, are both for five voices - two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass - with basso continuo. Both are divided into various sections, some of which are scored for one to three solo voices. The next three, Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus and Lauda Jerusalem, are all for four voices and bc, and neither contains passages for solo voices. These pieces are different from the mass and motets in the previous recording as I have mentioned above, but there are also similarities: firstly the domination of counterpoint and secondly the inclusion of features of the modern style, especially in the realm of text expression, partly with the means of harmony. In particular in Dixit Dominus and in the Magnificat one can find examples of that.

This also effects the interpretation. Legato is still an important element, but in this Vespers music there are more modern elements, for instance in the inclusion of passages for solo voices. The members of Gli Scarlattisti take perfect care of them. The soli as well as the tutti are very well performed and there is much attention to the rhythmic pulse. In short, this is a convincing production.

The same setting of the Magnificat also closes the programme of the ensemble Odhecaton which brings together pieces from different stages in Scarlatti's career. It opens with the Missa defunctorum for four voices and bc which dates from around 1717. The autograph was once in the possession of the English composer John Stanley (1712-1786) and may have been part of the musical library of Cardinal Ottoboni which after his death was sold by English agents on behalf of Handel. The work is now part of the Piatti-Lochis Collection at the Biblioteca Civica in Bergamo; the cellist Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) lived in London for about 50 years. This mass received some prominence when it was performed in 1971 during Igor Strawinsky's funeral ceremony. It includes three episodes for reduced forces (three instead of four voices) and shows the same features we already noted in works on the previous discs. In the 'Tuba mirum' (Dies irae) the voices imitate the sound of the trumpet and the words "ingemisco, tamquam reus" (I sigh, like the guilty one) are depicted by a descending line and bold harmony. The harmonically most disturbing section is the Lacrimosa which includes strong dissonants and chromaticism.

The Salve Regina was included in a collection of sacred music which was printed in Amsterdam in 1707/08; this was a reprint of an edition published in 1702 in Naples which in turn was probably a reprint of an edition of 1697; the latter are both lost. With its scoring for four voices, two violins and bc it represents the other side of Scarlatti's sacred output. It could originally have been written to pay tribute to the Viceroy of Naples, Duke of Medinaceli who took possession of the city in 1696. This setting is based on the plainchant melody which is clearly noticeable throughout the whole work.

With Scarlatti's setting of the penitential psalm Miserere mei, Deus we are again in the Sistine Chapel. It is modelled after the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri. The scoring is exactly the same: nine voices in two choirs a cappella. Another similarity is its alternatim texture: like Allegri Scarlatti set the odd verses polyphonically, leaving the even verses to be sung in plainchant. Stylistically Scarlatti's setting is more modern, in line with the fashion of the time, and that was exactly the reason the singers of the Sistine Chapel didn't like it. It seems that it was written in the 1680s but the only documented performance was one on Holy Saturday of 1708. It was not included in the chapel's repertoire and it became tradition to perform the Miserere in the setting of Tommaso Bai which was more closely based on Allegri's setting and much simpler.

These four pieces are all of excellent quality and especially the Missa defunctorum and the Miserere are very interesting additions to the discography. Odhecaton is a fine ensemble which delivers very good performances. There is only one issue, like in all recordings of this ensemble: the strong presence of Alessandro Carmignani. He has a nice voice but is too dominant and he produces more sound than text. As a result in performances of Odhecaton the audibility of the text leaves something to be desired. The Magnificat is a little slower here than in Gli Scarlattisti's performance. I have no preference; I enjoyed both performances.

Especially the first and third discs greatly expand our knowledge of Scarlatti's output and should contribute to its being more appreciated.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Gli Scarlattisti
Le Parnasse français

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