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"Assisi - Christmas Cantatas"

Ruth Ziesak, sopranoa; Ingeborg Danz, contraltob; Reinhold Friedrich, natural trumpetc
L'Arte del Mondo
Dir.: Werner Ehrhardt
rec: June 2 - 5, 2008, Kempen, Paterskirche
Phoenix Edition - 149 (© 2008) (67'31")

Francesco Maria BENEDETTI (1683-1746): Pastori o voi, cantata morale per il Santissimo Natale per Soprano soloa; Salve Reginaa; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,8 "fatto per la notte di natale"; Ferdinando Antonio LAZZARI (1678-1754): Motetto - Canto solo per Natale (Quam lete videntes)a; Giuseppe Maria PO del Finale (c1700): O quam jubilat, Motetto per il Santissimo Natale per Soprano ed Alto soloabc; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Stelle lucide, motetto per soprano soloa; Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703): Sonata a 5c

Christmas is one of the favourite times of the year for artists and record companies. Very few don't take the opportunity to produce recordings with music which in some way or another is connected to this feast. As a result every year a respectable number of discs are released, most of which are rather unimaginative in regard to the repertoire. But fortunately there are some exceptions. This disc is one of them, as all but one of the compositions on the programme are world premiere recordings.

This disc presents music which is connected to the Holy Convent of St Frances in Assisi. With the exception of Corelli's Concerto grosso the compositions performed here have been found in the library of the convent, and therefore it is plausible to assume that they may have been performed there. Only some of the composers were connected to the convent; Melani, Porpora and Corelli were not, nor did they belong to the Franciscan order. And not all pieces recorded here were specifically written for Christmas (Melani, Benedetti's Salve Regina). But this disc certainly sheds an interesting light on a music practice which, according to Olaf Krone in his programme notes, has hardly been explored. The repertoire recorded here certainly wets the appetite for more.

The disc starts with the beautiful Sonata a 5 for two trumpets, 2 violins and bc by Alessandro Melani, a composer who has worked in Pistoia and Rome, and has composed quite a large amount of music which is still hardly known. Porpora is not that well-known either; he was first and foremost an opera composer, and the motet Stelle lucide is evidence of that. It seems an early work, and here he is rather moderate in adopting the operatic style in his sacred music. In the motets he composed in the 1740s for the Ospedale dei Derelitti in Venice he went much further. The text is not directly related to Christmas, but as the last aria is written in the pastoral 12/8 time, it is not unlogical to include it in the programme.

Francesco Maria Benedetti was maestro di cappella in Assisi from 1711 to 1746, with some interruptions. His cantata Pastori o voi is called a 'moral cantata', and it is in the closing very short aria - just 42 seconds - that we find the moral: "Whoever turns to heaven shall find Jesus". This is preceded by a sequence of recitatives and arias whose texts are in character not that different from the secular cantatas of the time. There is nothing unusual about that as the motets of, for instance, Vivaldi demonstrate. The Salve Regina is, of course, not specifically written for Christmas, but it certainly fits into this programme. It is very suitable for text illustration, with words like "clamamus", "suspiramus" and "gementes". Benedetti doesn't miss the opportunity, in particular in the instrumental parts.

Giuseppe Maria Pò del Finale was maestro di cappella from 1699 to 1704. He came from Finale di Modena (now Finale Emilia); hence the addition to his name. The motet O quam jubilat is set for two solo voices - soprano and alto -, 2 trumpets and bc. The vocal sections are interspersed by short ritornellos. The heart of the piece is a lullaby: "O sweet child, sweet Jesus, sacred little boy, visit us".

Ferdinando Antonio Lazzaro was a Franciscan, but there is no evidence that he worked in Assisi. What we do know is that he was active as maestro di cappella in Bologna and Venice. His motet also contains a lullaby; the last aria says: "sing a lullaby to the sweetest, purest and gentlest little child". The main feature in this motet is peace and quiet: the first aria sets the tone as it talks about the "quiet night" in which the protagonist recognizes Jesus "splendid glow".

The disc ends with one of the most popular instrumental pieces for Christmas time: the 'Christmas concerto' by Corelli. Corelli's music - in particular his trio sonatas - have been found in the library of the convent of Assisi, and therefore it is assumed this concerto may have been played there as well. I have no problems with this kind of speculation, in particular when it sounds reasonably plausible, but I had preferred another unknown composition instead.

But then, in this regard there is nothing to complain about. It doesn't happen that often that almost all pieces on a disc are new to the catalogue. And that makes this disc a winner in itself, the more so as this music is of good quality and is well worth listening to. It should also give performers some ideas about what to play during Christmas concerts. It is to be hoped this music - and maybe other pieces from the same archive - is going to be printed.

The booklet contains informative programme notes by the German musicologist Olaf Krone. What I don't understand is why these notes are translated into English and the lyrics are not. That is an unforgivable omission in a release geared to the international market.
Fortunately there is hardly anything wrong with the performances. The singers and players are doing a fine job here. Ruth Ziesak has a nice voice, well suited for this kind of repertoire. She blends well with the contralto in Pò del Finale's motet and with the trumpets. She sings the recitatives with the right amount of rhythmic freedom, and generally doesn't try to do too much. That is particularly tempting in this music which is mostly of a rather quiet and introverted character. Having said that I believe sometimes a bit more colour and expression hadn't been amiss. The same is true for the ensemble, which could have played Corelli's concerto a bit livelier. The string parts in Benedetti's Salve Regina are also a little too bland.

But this doesn't take anything away from my enjoyment of this disc. Like I wrote at the start, it makes one like to hear more from the same source. This disc definitely is an important and interesting addition to the catalogue of Christmas music.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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