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Francesco CAVALLI: "Requiem" & Alessandro GRANDI: "Motets"

Ensemble Polyharmonique
Dir: Alexander Schneider

rec: Sept 6 - 7, 2015, Grumbach (D), Ev-Luth Kirche
Raumklang - RK 3601 ( 2016) (56'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Missa pro defunctis a 8; Alessandro GRANDI (1577-1630): Da pacem Domine a 2 [3]; Exaudi Deus a 5 [2]; Exaudi Domine a 2 [1]; In te Domine speravi a 2 [3]; O bone Jesu Christe a 5 [2]; Versa est in luctum a 5 [2]

[1] Il primo libro de motetti con una messa, 1610; [2] Motetti con le Letanie della beata vergine, 1614; [3] Il terzo libro de motetti con le Letanie della beata vergine, 1614, 16182;

Joowon Chung, Magdalena Podkoscielna, soprano; Alexander Schneider, Piotr Olech, alto; Sren Richter, Vincent Eugne Lesage, tenor; Sebastian Myrus, Matthias Lutze, bass
Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Maximilian Ehrhardt, harp; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

In recent times Francesco Cavalli, who for a long time was largely overshadowed by Claudio Monteverdi, has received considerable attention, albeit almost exclusively in his capacity as a composer of operas. That is understandable considering that after the death of Monteverdi he was the most prolific composer of music for the theatre in Venice and that a large number of his operas have come down to us. In comparison his sacred output is not often performed and not well represented on disc. However, exactly this sheds light on the main part of his activities as a composer, because since his early years he worked as a singer, organist and composer in San Marco.

He received his first music lessons from his father, the organist Giovanni Battista Caletti, and sang as a treble in the choir of the cathedral of the city of Crema where he was born in 1602. He attracted the attention of the Venetian ambassador Frederico Cavalli who persuaded Caletti to let him take the boy to Venice. Cavalli would act as his protector which inspired Francesco to adopt his surname. In 1616 Cavalli entered the chapel of San Marco which was then under the direction of Monteverdi. In 1639 he succeeded Giovanni Pietro Berti as second organist; in 1644 Massimiliano Neri was appointed first organist but in fact it was Cavalli who acted as such and received a higher salary than Neri. His skills as organist were highly praised and a contemporary compared him to Frescobaldi. Neri departed in 1665 and Cavalli was appointed his successor. In 1668 Giovanni Rovetta who had succeeded Monteverdi as maestro di cappella of San Marco, died and his position was given to Cavalli who held this post until his death eight years later.

It seems that Cavalli composed the Missa pro defunctis for his own funeral; it was presumably written between 1673 and 1675. As most other Requiems of the time it is in the stile antico; the scoring is for eight voices in two choirs which is a clear reference to the rich polychoral tradition of Venice. However, the addition of a basso continuo part, the connection between text and music and the use of harmony for expressive reasons reflect the fashion of Cavalli's own time. In this respect it is a typical specimen of the liturgical music which was written across Italy during the 17th century: a mixture of tradition and modernity.

Plainchant takes a small role in this Requiem: the Introit and the Agnus Dei open with a plainchant incipit which creates a kind of symmetry. In the Introit the plainchant is used as cantus firmus in some of the voices. The expressive heart of the piece is the Dies Irae. The opening words receive a kind of percussive setting. Cavalli uses a chromatic figure to express the text "Ingemisco, tamquam reus" - "I moan as one who is guilty". For the 'Confutatis maledictis' Cavalli turns to triple time, undoubtedly inspired by the words "flames of woe" included in this section. The ensuing words "Call me among the blessed" are then set to long notes, reflecting their praying character.

For a number of years Alessandro Grandi was also connected to San Marco. It seems that Monteverdi prevented him from publishing large-scale sacred compositions. Grandi made a virtue of necessity and concentrated at composing music for solo voices. This part of his oeuvre probably is his most important and impressive contribution to music history. Grandi was a child prodigy who was given important positions at an early age. His sacred concertos show a great sensitivity to the voice and the musical illustration of a text. The fact that he was a brilliant singer himself was certainly helpful in this respect. The performance of this repertoire requires great technical skills and a fine sensitivity towards the text.

The sacred concertos by Grandi are included in the performance of Cavalli's Requiem. This seems not to reflect a liturgical practice of the time and therefore this disc is not a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction'. But the selection of the pieces by Grandi fits well into the character of the programme. That goes in particular for Exaudi Deus orationem meam (Give ear to my prayer, O God) and Exaudi Domine vocem meam (Hear, O Lord, my voice) which link up with the closing section of the Requiem's Introitus: "Exaudi orationem meam" (Hear my prayer). Versa est in luctum is a funeral motet; Toms Luis de Victoria included his setting in his Officium defunctorum. In te Domine speravi (In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed) reflects the hope of God's mercy which is also very much part of the Requiem. O bone Jesu Christe is a prayer for mercy of a sinner, Da pacem Domine a prayer for peace which is the counterpart of the phrase which concludes the Requiem: "Grant them eternal rest, forever".

There is another reason why this recording is not a kind of reconstruction. In his liner-notes Alexander Schneider writes: "In his will he [Cavalli] left precise instructions for the organisation of the funeral. (...) Cavalli required a large line-up: all the singers of the capella di san marco, two violins, four violas, two cornetts, two theorbos, sackbuts, dulcian, violone and three organs". In this performance we hear only eight singers and bc. "With this recording we want to fulfill the composer's wish of retrospection with the means of the digital world of postmodernism: CD and download as a memorial in a time, in which performances in a sacred context have become rare". This is the only aspect of this recording which makes me rather unhappy. One probably cannot exclude the possibility that Cavalli's Missa pro defunctis has been performed at some occasion in a reduced line-up, comparable with what is on offer here. But if we know the composer's intentions we should comply with them, if that is possible. In this case the participation of the instruments Cavalli mentions is no problem at all.

This is all the more regrettable as the singing is absolutely superior. Not long ago I reviewed the previous disc of this ensemble, devoted to Tobias Michael, which I rated highly. There is every reason to do so again, as far as the quality of the singers and their performances are concerned. Eight outstanding voices which blend perfectly and which also take care convincingly of the solo sections in the Requiem and of Grandi's sacred concertos. The latter's qualities come impressively to the fore and it is really time that Grandi's oeuvre is thoroughly explored.

I certainly don't want to advise anyone against purchasing this disc - on the contrary. I have greatly enjoyed these performances, but from a historical point of view I find the disregard of Cavalli's wishes in regard to scoring highly regrettable.

Johan van Veen ( 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Polyharmonique

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