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Giovanni Paolo COLONNA (1637 - 1695): "O splendida dies"

Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicholas Achten

rec: Nov 2018, Beaufays, Église St Jean l'Evangeliste
Ricercar - RIC 406 (© 2019) (58'41")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giulio Cesare ARRESTI (1619-1701): Sonata XVI - Elevazione; Giovanni Paolo COLONNA: Adeste superi (per il Santissimo)ace; Advolate fideles populi (per S. Andrea Apostolo)ac; E Libano caeli (per ogni tempo)bde; Esurientes (per l'Idria, ò per il Santissimo)ce; O splendida dies (per ogni tempo)be; Pulcra es (per la Beata Vergine)ac; Salve Pretiosum (per il Santissimo)cde; Sinfonia sopra Iubilet caelum (arr Scherzi Musicali); Sinfonia sopra Ride tellus (arr Scherzi Musicali); Sonata VIIf; Sonata VIII

Gwendoline Blondeela, Griet De Geyterb, Wei-Lian Huangc, soprano; Leandro Marziotte, altod; Nicolas Achten, baritonee, theorbo; Valentin Bajou, bass violin; Solmund Nystabakk, archlute; François Dambois, theorbo; Mathieu Valfré, organ (solof)

In the 17th century, Bologna was one of the main musical centres of Italy, at the same level as Rome and Venice. Some of the greatest composers of the time worked there, often connected to the Basilica of San Petronio. Bologna played a crucial role in the development of genres as the violin concerto and the concerto grosso and the playing of and composing for instruments as the cello and the trumpet. It is there that the famous Accademia Filarmonica was founded. However, not every composer who was active in Bologna at that time has received as much interest as one would expect. One of them is Giovanni Paolo Colonna. Pieces from his pen are sometimes included in anthologies, but the number of discs entirely devoted to his oeuvre is rather limited. From that angle the disc under review here, is a most welcome addition to the small discography of his works.

Colonna was born and died in Bologna. He was the son of an organ builder, and was educated as such. He developed into an expert in organ construction. After initial studies in Bologna he went to Rome where he became a pupil of Orazio Benevoli and Giacomo Carissimi. After his return to Bologna he was active as a composer and became second organist of the Basilica of San Petronio. From 1662 until his death he was maestro di cappella there. He held the same position in two other churches for some years. His extant oeuvre is not that large, compared to the output of some other composers of his time. In our time especially his oratorios have attracted some attention; eight of these have survived. He also composed some secular dramatic works, such as cantatas and a couple of operas. His sacred oeuvre includes masses, motets, psalms, responsories and canticles.

If one has a look at the list of printed editions, one notices that he had a preference for the cori spezzati technique, as many of them include pieces for eight voices. These are apparently written in the stile antico, which was still very much in vogue in church music. Composers who made use of this style, usually added a basso continuo part, and that goes for Colonna as well. On the other hand, he also published some collections of pieces for solo voices and basso continuo, which are written in the modern concertato style. They reflect the adaptations of the monodic style as it emerged in the early decades of the century, in that they include more lyrical episodes, as we also find them in the operas of the time (Cavalli).

The present disc is devoted to one of such collections: the ten Motetti which were published as his Op. 3, are scored for two or three voices and basso continuo. Six motets are for two voices: two for two sopranos, one for soprano and alto and three for soprano and bass. The remaining four motets are for three voices: two for soprano, alto and bass, and two for two sopranos and bass. The lack of pieces for tenor is notable, although one probably cannot exclude the possibility that the pieces for two sopranos could be performed an octave lower.

Marc Van Scheeuwijck, in his liner-notes, discusses whether these pieces were intended for use at the Basilica of San Petronio. He mentions that the performance of such small-scale pieces in less important services is documented, but suggests that they were probably more frequently performed in smaller churches or services related to the Accademia Filarmonica. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that Colonna dedicated the collection to top officials of the Bolognese government. Performances in more intimate surroundings seem quite possible. Van Scheeuwijck especially refers to the large reverberation (9 to 12 seconds) of the San Petronio as an issue here. Interestingly, he suggests that Colonna's "short ?nal chords and often written-out echoes in final phrases" may have been inspired by these acoustical circumstances. We find them in several pieces recorded here.

All the motets indicate for which occasion they have been written. Several are per il Santissimo and are in praise of the Holy Sacrament. Often they have an intimate, even mystical character, reflecting the mystery of the sacrament. However, they often also include some elements of excitement, and this diversity within pieces is one of their attractive features. Considering the importance of the veneration of Mary, the exaltation which is part of Pulcra es, can hardly surprise. Advolate fideles populi is a motet for the feast of St Andrew, one of Jesus's apostles, who - according to tradition - was martyred by crucifixion, to which the text refers several times. O splendida dies and E Libano caeli are motets per ogni tempo, meaning that they can be performed at any occasion.

Something which is interesting in these motets is that several of them include passages with the character of a recitative, which usually turn to an arioso. Here, the development of the concertato style in the course of the 17th century clearly manifests itself.

A disc like this one wets the appetite to hear more from Colonna's pen. In the past I have reviewed two other discs with his music, which I liked and which I recommend to those, who would like to hear more (*). Nicolas Achten likes to explore new territory, and that cannot be appreciated enough, as it results in a disc like the one reviewed here. All in all, the performances are excellent. The three sopranos play a major role, and their performances substantially contribute to the outcome: three exceptionally fine voices, and three singers who fully understand what it takes to bring this repertoire to life. Both the intimate and the more exalted pieces and episodes come off to the full. Leandro Marziotte has a much smaller role to play, but sings very well. Nicolas Achten takes the low vocal parts, and his voice may not be to everyone's liking. The tremolo which marred earlier recordings, is much less obtrusive here, but dynamically he is no match for the sopranos, and as a result the balance is less than ideal. I really would like him to attract a singer with a firmer voice who can have a more substantial contribution to the musical proceedings.

The vocal items are separated by instrumental pieces. Two sonatas have been created by the artists on the basis of material from other music by Colonna. These are nice, but I don't see the need. Considering the rather modest playing time of this disc, I would have liked some more motets. Given that Colonna was educated as an organist, it is rather surprising that he left only two organ works, which are both included here. Unfortunately, one of them is performed on three plucked instruments. The sonata by Arresti is taken from the same source, and here the middle section is also played by various instruments. It is nice that for this project Achten ordered an organ in Italian style, as he - probably taking into account what Van Scheeuwijck states about the circumstances, under which these motets may have been performed - considered a large church organ less appropriate. It can be heard in full glory in the Sonata VII.

Despite some critical remarks, I would strongly recommend this disc, which is a substantial addition to the discography of 17th-century music from Bologna.

(*) L'Assalone; "Sacre Lamentazioni"

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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