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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Vespro della Beata Vergine"

Vokalakademie Berlin
Dir: Frank Markowitsch

rec: Jan 5 - 8, 2012, Berlin, Evangelisches Johannesstift
Rondeau - ROP6062 (© 2012) (59'39")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: 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

[bc] James Bush, cello; Mirjam Wittulski, double bass; Magnus Andersson, theorbo; Sabine Erdmann, harpsichord, organ

Alessandro Scarlatti is one of the more frequently performed composers these days. In particular his chamber cantatas and his oratorios enjoy increasing popularity among performers. His sacred music is given far less attention, and many of his compositions in this genre may cause some surprise as they are so different from his cantatas and oratorios. That goes in particular for the music he composed for use in Roman churches. Especially here the church had strong influence on the way music was written and performed. As the 'modern' - although about 100 years old - concertante style was closely associated with opera the ecclesiastical authorities didn't approve its application in music for the liturgy. As a result composers turned to the stile antico of which Palestrina was the most prominent representative. The Vesper music which is presented here, bears witness to that.

There is no such thing as a Vespro della Beata Vergine in Scarlatti's oeuvre. The Vespers performed by the Vokalakademie Berlin 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. The pieces in this edition were certainly not conceived as a unity considering their difference in scoring and texture. In Laetatus sum Scarlatti only set the first verse, which makes it unlikely that this piece was written for a Vesper service.

Although this music met the requirements of the Church whose ideals were a "sober, orderly style" (Rinaldo Alessandrini), this is no imitation of Palestrina. Four of the seven compositions include solo parts: Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri Dominum, Ave maris stella and the Magnificat. In these pieces there is also a clear connection between text and music, much more so than in most music from the 16th century. Add to that the use of a basso continuo part and one can only conclude that what we have here is a kind of 'mixed style', with elements of the stile antico and the stile nuovo. However, it cannot be denied that there is an amount of restraint in the way Scarlatti has set these texts. That comes especially to the fore in Dixit Dominus, the most dramatic psalm of these five. A composer such as Handel could not resist the temptation to set them in a most theatrical way. It is no surprise that his Dixit Dominus is one of his most popular sacred works. Scarlatti's setting is very different: there is a clear expression of the line "confregit in die irae suae reges" (he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath), but there is no hint of drama in the following lines: "he will judge the nations, heap up the slain, destroy the leaders far and wide". Compare this to the way Handel explores these lines.

Neither this recording nor the one by the Netherlands Chamber Choir offers a Vesper service as it might have taken place in Rome around 1700. That is disappointing as it would give some idea of the liturgical context in which this music had its place. In this respect the title isn't quite correct. That said, this music is very nice and there is every reason for choirs to include it in their standard repertoire. The present recording is the first of the Vokalensemble Berlin and it is a good one. I like the singing of the choir as a whole and of its members in the solo episodes. There is no fundamental difference in approach between the two recordings, but in my view the Netherlands Chamber Choir is the better ensemble and its members are the better soloists. In Laudate pueri Dominum there is too much space between the solo and the tutti episodes which damages its unity. I am also not so enthusiastic about the employment of a harpsichord in the basso continuo. Harry van der Kamp only uses an organ and that gives a more satisfying result.

However, this disc is certainly a good proposition, and if you don't know Scarlatti's liturgical music yet you will be positively surprised by its quality. The Vokalensemble Berlin is a good advocate.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Vokalakademie Berlin

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