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"Römische Mehrchörigkeit - Roman polyphony"

Tölzer Knabenchor
Sebastian Adelhardt, Jochen Berchtenbreiter, Clemens Haudum, Ursula Richter, organ
Dir: Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden

rec: August 2010, Benediktbeuren, Basilika St. Benedikt
Spektral - SRL4-11089 (© 2011) (59'26")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Orazio BENEVOLI (1605-1672): Missa Tira Cordas a 16; Giuseppe Ottavio PITONI (1657-1743): Dixit Dominus a 16

The German title of this disc is more correct than the English translation. It is not so much polyphony which is the feature of the music on this disc, but rather polychorality. Both compositions are written for 16 voices, divided over four choirs. This texture is rather modest in comparison to the pieces for five, six or seven choirs which were performed in several Roman cathedrals. In 1628 a piece for 12 choirs was performed in the Basilica di San Pietro, written by Paolo Agostini. This practice has given rise to the term Kolossalbarock in German musicology. This can probably best be translated as "monumental baroque".

The number of choirs as such doesn't tell us how many performers were involved. A piece for 16 voices can hardly be called "monumental baroque" if it is performed with one voice per part. Paul McCreesh, according to the notes to his recent disc "A New Venetian Coronation 1595" (Signum Classics), believes that is was common practice to perform liturgical music this way. That has influenced the scoring of his ensemble in music which could have been performed in Venice. In that case it has everything to do with the structure of the San Marco. It seems that in Rome it was much more common to use larger ensembles, as Siegfried Gmeinwieser writes in his liner-notes. In regard to the performance of the Missa Tira Corda by Orazio Benevoli he mentions two to three singers per part.

Orazio Benevoli is mainly known because for a long time the 53-part Missa Salisburgensis was attributed to him. It is now assumed this mass was written by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Benevoli was born and died in Rome; he was just 18 years of age when he was appointed maestro di cappella of S Maria in Trastevere and moved to San Spirito in Sassia, where he succeeded Gregorio Allegri. From 1638 to 1644 he acted as maestro di cappella of S Luigi dei Francesi. From 1644 to 1646 he was in Vienna, which has given rise to the attribution of the Missa Salisburgensis to him. In 1646 he became maestro di cappella of Cappella Giulia at S Pietro, as successor to Virgilio Mazzocchi, one of Rome's main composers of sacred music. Despite his prominent position in Rome very few of Benevoli's compositions were published in his lifetime.

He composed many works in polychoral style, and basically modelled his sacred music after Palestrina. The choirs were to stand far apart, which is only possible in large spaces. In pieces like the Missa Tira Corda there is relatively little place for polyphony. One of the demands of the Council of Trent was that in liturgical music the text should be clearly audible. If four choirs are going to sing polyphonically that is hardly possible. So in this mass the four choirs are building blocks of homophony, which alternate and partly overlap. As a result the text is indeed audible, as this recording proves. That also depends on the performance, and Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden has rightly opted for relatively slow tempi. The Tölzer Knabenchor is known for its clear delivery, so it is no surprise that the lines in this mass can be easily followed. The effective dynamic shading also helps. There are two passages for reduced forces. The 'Christe eleison' and the 'Crucifixus' - until "non erit finis" - (Credo) are for eight voices, which are performed here by soloists from the choir.

The second work is a setting of Dixit Dominus by Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni. He was born in Rieti, but seems to have moved with his parents to Rome as a baby. At a young age he became the pupil of Francesco Foggia. Later he worked some time in Assisi Cathedral where he studied the music of Palestrina. From 1686 until his death he lived in the Collegio Germanico, whose church music was performed under his direction in S Apollinare. From 1709 to 1719 he was maestro di cappella of S Giovanni in Laterano and from 1719 until his death at the Cappella Giulia. He also composed polychoral music, predominantly in polyphonic style but sometimes with concertante elements. His Dixit Dominus dates from 1719 and doesn't include passages for solo voices or reduced forces. Notable is the connection between text and music. The verses 'Dominus a dextris tuis' and 'Conquassabit capita' are quite dramatic, with a vivid illustration of the text. This is brilliantly realised by the Tölzer Knabenchor.

The attraction of the music on this disc is not in things like text expression or sophisticated polyphony, but rather in the grandeur which reflects the liturgical practice in Rome. These are just two specimens of the many compositions for two or more choirs in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ecclesiastical authorities may have rejected the operatic style of the time and preferred the stile antico, the composers who were responsible for the church music knew very well how to avoid any monotony or predictability. In its own way this repertoire is quite exciting, and even more so if it is given such splendid performances as here by the Tölzer Knabenchor. Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden exactly knows how to explore the many virtues of his choir to the full. The sound engineer also has done a brilliant job.

Not only the music is monumental, that also goes for the performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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