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Ippolito GHEZZI (c1655-c1725): "Oratori, Mottetti, Lamentazioni"

Cappella Musicale di San Giacomo Maggiore (Bologna)
Dir: Roberto Cascio

rec: 2007 - 2015, Monte Calderaro (BO), Chiesa Madonna del Lato; Tignano, Chiesa di S. Martino; Bologna, Convento di San Giacomo (chapter) & Cattedrale San Pietro (crypt)
Tactus - TC 650770 (4 CDs) (© 2015) (4.15'55")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cadant a terra, a 2 bassijk [1]; Caeli Musici, canto e altobf [1]; Caeli Seraphim, a 2 cantibd [1]; Caeli Stellae, a 2 cantibd [1]; Deh cessate, a 2 altieg [1]; Dialogo Primo, a due canti. Per la Madonnaad [4]; Dialogo Secondo. Per San Michele Arcangelo, a 2, alto e bassofl [4]; Doleo super te, a 2. alto e tenoregi [1]; Estote flores, canto e basso [1]; Il David Trionfante, oratorio à 3 vocidfj [2]; L'Abelle, oratorio à 3 vocibdj [2]; L'Abramo, oratorio à 3 vocidgj [2]; L'Adamo, oratorio à 3 vocidhl [2]; Lamentationi per la Settimana Santa, a voce soladfgkl [3]; Qualis est, alto e bassogk [1]; Repleatur os meum, a 2 bassi [1]; Salve Regina, canto e basso [1]; Sponse dilecte, canto e bassock [1]; Tortores ferite, a 2 canticd [1]

Patrizia Cignaa, Maria Carla Curiab, Manna Itoc, Barbara Vignudellid, soprano; Alessandra Masinie, Marcella Venturaf, contralto; Carlo Vistoli, g; Andrea Fusarih, Raffaele Giordanii, tenor; Loris Bertoloj, Cesare Lanak, Gastone Sartil, bass
Pamela Monkobodsky, Nozomi Shimizu, Daniele Salvatore, Antonio Lorenzoni, Camilla Marabini, recorder; Katia Ciampo, Veronica Medina, violin; Fabrizio Lepri, viola da gamba; Enrico Corli, Valentina Migliozzi, cello; Alessandro Pivelli, violone; Roberto Cascione, archlute; Fabiano Merlante, theorbo; Monica Paolini, guitar; Marco Ghirotti, harpsichord, organ

Sources: [1] Sacri dialoghi overo mottetti, 1699; [2] Oratori sacri, 1700; [3] Lamentationi per la Settimana Santa, 1707; [4] Dialoghi sacri overo motetti, 1708

It does not happen very often, that a record company releases a set of four discs with music by a composer almost nobody has ever heard of (Brilliant Classics is the most obvious exception). Some of the recordings in the present production date from as far back as 2007, and on ArkivMusic I found one disc from 2012 by the same ensemble, but thas has never crossed by path. As a result this set of discs is my first introduction to the oeuvre of Ippolito Ghezzi.

He has an entry in New Grove, but the author, Howard E. Smither, has not much to say; the whole article takes just six lines. Fortunately Carlo Vitali, in his liner-notes, adds some substantial information, which puts the composer and his oeuvre into their perspective.

It is not known when exactly Ghezzi was born. On the basis of other facts from his life it is assumed that it was between 1655 and 1658. He was probably born in Sinalunga, an ancient castle in Valdichiana, approximately 45 km southeast of Siena. He at first prepared for a career in the church. He joined the Augustinian order and apparently around 1691 he received the title of baccelliere, a lower academic rank. Instead of continuing his theological studies, he turned to music. His talents in this department had manifested themselves at an early age. Nothing is known about Ghezzi's musical education, but it is likely that it took place in Siena, where several pupils of Agostino Agazzari were active. In 1679 Ghezzi was appointed maestro di cappella of the Cathedral of nearby Montepulciano. In 1700 he gave up this position, apparently not entirely voluntarily. He retired to his convent in Siena, where he remained until his death.

In 1699 he published two collections of music: the Sacri dialoghi overo mottetti were printed in Florence, whereas a set of Psalms was printed in Bologna. There the three other extant collections of his music were also printed: the Oratori sacri (1700), the Lamentationi per la Settimana Santa (1707) and the Dialoghi sacri overo motetti (1708). The present production offers the complete oeuvre, with the exception of the Psalms.

The four oratorios probably constitute the most remarkable part of Ghezzi's oeuvre. The oratorio was the main genre of non-liturgical sacred music at the time. Its foundation was laid by Giacomo Carissimi, and during the second half of the 17th century it increasingly developed into the sacred counterpart of opera. The oratorios of Ghezzi's contemporary Alessandro Scarlatti bear witness to that. Ghezzi's oratorios have little in common with them. They are much shorter - between 20 and 25 minutes, not unlike the oratorios of Carissimi - and the number of characters is limited to three. The instrumental part is confined to the basso continuo. In New Grove, Howard E. Smither states: "The use of the term 'oratorio' for quite brief works is exceptional, for it was normally used at this period for works lasting about two hours or more." However, it is quite possible that Ghezzi did compose oratorios of that kind; Vitali mentions that he wrote five oratorios about his hero, the Augustinian saint Nicola da Tolentino (1245-1305). As these are lost it is impossible to tell whether these were of the proportions of Scarlatti's oratorios.

The rather small scale of the four oratorios which Ghezzi published in 1699, can be explained from the fact, that they were intended for performance in private surroundings, likely the home of Cavaliere Cesare Gagnioni, "a not particularly high-ranking nobleman". Apparently he was Ghezzi patron and to him he dedicated the edition. The oratorios are on biblical subjects, but they are in the vernacular and Ghezzi - who probably also wrote the texts - treats the subjects with quite some freedom. That is to say, we have to take Vitali's word for it, because this production has a major flaw: the lyrics come without any translation. And as the scores are also not available from any open source, it is impossible to follow exactly the way the stories are treated, if one doesn't have a good knowledge of Italian.

Vitali writes: "For instance, in Adamo we are surprised to see the tempting snake replaced by an off-scene echo of Eve's words: the result is more an inward dialogue of the woman with herself than a personal intervention of Satan." He characterises Il David trionfante as "the story that has been most creatively manipulated by the author of the libretto. Here the plot proceeds like a real-time report of a war episode in which God's intervention is practically null. It is an interaction between a cowardly king (Saul, contralto), an overconfident youngster (David, soprano) and a monstrous giant (Golia, bass). The latter occasionally presents some comic traits in miles gloriosus style that forestall - both in the shifts in his mood and in the instances of virtuosic phrasing spiced up with acrobatic roulades and dizzy interval jumps - Händel's [sic] imminent Polifemo (1708)."

Two other collections of sacred music include the term dialoghi, but the pieces included in these editions are not really comparable to the oratorios. Most close to them are the Dialoghi sacri overo motetti of 1708. This edition includes two dialogues for two voices, two violins and bc, on a Latin text. The first is per la Madonna; there are two characters: Maria Vergine and Anime. It opens with an aria, which is in fact a duet for the two characters. That is followed by a recitative and aria pair for each of them, and the piece closes with another duet. The second dialogue is for St Michael, and here the characters are the archangel Michael and Satan (Demonio), sung by an alto and a bass respectively. The structure is identical with that of the first dialogue. Despite the opposition of two characters, there is no interaction between them, and they are not really dramatic, in comparison with the oratorios.

The fact that the title says "dialogues or motets" is not surprising. In the oeuvre of Carissimi, the father of the oratorio, there is no strict division between oratorio (historia) or motet either. The title of Ghezzi's first collection also has these two terms as alternatives. The Sacri dialoghi overo mottetti are also in Latin and intended for liturgical use. That comes especially to the fore in the indications of the occasions for which they are written, such as "per la Madonna", "per ogni Santo" or "per ogni Tempo". These pieces are all for two voices of different registers (two sopranos, soprano and alto, alto and bass etc), but the parts don't refer to characters. In their structure they are largely identical to the Dialoghi sacri: they open with a duet (a due), which is followed by a solo (a recitative) and an aria for each of the two voices, and close with another duet. Whereas the opening duet is largely polyphonic, the closing duet is mostly homophonic. These dialogues remind me of the secular duets of Agostino Steffani.

The last disc is entirely devoted to a complete set of Lamentations, which were traditionally intended for performance during the triduum sacrum, the last three days before Easter. Today the settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by French composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the so-called Leçons de Ténèbres, are much better known than settings by Italian composers. One could almost get the impression, that in Italy hardly any Lamentations were written. That is certainly not true, but the number of recordings is rather limited. Therefore this performance of settings by Ghezzi is of great importance. As was tradition the Hebrew letters are set as vocalises, but Ghezzi does not isolate them. They often follow the previous verse attacca. Overall Ghezzi mostly opts for a more or less through-composed form; the different verses are seldom formally separated. The closing formula, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum, receives the same treatment. The nine Lamentationi are alternately scored for soprano, alto and bass. It is noteworthy that in Ghezzi's pieces recorded here the tenor plays a minor role.

As I wrote, a project like this is pretty rare. Who purchases a set of four discs with music by a composer he has never heard of? One cannot appreciate Tactus's efforts too much to bring music by unknown Italian masters of the baroque period to our attention. More often than not the music turns out to be of fine quality and it often makes one curious for more. That is also the case here: I definitely would like to hear Ghezzi's psalm settings.

Unfortunately I have some serious reservations about the performances. When I started listening I mostly appreciated the performances of the sopranos, but later I noticed several moments where a clearly audible vibrato crept in. The same goes for some of the other voices. The worst of them all is Carlo Vistoli, who is sometimes almost as bad as Franco Fagioli. I am happy to say that he reduces it a little in the Lamentations. Other singers also differ from one piece to the other. Loris Bertolo gives a perfect account of the part of Goliath in Il David trionfante, but he is too pathetic in the part of God in L'Abelle. I am not very impressed by Andrea Fusari in the part of Adam in L'Adamo. He also sings the echo of Eve, who is a soprano. Is this in accordance with the score? I would expect that to be another soprano part. I already mentioned Vistoli; his account of the part of Abraham in L'Abramo is rather disappointing. The best singer in the ensemble is the bass Cesare Lana; the contralto Marcella Ventura also makes a rather good impression.

The oratorios are for voices and basso continuo. In most of them the ensemble plays a short sinfonia, apparently written by the members themselves. I don't see the need; Italian baroque oratorios often have no instrumental introduction. The choice of recorders is rather odd; violins would be a more logical option. The only two pieces whose scoring includes violins, are the two dialogues of 1708. But in Dialogo Secondo. Per San Michele Arcangelo the violin parts are played by recorders (alhough the libretto mentions violins). That is a very strange decision, especially considering the subject. Violins would have had much more impact here.

The Lamentations have been recorded in different venues. One of them is the chapter room of the Convent San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna. That seems to be a rather large venue, which results in too much reverberation. There are some passages where apparently something has gone wrong during the recording process. In Qualis est a hollow sound spoils the solo and aria. In the duet which opens Repleatur os meum lauda tua the first bass is in the background; in his aria the same happens as in Qualis est.

If compositions of an unknown composer is recorded, one would hope to get performances, which does them full justice, especially as it is not to be expected that alternative performances will be released. However, that is not the case here. That is a great pity, because the music is in some respects rather unusual and certainly very interesting. The lack of translations of the lyrics is also a serious omission. If Tactus really wants unfamiliar Italian composers and their music to become better known, they should add English translations of the lyrics.

Nonetheless, those who have a more than average interest in Italian music of this period should really investigate this set. Ghezzi's music is definitely worth it the attention.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Cappella Musicale di San Giacomo Maggiore

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