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CD reviews


Les Arts Florissants
Dir: Paul Agnew

rec: Sept 26, 2010 (live), Ambronay, Abbaye
Virgin Classics - 070907 2 (© 2011) (56'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Crucifixus a 16; Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690): Quam amarum est, Mariaab [1]; Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Miserere a due cori; Antonio LOTTI (1666-1740): Crucifixus a 8; Crucifixus a 10; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Stabat mater a 10

Source: [1] Giovanni Legrenzi, Harmonia d’affetti devoti, op. 3, 1655

Francesca Boncompagni, Héloïse Derache, Nicole Dubrovich, Élodie Fonnard, Maud Gnidzaz (soloa), Hannah Morrison (solob), Brigitte Pelote, Virginie Thomas, soprano; Brigitte Le Baron, Anne Maugard, mezzo-soprano; Jean-Paul Bonnevalle, Bruno Le Levreur, alto; Sean Clayton, Nicolas Maire, Michael-Loughlin Smith, Marcio Soares Holanda, tenor; Virgile Ancely, Laurent Collobert, Christophe Gautier, Marduk Serrano Lopez, bass; Paul Carlioz, cello; Massimo Moscardo, theorbo; Florian Carré, organ

Composers of the baroque era composed some of their best sacred music for Lenten season and in particular for Holy Week. The strong emotions which are expressed in the penitential psalms sung during Lent and even more so the feelings which are evoked by the suffering and death of Jesus and - in countries dominated by the Roman Catholic Church - the suffering of his mother Mary suited the expressive style which had emerged at the beginning of the 17th century. But for Italian composers their was one problem they had to deal with: the ecclesiastical authorities were highly suspicious about this style which was closely connected to opera and all sorts of secular music. They were strong advocates of the stile antico which was dominant in the 16th century and whose last great representative, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, was still considered a model for writing sacred music.

The present disc shows how various composers meet their wishes. All the music is written in the stile antico but is still pretty far away from the kind of music Palestrina used to write. In fact, we have here a kind of goûts réunis, albeit of a different kind as in Germany and France, where this term was used to describe the mixture of the French and the Italian style. In this case the stile misto, as it is called in the liner-notes and is probably preferable to avoid any confusion, meant a mixture of old and new elements. The composers of the 17th and early 18th centuries were thoroughly educated, and part of their education was counterpoint. Therefore they had no problems in writing polyphonic music. But as they were all used to write secular music, like operas and chamber cantatas, they could hardly be expected to avoid all features of those parts of their output.

The music on this disc is characterised by a much closer connection between text and music than was common in the time of Palestrina. The composers used harmony for expressive reasons, and that is abundantly demonstrated in the three settings of the Crucifixus. Antonio Lotti composed various apparently independent settings, for five to 10 voices. The 8-part setting which ends the programme and which is full of heartrending dissonances, is his most famous setting. But his 10-part setting is no less expressive. The third is by Antonio Caldara, a celebrated composer of oratorios and operas as well as numerous other vocal works. In his sacred oeuvre one meets the operatic style of his time as well as the stile antico, sometimes within the same piece. His Crucifixus is for 16 voices divided into four choirs, another feature of times past.

In Roman Catholic countries the Stabat mater was one of most popular texts to be set to music. The settings written in the 17th and 18th centuries vary from small-scale pieces for one voice and basso continuo to large compositions for soloists, choir and orchestra. One of the most famous settings is by Antonio Vivaldi, for alto, strings and bc, and recorded many times by female and male altos. It was first performed in 1712, and it is hard to believe that it was from about the same time as Domenico Scarlatti's setting for 10 voices and bc. This piece probably dates from his time as musical director of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter's in Rome between 1715 and 1719. Apart from harmony Scarlatti makes use of musical figures to depict the text and his Stabat mater also includes declamatory passages which are largely absent in the sacred music of the 16th-century. Although it is scored for 10 voices Scarlatti doesn't split up the choir and there are no dialogues between various groups. He also seldom uses the full ensemble at the same time; many passages are for reduced forces.

The other extended piece on this disc is a setting of Miserere mei Deus by Leonardo Leo. This psalm (50/51) is one of the seven penitential psalms which were sung during Lent. The most famous setting of the Miserere by an Italian composer is the one by Gregorio Allegri, also in the stile antico. Leo's composition dates from 1739 and its title page says that it is written in concertato style and based on Gregorian chant. It is a rather curious piece. The first half has an alternatim character: the verses are alternatively sung on Gregorian chant - by a solo voice and the basso continuo - and the tutti. Halfway the plainchant is integrated in the polyphony, and the choir is split into two sections. Towards the end Leo returns to the beginning, with plainchant versus polyphony. This piece was quite popular and sung well into the 19th century.

As if to show what the true style of the baroque period was we hear a dialogue by Giovanni Legrenzi, the teacher of, among others, Antonio Caldara. The subtitle is Dialogo delle due Marie, referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene: "How bitter it is, Mary, to be without Jesus! How unwillingly I live without him who was my life!" It ends with a prayer for him to arise. Simon Heighes, in his liner-notes, calls it a love duet, and that sums up the character of this piece very well.

This disc offers a most interesting programme of music which shows that composers of the early 18th century were quite successful in composing music in the stile antico without losing any of their expressive powers. One could argue that this repertoire combines the best of two worlds: one the one hand the sophistication of the polyphony and on the other hand the text expression of the stile nuovo. Les Arts Florissants, this time directed by its long-time member Paul Agnew, successfully communicates the expressive character of this repertoire. The blending of the voices is ammaculate, and the precise intonation guarantees that the daring harmonic progressions come off perfectly.

Agnew decided to sing Scarlatti's Stabat mater with the full ensemble. Only two passages are performed solistically. Although the booklet doesn't mention it, I assume the piece is sung with all 20 voices of the ensemble. In order to reach a maximum of transparency a scoring with one voice per part would be preferable, and that would probably also be more in line with common practice in Scarlatti's time. It may also be the reason that the text is not always easy to understand. In Leo's Miserere the plainchant is scored for solo voice, but here sung by various voices, which I find rather odd. In this piece it is hardly possible to tell the two 'choirs' apart. These critical comments don't take anything away of my appreciation of this disc. The singing is of a consistently high level, and the two sopranos in Legrenzi's dialogue do a fine job as well.

This recording is well worth adding to your collection of discs for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Les Arts Florissants

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