musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Responsories for Holy Week - Holy Saturday"

La Stagione Armonica
Dir: Sergio Balestracci

rec: Nov 26, 2017, Padua, Chiesa di Santa Caterinaa; Nov 27 - 28, 2017, Padua, Collegio Vescovile Barbarigob
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075802412 ( 2018) (70'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; translations: E/D/F/I
Cover & track-list

Responsori per la Settimana Santa (Sicut ovis; Jerusalem, surge; Plange quasi virgo; Recessit pastor noster; O vos omnes; Ecce quomodo moritur iustus; Astiterunt reges; Aestimatus sum; Sepulto Domino)b
Exurge Domineb; Intellige clamorem meumb; Miserere mei, Deusb; Salvum fac populum tuumb
Fuga del I tono per organoa; Fuga del II tono per organoa; Fuga del III tono per organoa; Toccata per organoa

Federica Cazzaro, Stefania Cerutti, Sheila Rech, Silvia Toffano*, soprano; Laura Brugnera*, Ilaria Cosma, Viviana Giorgi, Marina Meo, contralto; Vincenzo Di Donato*, Alessandro Gargiulo, Stefano Palese, Gian-Luca Zoccatelli, tenor; Filippo Bordin, Alessandro Magagnin, Alessandro Pitteri, Niocola Rampazzo*, bass; Carlo Steno Rossi, organ (soloa)
* versus

Considering the importance of Lent and Passiontide in the liturgical calender of the Christian church, it is not surprising that many composers contributed to the repertoire for this time of the year. During Lent the seven penitential psalms were sung, but the commemoration of the Passion of Christ concentrated on Holy Week, the week before Easter. In the Christian church before the Reformation, and since then in the Roman Catholic Church, the heart of the Office for Holy Week are the Lamentations and the Responsories. The Lamentations of Jeremiah bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem and were used as metaphors for the passion and death of Christ. The Responsories deal more directly with this subject. Some refer to texts from those chapters in the Gospels which report about Jesus' Passion. The structure of the responsories is ABCB: first the two halves of the responsory are sung (AB), then the verse (C), which is followed by a repeat of the second half of the responsory (B). In the course of time a tradition established itself to extend six of the responsories with a final AB, following the liturgical pattern.

It is impossible to say how many sets of Responsories have been composed in the course of time. The available recordings suggest that most of them date from the renaissance period. As they are exclusively connected to the Roman Catholic liturgy, it does not surprise that most settings from later times are from the pen of Italian composers. One of them was Alessandro Scarlatti. However, whether the music on the present disc is from his pen it not entirely sure. These Responsories have come down to us in a copy which omits the name of the composer. Therefore some scholars have cast doubt on their authenticity.

They are part of a manuscript which is preserved in the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna, which also includes some settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah as well as eleven 'motets for Lent', even though some of these are not intended for a performance during that time of the year. Not only are there no autographs, the scores are also partly incomplete, as sometimes the text is missing. Moreover, there are no indications of the solos in the verses and the figuring of the bass is very limited or even absent. However, as Sergio Balestracci points out in his liner-notes, there can be no doubt that Scarlatti did indeed compose Responsories for Holy Week. Giovanni Maria Casini (1652-1719), maestro di cappella of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, recalls, in his memoirs, a letter by Scarlatti in response to a commission to compose the music for performances in San Lorenzo during Lent and Holy Week. "[It] said 'Perhaps His Royal Highness will deign to accept the offer of this weak creation of my little ability in setting to Music the Sacred Motets, in the solid style of Palestrina... If this is found to be acceptable, the Responsories may find some support in the bass for the Organ, although I reckon that the voices alone seem to be more suited to the suffering of the Redeemer, who was unsupported, alone and betrayed'. Balestracci believes that the music recorded here is part of the composition to which Casini refers, also on the basis of other compositions by Scarlatti.

The letter is interesting with regard to the performance of the Responsories. Scarlatti adds a basso continuo, but prefers a performance without any accompaniment. Even so, in this recording the Responsories are accompanied by the organ, whereas the motets from the same collection are performed a capella. I would have preferred it the other way round. That would have done more justice to Scarlatti's intentions. The composer specifically refers to Palestrina, the ideal representative of the stile antico. As the church took a rather negative stance towards the concertante style in vogue in the 17th century, because of its association with opera, composers often turned to the old style in their sacred music. Scarlatti was no exception. That said, this is no pure stile antico, because Scarlatti, like other composers of his time, did not like to miss the opportunities to illustrate elements of the text in their music. That is the case here as well, and as a result we have here a kind of 'mixed taste': the combination of old and new.

It is probably impossible to be sure how many singers were involved in performances of these Responsories or comparable works at the time. Balestracci opted for a performance with an ensemble of sixteen voices; in the verses it is reduced to four. It sings well, and the passages with text expression come off to full effect. However, the sound could have been a little more transparent, also in the interest of the intelligibility of the text. The Responsories consist of three nocturns. They are separated by an organ piece, followed by a motet. Scarlatti's organ works are among his least-known compositions, and deserve to be better known. Therefore their inclusion is most welcome.

All in all, this is a meaningful and welcome addition to the catalogue, not only of Passion music, but also of the oeuvre of Alessandro Scarlatti, whose qualities come clearly to the fore in this music for Holy Week.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

Relevant links:

La Stagione Armonica

CD Reviews