musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Dies irae"

Abchordis Ensemble
Dir: Andrea Buccarella

rec: Sept 28 - Oct 1, 2016, Basel, Paroisse catholique de Sacré-Coeur
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075814542 (© 2019) (52'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: D/I
Cover & track-list

Ferdinando LIZIA (1728-1778): Concerto for bassoon, violins and bc in Ca; Gennaro MANNA (1715-1779) or Francesco FEO (1691-1761): Dies irae - Sequenza de' morti for four voices, violins, horns and bcb; O mundi infelix vita, rec & aria for bass, bassoon, violins and bcc; Aniello SANTANGELO (c1710-1771): Trio for two violins and bc op. 1,6d

Marie Lys, sopranob; Maria Chiara Gallo, mezz-sopramob; Luca Cervoni, tenorb; Antonio Masottib, Salvo Vitalec, bass
Alessandro Denabian, Fabio Forgiarini, horn; Katia Viel, Lathika Vithanage, Gemma Longoni, violin; Nicola Paoli, cello; Giovanni Battista Graziadio, bassoonac; Marco Lo Cicero, double bass; Francesco Tomasi, archlute; Andrea Buccarelli, harpsichord; Deniel Perer, organ

In 2016 deutsche harmonia mundi released a disc of the Abchordis Ensemble which was devoted to sacred music by three composers of the 18th century from Naples: Gennaro Manna, Aniello Santangelo and Giacomo Sellitto ("Stabat mater"). The first of these figure again on the disc under review here. Whereas the title of the previous disc referred to one of the pieces included, the Stabat mater by Sellitto, the present disc bears the title of the first and the longest piece on the programme, the Dies irae by Gennaro Manna.

That is to say: if it is really a piece from his pen. As Andrea Buccarella, the director of the ensemble, writes in his notes in the booklet, there is quite some confusion about who wrote this work. As one may know, the 'Dies irae' is the sequence of the Requiem. However, this setting seems to be a separate piece. It has been preserved under the title Sequenza de' morti in a library in Naples. It is an autograph which mentions Manna as the composer. Buccarella was struck by the stylistic differences between the tutti sections and the arias, "the first being solemn and austere, characterized by daring harmonic and chromatic sequences, the latter with a more distinctly gallant and theatrical taste." The explanation came when he found a manuscript preserved in Prague, which shows many similarities and is partly identical with Manna's work. According to this manuscript, the composer is Domenico Natale Sarro (1679-1744). It is older than Manna's version, which suggests that the latter was strongly influenced by Sarro. They knew each other well: in 1744 Manna was appointed choirmaster of the Senate of Naples, in succession to Sarro. "It is therefore plausible to assume that it was when he was in this role that he has developed his own version of this Dies irae, largely inspired by that of his predecessor, which had perhaps been too long in the chapel's repertoire." Manna adapted the piece, for instance by reducing the number of parts from five to four, and adding horns to the instrumental ensemble.

However, that was not the end of the story. Buccarella found another setting of the Dies irae, which is "substantially identical" with Manna's version, but with the name of his uncle Francesco Feo (1691-1761) as the composer. Notable is the fact that it is in five voices, as is Sarro's version. Considering that it has been preserved in a copy from the 19th century, and that the source of the copy is unknown, Buccarella tends to think that the attribution to Manna is more trustworthy. However, as their is no concluding evidence for either of the attributions, the names of both Manna and Feo are mentioned as composers in the track-list.

The stylistic differences are clearly noticeable. The tutti episodes include quite some harmonic tension. It is a bit of a shame that these are not entirely unproblematic, especially as the voices of the four singers don't blend that well. That is partly due to the vibrato of in particular Marie Lys, which also manifests itself in her solo contributions. The solo of Maria Chiara Gallo is particularly nice. If one knows other sacred music by Neapolitan composers from the mid-18th century, the arias sound quite familiar. Secular music is never far away.

That is even more the case with the recitative and aria by Manna, O mundi infelix vita. One could take it for an aria from a chamber cantata or an opera. Even the text is not fundamentally different from what was common in secular music, as it uses the image of a ship on the sea at night, an image of the insecurity of love or of life in general. Here it leads to a confession of confidence in Jesus, "light of the heart'. This piece is given a good, operatic performance by Salvo Vitale, although it is a bit too heavy-handed.

It is remarkable that the aria includes an obbligato part for the bassoon, which now and then gets involved in a dialogue with the bass. The participation of this instrument may have inspired Buccarella to include a short bassoon concerto by Ferdinando Lizio, another composer only a very few music lovers may have heard of, and who has no entry in New Grove. He was a teacher of wind instruments at the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini and often played the bassoon in the theatres of Naples. In 1759 he composed two bassoon concertos in C and in B flat respectively. Unfortunately the track-list does not give the key of the one performed here. According to Presto Classical it is the one in C. Giovanni Battista Graziadio, who also wrote the liner-notes, delivers a fine performance of the solo part as well as the obbligato part in the aria.

The remaining work is a trio sonata by Santangelo, about whom nothing is known at all except that he worked in Naples as a master of violin between 1737 and 1771. Only instrumental works from his pen have come down to us: a flute concerto, six sonatas for two cellos, a sinfonia included in the disc of 2016 and twelve trios for two violins and cello. The sixth sonata from the latter collection is performed here. It follows the Corellian four-movement model; the second movement is a fugue.

I am not entirely satisfied with the way the programme has been put together. I have not been able to find the thread which keeps the various pieces together. The playing time is also a bit disappointing. However, despite this and some other points of criticism, I recommend this disc to anyone who is interested in Neapolitan music of the 18th century. It is a quite fascinating world and this disc once again shows that we know only a few composers from a city which for a long time was one of Europe's main musical metropoles.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Abchordis Ensemble

CD Reviews