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"Sacred Handel - Music for the Carmelite Vespers Rome 1700"

Sonia Tedla, Paolo Lopez, soprano; Antonello Dorigo, alto; Riccardo Pisani, Riccardo Celentani, tenor; Matteo Bellotto, bass
Coro da Camera Italiano; Musica Antiqua Latina
Dir: Giordano Antonelli

rec: Dec 8 0 12, 2016, Rome, Chiesa di Santa Maria in Montesanto
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19439711172 (© 2020) (71'55")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): [Praeambulum ad organi] [2]; plainchant: Deus in adiutorium meum intende; Giovanni Paolo COLONNA (1637-1695): Domine ad adiuvandum [3]; Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710): [Praeambulum ad organi]; plainchant: Pulchra es; anon: [Praeambulum ad organi]; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Dixit Dominus (HWV 232); Bernardo PASQUINI: [Praeambulum ad organi]; plainchant: Pulchra es; Sicut myrrah; Antonio Maria BONONCINI (1677-1626): Laudate pueri; plainchant: Laudate pueri; Sicut myrrah; anon: [Praeambulum ad organi]; plainchant: In odorem; Laetatus sum; In odorem; Benedicta es; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Nisi Dominus; Bernardo PASQUINI: [Praeambulum ad organi]; George Frideric HANDEL: Haec est Regina (HWV 235); plainchant: Speciosa facta es; Giovanni Paolo COLONNA: Lauda Jerusalem [3]; plainchant: Lauda Jerusalem; Speciosa facta es; George Frideric HANDEL: Te decus virgineu (HWV 243); plainchant: Ave maris stella; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Magnificat 2. toni [1]; plainchant: Alma redemptoris mater; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in F, op. 6,6 (adagio; allegro)

Sources: [1] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il secondo libro di toccate, 1627; [2] Johann Caspar Kerll, Modulatio organica super Magnificat octo ecclesiasticis tonis respondens, 1686; [3] Giovanni Paolo Colonna, Psalmi ad vesperas, op. 12, 1694

[CCI] Andrea Manchée, Giovanna Gallelli, Martina Coers, soprano I; Lucilla Rodinó, Nora Capozio, Annalisa Guizzi, soprano II; Sabina Gagliardi, Valeria Cesarale, contralto; Fabrizio Giovannetti, Antonio Deriu, tenor; Andrea Robino Rizzet, Simone Atzori, Paolo Peroni, bass
[MAL] Olivia Centurioni, Sara Meloni, Katarzyna Solecka, Elisa Atteo, Gabriele Politi, Alberto Caponi, Giacomo del Papa, violin; Gianfranco Russo, Emanuele Marcante, viola; Silvia de Maria, viola da gamba; Adriano Ancarani, cello; Matteo Cicchitti, violone; Francesco Tomasi, theorbo; Salvatore Carchiolo, organ

At the time that historical performance practice was still rather controversial, its representatives were 'accused' of trying to reconstruct the past, which critics believed was an impossibility. The latter was certainly right, but they were fighting a straw man, as their opponents knew only too well that there would always be difference between then and now, if only because of a different context. Bach composed his cantatas for performance during the liturgy, but today even the strongest advocates of historical performance practice perform them out of any liturgical setting, often even in a concert hall which has little in common with the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. In his case we know for sure for what occasion the cantatas were written, but often we know little or nothing about the original performing context.

That said, it can be useful to try to reconstruct a historical or liturgical event in order to put music into its rightful place. The disc under review here is an attempt to do so, and as its title indicates, it is Handel's Latin church music that was the inspiration to bring together music that may have been performed during a Vesper service of the Carmelites in their church-basilica of Santa Maria in Monte Santo in Rome.

"The Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel (Latin: Ordo Fratrum Beatissimę Virginis Marię de Monte Carmelo; abbreviated OCarm), known as the Carmelites or sometimes by synecdoche known simply as Carmel, is a Roman Catholic mendicant religious order for men and women. Historical records about its origin remain uncertain, but it was probably founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel in the Crusader States. (...) The order of Carmelite nuns was formalised in 1452 (Wikipedia). The booklet to the present recording includes an essay on the order, written by Padre Giovanni Grosso, Dean of the Institutum Carmelitanum, which is useful to read.

As we mostly know not that much about what was actually performed, every reconstruction is highly speculative. There is little wrong with that, as long as it gives some idea of what a liturgical event may have looked like. However, it seems to me that it is not too much to ask for some discipline and consistency in the way a reconstructed event is put together and performed. This recording fails on both accounts, I'm afraid.

It starts with the title, which suggests that we get a service as it might have been performed in 1700. Even if we don't take this too literally, it is inconceivable that a piece like Alessandro Scarlatti's Nisi Dominus was performed at the time, as it is taken from his Vespro di Santa Cecilia of 1717. The inclusion of organ pieces by Bernardo Pasquini makes sense, as he was the leading keyboard composer of his time, and was active in Rome. However, whether Girolamo Frescobaldi's music was still performed, seems very questionable.

The booklet says: "This recording presents the music for the solemn celebration of the 'Grand' Vesper, according to the Proprium Sanctorum carmelite liturgical book for July 16th 1700, the feast of the Madonna del Carmelo, with the 5 canonical Psalms alternated with the Hymns and the Magnificat." That source provides the performer of our time with useful information about the way a Vesper service run, but not about the details of what was performed. And this performance raises many questions in that department. The psalms are embraced by antiphons, sung in plainchant. That is entirely in line with the practice of the time, but I wonder whether so many chants were preceded by organ pieces. Preludes (or intonations, as we find them, for instance, in the oeuvre of the Gabrielis) were used to prepare the singers for the next vocal item. It is probably less clear when exactly they were used (*).

There is no indication that the pieces written by Giovanni Paolo Colonna and Antonio Maria Bononcini were written for the liturgy of the Carmelites. However, Luca Della Libera, in his liner-notes, mentions that their ties with the Order are documented, and that justifies the inclusion of their compositions here. That is a little different in the case of Handel. He composed five pieces for the Carmelites' Vespers, but they date from 1707/08. Among them are the two antiphons included here. The first Vesper psalm, Dixit Dominus, was not written for the Carmelites. However, considering that Handel wrote other pieces for them, it is not inconceivable that this psalm may have been performed during a Vesper service. However, it seems to me that its length makes it rather unlikely, even in the way it is performed here.

And that brings to the issue of the performance practice. For reasons not explained in the booklet two sections of Handel's Dixit Dominus are replaced by plainchant (Virgam virtutis, Tecum principium). I find this rather odd. I wonder whether the same procedure has been applied in Antonio Maria Bononcini's setting of Laudate pueri and Colonna's Lauda Jerusalem. In both cases the second half of the psalm is performed in plainchant. Did the composers only set the first verses, or is their setting of the rest being replaced here? Again, if the latter is the case, that would be very odd. I also find it rather strange that Laetatus sum is performed in plainchant. The Magnificat is a different case. I already noted that it is questionable whether the music of Frescobaldi was still performed at the time. However, the main problem here is that Frescobaldi's Magnificat is a piece for the alternatim practice. It consists of a number of verses which are to be played in alternation with a choir, singing either in plainchant or a polyphonic version by some composer. The booklet includes the text of the Magnificat, but in this version without sung verses, it is hardly recognizable as such.

The performance of the plainchant also raises questions. It is inconsistent in that some chants are performed a capella, whereas in other chants the singers are accompanied by the organ, which in some cases also plays an introduction. The practice of accompanying plainchant on the organ is known from France, but seems not to have been applied elsewhere, until the 19th century.

As the reader may have gathered by now, this recording is marred by inconsistencies and questionable decisions with regard to performance practice. It may give us some idea of the way a Vesper service of the Carmelites may have run around 1700, but it could have been worked out in a much more convincing manner. I just wonder whether some decisions - for instance the replacement of polyphony by plainchant - were taken in order not to overstretch the length of the live performance of which this is the recording. Some explanatory lines in the booklet would not have been amiss.

These considerations overshadow the performances, which are generally pretty good. I like the singing and playing of the soloists and the vocal and instrumental ensembles, although not everything goes very smoothly. Some coloratura lacks fluency and there are a few awkward moments. It is a shame that the pieces by Colonna and Bononcini - from the angle of repertoire the most interesting parts of this disc - are apparently not complete. Because of that, this disc has not much to offer with regard to repertoire, and that is a big shame.

On balance, only for those who have a special interest in liturgical practices, this disc may be worth investigating.

(*) Nearly all the organ pieces are called Praeambulum ad organi in the track-list. That is undoubtedly not their original title. I have therefore put them between brackets. It is regrettable that their original titles are not given.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Coro da Camera Italiano
Musica Antiqua Latina

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