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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Six Motets

Intellige clamorem meum [4.00]
Salvum fac populum tuum [3.29]
Exaltabo te Domine quoniam 4.38]
Domine vivifica me [2.12]
Ad te Domini levavi [3.30]
Exultate Deo adjutori [2.36]
Missa ad Usum Cappellae Pontificiae

Kyrie [5.11]
Gloria [7.08]
Credo [8.58]
Sanctus [1.59]
Benedictus [1.41]
Agnus Dei [5.12]
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne/Michel Corboz
Rec. June 1965, Eglise Notre-Dame de Valentin, Lausanne, Switzerland
WARNER APEX 2564 60522-2 [51.22]


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There are some real injustices in the business of recorded music and this disc brings one of them very much to light. The opening lines of the liner notes say, "Until relatively recently, the reputation of Alessandro Scarlatti – the son, brother, father and uncle of other illustrious musicians – was overshadowed by that of his son Domenico." It is not stated on this disc whether the notes were written to go with this Apex re-issue or whether they date from the same period as the recording, but Alessandro’s reputation, if he has one, is still very much under his wonderful son’s shadow. It is an indication of a massive injustice, that this re-issue goes some small way to correcting.

One wonders whether readers of this review will be able to name a single work by Alessandro Scarlatti other than those named above. Probably not, and yet here we have a composer who wrote no fewer than 100 Italian operas, some 800 secular cantatas, dozens of sinfonias, concerti grossi, sonatas, harpsichord and organ works, vast numbers of oratorios and sacred cantatas, a Passion, 12 Masses and more than 100 motets. None of it is known because virtually none of it is published and recordings are thin on the ground, to say the least. In the case of Alessandro, this is comparable to knowing of Handel as just a name or as the father of someone famous. It is almost inconceivably sad that music of the quality that we know Alessandro produced is now silent, and record companies are still relying on their back catalogues.

Back catalogue notwithstanding, this Apex re-issue must be welcomed. It seemed at first that it was a pity to have to fall back on a recording made in 1965, but listening shows that there are two sides to the argument. This writer is usually not in favour of old recordings of renaissance or baroque music, especially from the point of view of instrumental technique having changed so much with the period instrument revival. In the case of the music recorded here, this becomes less of an issue as it is for unaccompanied singers, but there are several other reasons. Firstly, the Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne is a fine group and Michel Corboz, while a product of his time, had a definite feel for the music that he was directing. The choir is larger than we would expect nowadays, probably about 25 singers by the sound of it. The quality of the singers is, however, excellent and although we are dealing with voices used to singing later repertoire, and with a clear basis in bel canto technique, this also is a product of its time. It must be admitted that the sheer sound quality that these singers make is great, especially the sopranos. While they may be ‘big-chested’ in timbre there is nonetheless a velvety smoothness of line that is most enjoyable. Corboz takes his tempi more slowly than a modern performer would, but the sense of line that is so important to a cappella polyphony is always at the forefront of the interpretation.

The second reason why the age of this recording is not such a bad thing is the curious nature of the music itself. This is strictly polyphonic, four-part stile antico writing. In other words Scarlatti has adopted a consciously archaic style in these works. The Missa ad Usum Cappellae Pontificiae was composed during one of Alessandro’s sojourns in Rome and was dedicated to the newly elected Pope Innocent XIII in 1721. It was thus intended for use not in the Cappella Giulia, the modern instrumental and vocal ensemble of St Peter’s basilica, but for the Cappella Sistina, the Pope’s private cappella that sang nothing but unaccompanied polyphony in the Sistine Chapel. In this mass, the listener would never know that the composer was one of the great innovators of the day; the man who established the da capo aria and developed the three-movement Italian overture. Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus are all based on the same motivic material, and the Agnus Dei makes use of traditions of canonic counterpoint stemming back to Josquin Dez Pres and earlier. In this context of the consciously archaic, the performance of 1960’s chamber choir singers seems no more out-of-place than the music itself and as each remains beautiful, there is more to enjoy here than might be apparent at first glance.

The motets are also in the same archaic unaccompanied style. These represent something of a rarity in Scarlatti’s oeuvre, for most of his motets were accompanied, at the least by continuo. More usually he wrote in the concertante style for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Only about 20 of these unaccompanied motets were written. The searching lines of Intellige clamorem meum or the chromatic harmonies of Ad te Domini levavi add a sense of baroque piquancy and there are moments of almost operatic intensity. Corboz beautifully handles all of this, although in the motets in particular one may wish for a lighter texture at times.

The age of the recording notwithstanding this is an enjoyable listen. It is something of a pity that the works recorded should be so un-representative of the genius of Alessandro Scarlatti, but in the present environment, listeners with an interest in this neglected giant will have to be pleased with what they can find. At the Apex price there is no reason to avoid this release.

Peter Wells

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