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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Missa breve, e concertata a cinque voci[14:25]
Motets
Ad Dominum dum tribularer [4:10]
Justitiae Domini [3:36]
Exsurge Domine [2:57]
Exaltabo te Domine [3:28]
Domine in auxilium meum [3:41]
Exultate Deo [2:50]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Stabat Mater (1715-19) [24:26]
The Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge/David Rowland
Jonathan Hellyer Jones (organ: Missa); Adam Baker (organ: Stabat)
rec. St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, UK, 16-17 March 2008. DDD.
Texts and translations included
REGENT REGCD283 [59:33]
Experience Classicsonline

I have just made a Hyperion recording of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Davidis pugna et victoria my Recording of the Month and Download of the Month. This Regent CD is not in the same category, but it does represent an important addition to the Scarlatti discography, since father Alessandro’s Missa breve and some of the motets are here recorded for the first time. Its value is increased by the inclusion of Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater; this is a work less often recorded than his father’s, an excellent version of which is available from Naïve Baroque Voices at mid price (OP30441, Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini, with the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, ‘a beautiful and moving disc’ - see Glyn Pursglove’s review).

It was wise of Regent and the performers to avoid comparison with more established recordings of Alessandro’s music. For about half of this CD Christ’s College Choir and David Rowland have the field more or less to themselves, unless and until another recording of the Missa breve comes along. Christ’s performance of this work will do well in the meantime, but it isn’t difficult to imagine a better. Though I am always pleased to see other choirs at Cambridge and Oxford taking on the top dogs from King’s, Christ Church and New College, I have to say that I thought that Christ’s here rose to the challenge less convincingly than Queen’s College, Oxford, in their recording of 17th-century Iberian music, Cæli porta, which I recommended some months ago (Guild GMCD7323 - see review).

Without even mentioning those more established choirs, and comparing the singing of Christ’s choir here with mixed college choirs such as Queen’s, Oxford, and Trinity, Cambridge, their singing is at best somewhat forthright and at worst a little rough and ready. It’s good enough to allow us to enjoy the Missa breve and one wouldn’t complain at singing of this quality at a regular celebration of a Choral Eucharist. They rightly make us sit up and take notice at the opening of Kyrie eleison but they sound much less tonally secure than one might like and the recording tends to blast slightly.

This may be an accurate reflection of how the music sounded when it was first sung - I have heard Spanish and Italian cathedral choirs sound much rougher than the singing here, including some very unsteady Victoria at High Mass in Toledo Cathedral - and the recording may be partly to blame, but it’s not what we have become used to hearing from professional groups such as Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano or the best English cathedral and collegiate choirs.

Matters improve as the Mass progresses and the six motets by Alessandro fare even better - often much better than the opening sections of the Mass. This went some considerable way to reconciling me to this recording; I shall return to it for the works which are unavailable elsewhere, but even the motets sound slightly tentative and insecure by comparison with the best. There’s potentially a much more affective interpretation of Ad Dominum cum tribularer (track 6) to be given than we are offered here, for example: the opening words bespeak a cry from the heart and the closing words are a prayer for release from deceit. Only the central section, et exaudivit me, tell of the Lord’s consolation, but the whole piece as performed here is too untroubled, with no contrast between the cry and its answer.

The following Justitiæ Domini (tr.7) tells of the sweetness of God’s judgements - sweeter than honey, yea than the honeycomb. The sweetness is all here, but not the delight which those judgements are said to bring to the heart - lætificantes corda. In fact, all six motets sound remarkably alike in tone as performed here, with the possible exception of Exsurge Domine (tr.8), where the choir does achieve a measure of regret at the prospect of enemies prevailing.

Just to remind myself of how good Alessandro’s music can sound, I listened to Nicholas McGegan’s reconstruction of his music for Vespers on St Cecilia’s Day (AV0048, 2 CDs - see review and review). Not all the singing on this Avie set is ideal, but the whole experience is more gratifying than on the new Regent CD.

Rival recordings of Domenico’s Stabat mater come from Roger Norrington on a Double Decca, coupled with other settings of the same work (443 868-2) and the Immortal Bach Ensemble on Naxos, with his Magnificat, Te Deum, etc. (8.570382, a disappointing performance for Johan van Veen - see review). There is also a recently reissued budget-price EMI compilation of his music, also including the Stabat mater, Magnificat and Te Deum, from Christ’s better-known rivals at King’s (2357352, ‘a programme worth investigating’ - see Robert Hugill’s review). The best performance of all, perhaps, comes again from Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini on Naïve mid-price OP30446, with the Missa quatuor vocum, a performance which Johan van Veen greatly preferred to the Naxos in his review of the latter (see above).

Against the high standards on offer from these rivals, I’m afraid that some of the same considerations apply as with Alessandro. Satisfactory as it would be in a live performance - the singing is firmer here and there is some really affective identification with the sufferings of Mary at the foot of the cross - the new version faces stiff competition, when one considers that the Norrington, nominally a two-for-the-price-of-one set, actually usually sells for as little as around £9.

After the rather harsh opening sections of Alessandro’s Mass, the sound improves greatly and I found myself listening to the closing sections of Domenico’s Stabat mater with real enjoyment that the singing and recording had improved so much that I wondered if I had been too judgemental at the start. On reflection, I hadn’t, at least not by much - even in the final Amen chorus (tr.21) there’s an element of insecurity - but I shall certainly look forward to hearing other recordings from this source.

The presentation of the new Regent CD is good, with brief but informative notes, full texts and translations. I wish the booklet and insert could have been consistent, however, in the name of the mass - is it missa breve (front cover, p.2, p.4 track details and rear insert) or messa breve (pp.3 and 4 notes, p.5 footnote) or even messe breve (top p.2)?

Brian Wilson 

 


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