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Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703)
L’Europa (c.1667) [35:42]
Requiem [13:27]
Beatus vir [13:50]
Magnificat [12:31]
Veronika Winter (soprano – Europa)
Cornelia Samuelis (soprano)
Kai Wessel (alto)
Benoît Haller (tenor)
Ekkehard Abele (bass)
Das Kleine Konzart/Hermann Max
rec. Deutschlandfunk Kammermusikaal, May 2008 
CPO 777 408-2 [75:45]
Experience Classicsonline

Alessandro Melani came in for a good amount of critical stick in his time as Thomas Höft relates in his entertaining notes. ‘Fanfares for the devil’ was one such, which makes the Pistoia-born composer sound like a proto-Tartini, or maybe a Blues guitarist with a crossroads compact with the horned one. It’s thought that his father, a bell ringer, had most - if not all - his sons castrated. Melani nevertheless advanced to the position of Music Director of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and thence to San Luigi dei Francese.  He died in Rome in 1703.
 
The man’s biography is so enticing it’s tempting to ignore the music. Because his brother Atto, another castrato, sang throughout Europe and was apparently engaged as a spy by Louis XIV. Atto’s fame rubbed off and Alessandro picked up numerous commissions as a result. Hence, perhaps, the scorn and envy of contemporary critics, composers and commentators.
 
The most fitting thing would be to find Melani’s music competent and dull. But it’s not. It’s not quite on Cavalli’s level but the four works recorded on CPO’s investigative disc attest to a high level of technical skill and a sure and pronounced dramatic flair.
 
L’Europa is the only one to be dated here with any reasonable degree of surety and even then the date of 1667 is provisional. It’s a kind of large scale celebratory Serenata, in this performance lasting over half an hour, for soprano, alto (countertenor), bass and strings, flutes and basso continuo. The flutes add a vibrant and airy sound to the ensemble, and the strings are incisively led and phrase well. The solo singers are a well-matched and impressive trio. Veronika Winter has real purity of tone and subtle vocal expression and brings her character, that of Europa strongly to life. Kai Wessel is a personable countertenor with no quirks, and bass Ekkehard Abele who proves highly impressive. The work basks in a set of recitatives and arias but particularly comes alive in the two dramatic terzettos – especially the first which is introduced by Hermann Max and the orchestra with a really dramatic flourish.  The concluding movement is an interpolated Gigue by Muffat.
 
The sacred works may be less overtly dramatic of course but they’re surely no less accomplished. The Requiem is compact and pitches straight in with a soprano solo – here the excellent Cornelia Samuelis. The imitative passages are especially notable, the strings picking up on vocal lines, and there’s real though never maudlin plangency in the writing.  The setting is relatively consonant with no great peaks and troughs but it doesn’t skirt reflective intimacy.
 
Though the Beatus vir is scored for singers, strings and basso continuo Max has added flutes. It brightens the texture quite considerably. Once again this is a fluidly constructed work with a strongly agitated and accented section for soprano and a more introspective weight reserved for exortum est. Finally there’s the Magnificat which is an engaging, free-flowing setting and features some tough divisions for Abele who copes with them without any obvious concern.
 
Fine sound caps this disc of obscurities. The band is well balanced, the voices too and amongst themselves as well, not simply spatially. Direction is consistently lean and adroit. Melani’s detractors allowed jealousy to cloud their judgement it would seem, if this is typical of his standard of craftsmanship.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 

 


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