Musical life in Rome in the decades around
1700 was incredibly rich and varied, and for many composers it
was the place to be. On the one hand there were operas and oratorios,
with often virtuosic solo parts. These were mostly performed in
private circles. Musical practice at public occasions, on the
other hand, was much more restrained, under an ecclesiastical
regimen. As a result sacred music showed strongly conservative
traits, and was often written in the stile antico
Alessandro Scarlatti was born in Naples where he also worked for a considerable part of his life. He also took positions in Rome. His sacred music, including the compositions on this disc, reflects the ideals of the ecclesiastical authorities, which the Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini describes as "a sober, orderly style".
Although the title of this disc suggests that we have a Vesper service here, that is not the case. There are no antiphons, and the seven pieces brought together in this programme were not written as a unity. They are various in scoring and texture. The first two items, Dixit Dominus
and Laudate pueri Dominum
, are both for five voices - two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass - with basso continuo. Both are divided into various sections, some of which are scored for one to three solo voices. The next three, Laetatus sum, Nisi Dominus
and Lauda Jerusalem
, are all for four voices and bc, and neither contains passages for solo voices. The fact that Laetatus sum
contains only one verse makes it unlikely it was written for a Vesper service.
Scarlatti's setting of Dixit Dominus
is an example of the restraint which was a feature of sacred music in Rome in his time. There are many examples of quite dramatic settings of this text; for instance by Vivaldi and Handel. The latter's composition dates from 1707 and was also performed in Rome. In comparison Scarlatti is modest in his text expression. Certain words and phrases are singled out, but a verse like "He will shatter kings on the day of his wrath" is far away from the theatrical effects Handel would have deployed. In Handel's compositions the singers are supported by strings and bc, whereas Scarlatti confines himself to a basso continuo part.
is a rather long text, but takes less than three minutes. It is one of the most antique and straightforward pieces in the programme. Much more time is taken for the setting of Ave maris stella
. The tempo is slower, and Scarlatti pays much attention to the musical translation of the text. Here we also find examples of the harmonic tension and the dissonances which Scarlatti considered an important element of musical composition.
Harmony is also a means of expression in the last item, a setting of the Magnificat
. Here we return to the start of the programme, as it were. Like the Dixit Dominus
consists of tutti passages as well as episodes for one or two solo voices. The way Scarlatti dwells on the word "misericordiae" (mercy) is remarkable. The piece ends with the doxology, in which he writes two successive fugues, which once again demonstrate his mastery of the polyphony of the stile antico
The Netherlands Chamber Choir is a professional ensemble which was founded in the 1930s. It covers a large repertoire from all periods in music history. It often works with specialists in various genres, like Paul Van Nevel, the director of the Huelgas Ensemble, in early music repertoire. The sound of the choir isn't marred by vibrato, and there is no stylistic clash between the tutti and the solo episodes which are sung by members of the choir. Under the direction of Harry van der Kamp, who is a former member of the choir, they give fine performances of these pieces by Alessandro Scarlatti.
A couple of issues have to be mentioned. The delivery isn't always as clear as one would wish, in particular in tutti passages. The basso continuo should have been given more prominence. Sometimes it is hardly audible. Harry van der Kamp has chosen to perform this repertoire with three singers per part. I don't know what kind of vocal forces were common in Scarlatti's time in Rome. It is interesting to compare the performance of the Magnificat with that by the Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini
. He performs it with one voice per part. His interpretation contains stronger contrasts between the various sections, and the harmonic tensions are more clearly exposed than in this performance. That could be the effect of using single voices or probably performing in a different tuning.
This doesn't diminish my great appreciation of this recording which sheds light on a lesser-known part of Alessandro Scarlatti's oeuvre. It makes me curious to hear more from this source.
Johan van Veen