RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703)
Litanie per la beata Vergine [10:52]
Ave Regina coelorum [4:57]
Clamemus ante Deum [5:15]
O voces formidandae [4:27]
De necessitatibus [6:40]
Laudate pueri [5:31]
Vivere sine te [7:31]
Salve Regina [4:19]
Ad arma, cor meum [7:32]
Concerto Italiani (Alena Dantcheva, Monica Piccinini, Anna Simboli (soprano), Gabriella Martellacci (contralto), Andrea Arrivabene (alto), Luca Dordolo, Raffaele Giordani (tenor), Matteo Bellotto, Sergio Foresti (bass), Craig Marchitelli, Michael Leopold (theorbo))/Rinaldo Alessandrini
rec. October 2006, Rome, Italy. DDD
NAÏVE OP 30431 [67:07]
Once in a while one finds a disc with music which is really astonishing. This recording of sacred music by Alessandro Melani is one such. Not that I haven't heard his music before. In 2008 the German label CPO released a disc with his serenata L'Europa and some sacred works, performed by the Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert, directed by Hermann Max. That made a strong impression on me, and it convinced me that Melani is a great composer. The present disc with Concerto Italiano confirms this.
But who exactly was Alessandro Melani? He was born in Pistoia as one of seven sons of the bellringer Domenico di Sante Melani. Most of his brothers were musicians, and it seems a number of them were castrati. It is assumed Alessandro was a castrato as well. The most famous singer of the family was Atto, who was also active as a spy. Alessandro started his career as a soprano in Pistoia cathedral, then became maestro di cappella in Orvieto and Ferrara respectively. After his return to Pistoia he was appointed to the same position at the cathedral there, but only four months after his appointment he moved to Rome where he became maestro di cappella of S Maria Maggiore, and about five years later at S Luigi dei Francesi. He remained in Rome until his death.
The music which has been chosen for this recording is from several collections which were printed during Melani's lifetime as well as from various manuscripts. Some pieces, for instance the Litanie per la beata vergine which opens the programme, were composed for performance in the Salve, the private chapel of the Borghese family within the basilica S Maria Maggiore. The scoring reflects the composition of the ensemble Melani had at his disposal after he was placed in charge of this chapel. When he moved to S Luigi dei Francesi he retained this position.
Melani's career shows that he was held in high esteem. It is therefore rather surprising that his music didn't meet universal approval. The American musicologist Robert Lamar Weaver noted several examples of strong criticism. One such was that Melani's compositions were "fanfares for the devil". Maybe it is Melani's unusual harmonic language which drew this criticism.
The use of chromaticism and strong dissonances wasn't uncommon at the time. They were applied to single out particularly emotional passages. It is not surprising that they appear regularly in the Litanie, especially on words like "ora pro nobis" and "miserere nobis". But it seems that they were part of Melani's overall harmonic language. It is striking that in the Magnificat which closes the programme, they also turn up, not where one would expect them, like at "dispersit superbos" or in the verse 'Deposuit potentes' but rather in the opening verse, "My soul doth magnify the Lord" and also in the doxology. In fact, dissonances - often very strong ones - appear in almost all pieces on this disc.
There was a tradition in Rome of composing music for double choir. The Litanie, the Salve Regina and the Magnificat are examples. This offers the possibility of creating a dialogue between the two groups. They join in order to single out especially important passages. There is also another form of dialogue, between a solo voice and the tutti. That is the case in Ave regina coelorum: the first section is sung by a soprano soloist, who in the second half gets involved in a dialogue with the four-part tutti. Laudate pueri has the same texture: the soprano has a virtuosic part with many melismatic passages, juxtaposed with the four-part tutti.
The programme contains three small-scale motets. A voces formidandae is for two tenors with basso continuo; both parts are quite operatic and contain strong harmonic tensions. Ad arma, cor meum is for soprano, bass and bc. It is about the "war of faith": "Gird on the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God, and, thus armed, give battle". The war-like character of the text is effectively translated into music. Vivere sine te is also a piece of free poetry, set for two sopranos and bass with basso continuo. In the latter half the word "veni" (come) is singled out through frequent repetition.
Concerto Italiano is almost a guarantee of excellence. That is certainly the case here. The unusual harmonies come off very well, and are sung with perfect intonation. They greatly contribute to this repertoire making such a strong impression. The delivery is immaculate, and no opportunity to express the affetti is missed. There are just two small minuses: Alena Dantcheva uses a bit too much vibrato in Ave regina coelorum. In Ad arma, cor meum Anna Simboli's voice is just a shade too weak in comparison to the voice of Sergio Foresti. The more penetrating sound of Monica Piccinini would probably have been more appropriate, also in regard to the text.
But these are only minor issues. This disc is just wonderful, first and foremost because of Alessandro Melani's remarkable compositions. He must be considered one of the great composers in Italy in the second half of the 17th century, and he can easily compete with someone like Alessandro Scarlatti. And on top of that Concerto Italiano deliver brilliant performances which explore the expressive character of Melani's oeuvre to the full.
The booklet contains liner-notes in French and English and the lyrics with an English and French translation.
Johan van Veen
Brilliant performances of sacred music by a great composer.