If you have never heard of Giovanni Giorgi, you don't need to be ashamed. It is very likely that Leonardo García-Alarcón hadn't heard of him either, when in 2000 the Italian musicologist Jolando Scarpa showed him the manuscripts of Giorgi's Offertorios. "I still remember very clearly the wonderful impression that my first reading of these scores made on me", he writes in the booklet. When performers discover music which has been hitherto completely unknown they tend to go a little overboard, claiming the music or its composer ranking among the very best. In his notes García-Alarcon labels Giorgi "one of the greatest master composers of Western music". That is quite something. Is he right? Let's see.
It is very unfortunate for a musicologist when so little biographical information is available about the subject of his interest. That is also the case with Giorgi. It is not known when he was born or where. There is also no information about his early years: how he was educated and who his teachers were, and where he collected his first musical experiences. There are some indications that he could have been from Venice or the surrounding area. Among these are the various spellings of his name; one is Zorzi, which reflects the Venetian dialect. Many of his works are written in the polychoral style, which was a long-standing tradition in Venice. But that isn't decisive: from 1719 to 1725 Giorgi worked in Rome, as maestro di cappella at San Giovanni Laterano. Rome had its own tradition of polychoral music. Therefore the fact that during his Roman years Giorgi wrote a number of pieces for double choir isn't necessarily an indication of his Venetian origins. In 1725 he went to Lisbon, where he took up the position of mestre de capela at the court.
In Rome two kinds of sacred music coexisted. On the one hand sacred works were written in the modern concertante style, on the other composers adhered to polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina. But in both we find a mixture of old and new. Recently I heard a performance of Psalms and a Gloria by Antonio Caldara, written during his time in Rome. These pieces contain quite virtuosic arias of an operatic nature, but at the same time the tutti sections are for double choir and some passages are written in purely Palestrinian stile antico. Alessandro Scarlatti, on the other hand, was generally more close to the polyphonic tradition, but used various aspects of the modern style, like the close connection between text and music and the use of harmony for reasons of expression. That is also the case with the Offertorios which take the first part of this disc. They show that counterpoint dominates in Giorgi's compositions.
It opens with a setting of Ave Maria: it is for four voices, and is the most old-fashioned piece of the programme. It is divided into two fugal sections and one of the very few pieces by Giorgi which is based on plainchant. Improperium expectavit cor meum and Dextera Domini are also for four voices, and sung by the four soloists of the Cappella Mediterranea. Here we find a closer relationship between text and music, and in particular the closing section of the former contains some striking dissonances, inspired by the text: "my hunger and thirst were appeased by gall and vinegar". It is in particular the Offertorios for double choir which give a good idea of Giorgi’s rather anachronistic style: Angelus Domini descendit de caelo, Tui sunt caeli and Ascendit Deus in jubilatione. But Giorgi doesn't let slip the opportunities to illustrate words like "descendit" and "ascendit".
The largest part of this disc is taken by one of his 33 masses. It was composed in Lisbon and is again scored for two choirs. The title says tutti piena. This seems to refer to the term stile pieno which Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni, Giorgi's predecessor as maestro di cappella at San Giovanni Laterano in Rome, used to describe his own style. There are no solo parts in this mass, nor parts for instruments. It is again dominated by counterpoint, and clearly shows Giorgi's roots in the tradition of polyphony. At the same time there are modern elements, for instance the tempo indications, and also that Giorgi preferred modern tonality to the old church modes.
If Giorgi's music gives an impression of being anachronistic in various respects, one wonders whether the performance practice was equally anachronistic. García-Alarcón seems to give an affirmative answer considering his decisions in regard to the scoring. In a number of pieces he uses instruments to double the vocal lines. In some sections the voices are replaced by instruments. That is the case, for instance, in the offertorio In omnem terram, which is included in the mass, between Gloria and Credo. The first part is played by the strings, the second part by the wind. This is a practice which was used in the 16th century. But was it still in vogue in the 18th century, in Rome and in Lisbon? If instruments are added, the choice of strings is plausible enough. But García-Alarcón also uses cornetts and sackbuts. Some Italian cities had ensembles of cornetts and sackbuts until the mid-18th century. But were they still used in liturgical music in Rome? And what about Portugal?
This disc gives a highly interesting insight into the world of sacred music in southern Europe which is more varied than one may think. It is mostly the sacred music of the likes of Vivaldi, Pergolesi or Galuppi we are used to hear. But there was a kind of 'parallel world' in sacred music where a style was practised which was fundamentally different from that of the more 'operatic' composers. It is a virtue of this disc that it reveals that side of 18th-century music. But, is Giorgi one of the greatest masters of Western music? That seems exaggerated, although it is hard to tell on the basis of just one recording. One thing is for sure: Giorgi's music fully deserves to be more thoroughly explored.
I very much liked what I heard here. The music which García-Alarcón has chosen is captivating and of great beauty. The performers are instrumental in showing the quality of the repertoire. The questions in regard to the performance practice notwithstanding, there is nothing to criticise here. The singing of soloists and choir and the playing of the instrumental ensembles is first-class. The recording also has the solemnity one expects from this kind of music. The booklet doesn't tell us where the recording was made - nor when - but the acoustical circumstances seem very appropriate for this repertoire.
To sum up: Giorgi's music is a major discovery, and the artists have done him a great favour with these fine performances.
Johan van Veen