Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Stabat Mater, for 10 voices (c. 1715) [23:20]
Antonio LOTTI (1666–1740)
Crucifixus, for 10 voices [2:35]
Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)
Quam amarum est, Maria (pub. 1655) [5:11]
Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736)
Crucifixus, for 16 voices [4:01]
Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Miserere a due cori (1739) [18:32]
Antonio LOTTI
Crucifixus, for 8 voices (c. 1717/19) [2:41]
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
rec. 26 September 2010, Abbaye d’Ambronay, France
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0709072 [56:20]
The laments recorded in this disc date from around 1655 to 1739. This period saw a succession of sacred laments for Holy Week but the ones featured in Paul Agnew’s programme all largely employ stile antico, the deliberate cultivation of an antique idiom. There are frequent imitative passages, rich polyphony, and a sense of intense expressive depth. The composers’ intention was a revival of sixteenth century a cappella singing, but by means of evocation not mere copying. There is a small continuo, of cello, theorbo and organ.
It’s appropriate that Agnew and Les Arts Florissants should begin with Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater as it was one of the most popular sacred pieces of the time, and has been widely performed and recorded in our time. It’s scored for ten-part choir, though Scarlatti strategically reserves the full resources of the choir for optimum moments; otherwise the textures remain light, and pure. Agnew has exercised editorial latitude to employ the choir throughout, apart from two brief passages where there is an answering of tutti to solo passages. The conflict on this point between surviving manuscripts has allowed him, very properly, to decide on this division, and as a most experienced singer himself he justifies the decision with assurance. What Agnew most wants is a ‘flow of emotion’ and it’s this quality, the shifting densities of choral tone and amplitude, and the exemplary projection of imitative passages, that consistently impresses.
Antonio Lotti is represented by two brief Crucifixus settings, intended for Mass, one a 10 and the other a 8. They both exemplify qualities of taut, dissonant polyphony, remarkably so in the former case. In the setting a 8 the harmonic steps are very well delineated and the reflective melancholy and intimacy of the setting offer a suitable envoi for the programme as a whole. Giovanni Legrenzi’s Quam amarum est, Maria is the earliest setting. Legrenzi was one of Lotti’s teachers, which furnishes both biographical and musical interest as well as providing a kind of lineage to the selection. His motet is set for two sopranos and continuo, and functions as a kind of ‘lament and love duet’ of quite remarkable and direct expressive power. Caldara’s brief but moving Crucifixus a 16 is even richer and more refulgent, a massively Venetian affair, demonstrative and full of ripe grandeur, and vast technical assurance. After Scarlatti’s, the most extensive setting is that of Leonardo Leo’s Miserere. His old-school polyphonic approach, with its two alternating choirs, also exerts a powerful effect. The blocks of chorus alternating with plainsong (single voice) accompanied by organ gives the music density as well as simplicity, and is later varied and integrated. There are hints of a more contemporary style from time to time but the music remains essentially in thrall to earlier models, and profitably so. The full choir, as with Scarlatti, is only sparingly unleashed and it’s all the more startling and impressive when it is. Richard Wagner heard the work in Naples in 1880, calling it ‘sublime and significant’.
This recital was recorded live, and most impressively, in the Abbaye d’Ambronay. There is great purity and sensitivity in the singing of Les Arts Florissants, both in tuttis and in solos. Laments have seldom been in better hands, or voices.
Jonathan Woolf
Laments have seldom been in better hands, or voices.

see also review by Michael Cookson