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Salamone de' ROSSI (c.1570-c.1630)
Songs of Solomon
see end of review for track listing
Pro Cantione Antiqua (Paul Esswood, Robert Harre-Jones, Robin Blaze, Timothy Penrose (alto), James Griffett. Simon Berridge, Joseph Cornwell, Ian Partridge (tenor), Stephen Roberts, David Beavan, Adrian Peacock (bass))/Sydney Fixman
rec. 11-13 January 1996, The West London Synagogue, London, UK. DDD
Texts only in English translation

Experience Classicsonline

With the emergence of historical performance practice the interest in music other than that written by the famous composers of the 17th and 18th century has also risen. As a result we have seen many composers put on the map of music history who only a couple of decades ago were almost completely unknown. A special branch of interest is the work of Jewish composers in those days. These usually didn't take a prominent position in the music scene: in many countries the Jews were persecuted, and at best they were tolerated. In public life they played only a relatively marginal role.
One of the composers who is more or less an exception is Salamone (de') Rossi who worked in Mantua and had a relatively comfortable position. As in many other cities in Europe the Jews in Mantua were forced to live in a ghetto. Outside they were forced to wear a yellow star. Thanks to his good relationship with the court of the Gonzagas who ruled Mantua, Rossi was relieved of that obligation. He had some renowned colleagues, like De Wert and Monteverdi, and was influenced by both, especially in his madrigals. Most of them are written in the stile antico, with madrigalisms to illustrate parts of the text, but some in the modern concertante style, with basso continuo.
The collection of 33 pieces which was printed in 1623 under the title Hashirim Asher Lishlomo (The Songs of Solomon) are rather conservative. It is impossible to say for sure where these pieces were to be performed. If they were to be sung during the Sabbath services then that could well explain the fact that they are set for voices a capella, since the use of instruments in the synagogue was forbidden. The title suggests that the texts were written by King Solomon, like the Song of Songs, but that is not the case. Many motets are on texts from the Book of Psalms, either complete Psalms or a couple of verses. There are also free poetic texts, for instance for a wedding (Lemi Echpots). It has been suggested that the title could be a reference to the composer's first name.
The number of parts varies from three to eight. The latter - as well as the 7-part Eftach Na Seftai - are for double choir, with the two choirs singing in turn. In the above-mentioned wedding motet the second choir echoes the first, repeating the last words of the first choir. In this recording the second choir has been placed in the background, to create a realistic echo effect. The cover of the booklet tells us that we get here "17th Century Polyphonic Settings", but that is only partly true. In fact these motets include many homophonic episodes. Rossi's settings are also largely syllabic, although some words are singled out by melismas. Now and then the composer makes use of madrigalisms, but otherwise there is little connection between text and music.
The character of the motets is quite different. Obviously Al Naharot Bavel (By the rivers of Babylon), a setting of Psalm 137, is sombre, and set at a low pitch. Introverted and restrained is a piece like Elohim Hashivenu, "O God, restore us". There are also jubilant pieces, such as Ein Kelohenu (There is none like our God) and the closing motet Adon 'Olam (Lord of the world). The disc begins with the three-part Barechu (Bless the Lord) in which the first line is sung by three solo voices and the second by the full ensemble, creating a pleasing upward gradient in the jubilation of the text: "Bless the Lord who is to be praised / Praised be the Lord who is blessed for all eternity".
This recording was made after a public performance during the B'nai B'rith Festival in London in 1996, which was met with great enthusiasm. One can understand that: over the years I have heard various performances of pieces from this collection, but mostly these were not really satisfying. That is different here. The vibrato in some of the lower voices has always been a feature of Pro Cantione Antiqua, and has sometimes damaged their recordings. It is present here, but it isn't really obtrusive. The singing is brilliant throughout, and the character of every single piece has been well expressed. It is impossible to say anything about the pronunciation, as I know nothing about the Hebrew language. For those who understand the language, it is a little disappointing that the original text has not been included in the booklet. We only get the English translations.
The lyrics of Odecha Ki Anitani have been omitted, and in the tracklist the titles of tracks 17 and 18 have been swapped. That is corrected in the header of this review.
The quality of the music and the performance makes the reissue of this recording most welcome. Because of its qualities one has to regret that only 20 of the 33 pieces in the collection have been recorded. I hope that some day the whole collection will be available in a really good interpretation. That wouldn't in any way devalue this disc's qualities, though.
Johan van Veen

Track listing
Barechu a 3 [1:25]
Eftach Na Seftai a 7 [3:57]
Al Naharot Bavel a 4 [4:58]
Shir Hammaalot a 6 [3:02]
Haleluyah a 8 (Psalm 112) [3:12]
Odecha Ki Anitani a 6 [3:28]
Baruch Haba a 6 [2:54]
Mizmor Shir a 8 [4:05]
Hashkivenu a 5 [3:23]
Lamnat Stseach a 5 [4:34]
Shir Lammaalot a 5 [2:33]
Elohim Hashivenu a 4 [3:24]
Yigdal a 8 [3:35]
Mizmor Letoda a 5 [2:34]
Lemi Echpots a 8 [4:47]
Haleluyah a 8 (Psalm 111) [3:11]
Eftach Shir Bisfatai a 8 [4:19]
Ein Keloheinu a 8 [2:32]
Kaddish a 5 [5:01]
Adon 'Olam a 8 [2:29]

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