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Christmas in Naples
Gaetano VENEZIANO (1656 - 1719)
Notturno secondo, lezione prima* [7:21]
Notturno primo, lezione prima** [10:53]
Notturno primo, lezione terza* [13:59]
Sonata [2:53]
Pastorale a quattro voci con tromba e flauti [22:29]
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Sinfonia prima di concerto grosso con due flauti [5:52]
Sinfonia seconda concertata con il ripieni [7:09]
Jenny Hogström (soprano)*, Filippo Mineccia (alto)**, Kevin Skelton (tenor), Marc Pantus (bass)
Ensemble Odyssee/Andrea Friggi
rec. 20-26 May 2014, Schuilkerk De Hoop, Diemen, Netherlands. DDD
Texts and translations included
PAN CLASSICS PC10307 [71:06]

Nearly every music-lover is able to call to mind at least one 18th-century composer from Naples whether it be Porpora, Leo, Mancini or, most famous of them all, Pergolesi. As impressive as the flowering of music life in their time - roughly speaking the first half of the 18th century - was, there was no lack of musical excellence in earlier times. It is especially thanks to Antonio Florio that several composers from the second half of the 17th century are more than names. With his ensemble - under various titles - he has made several recordings of music by composers such as Cristoforo Caresana, Giuseppe Cavallo, Francesco Provenzale and Gaetano Veneziano. Only this year Glossa released a recording of an oratorio by the latter, directed by Florio.

Veneziano was born in Bisceglie in Bari by the Adriatic Sea; at the age of ten he entered the S Maria di Loreto conservatory in Naples, where Francesco Provenzale was his teacher. Later he held various important positions, such as that of maestro di cappella at the Neapolitan court as successor to Alessandro Scarlatti. His oeuvre comprises only religious music but it is not known exactly how much he wrote as the authenticity of a number of pieces has not been established.

The largest part of this disc is devoted to three lessons which are part of the Liturgy of the Hours. These are a set of prayers to be recited by clergy at various times of the day. The morning prayers or matins are divided into three nocturnes which derive their name from the fact that they are performed when it is still dark. Every nocturne comprises psalms and three lessons whose texts are taken from the Old Testament or early Christian authors. Only three lessons from the Christmas Nocturnes by Veneziano have been preserved. Whether these are the only ones he wrote or other settings have been lost is unknown. As they are not dated it is impossible to say whether the extant settings belong to the same cycle.

They are set for solo voice (soprano or alto), instruments and basso continuo. The instrumental scoring is not specified in the booklet; one may assume that it is for strings. However, in two of them recorders play colla parte with the strings. Whether that is indicated in the score is not mentioned. The Lezione Prima from the second nocturne is on texts by Pope Leo the Great (c400-460), whereas the other two are on texts from the prophet Isaiah. They all begin with the text: "Iube Domne benedicere" (Grant, Lord, a blessing) and end with "Tu autem, Domine, miserere nobis" (But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us). The texts include some dark streaks, referring to Christ's Passion, to the devil and to the sins of mankind. However, that is not strongly reflected in the music: there are no notable dissonances, only the melody becomes a little sour now and then. The closing line of the Lezione terza is telling: "Lord have mercy upon us" is sung to a vivid rhythm which one would not associate with this text. That seems to be a feature of Neapolitan music.

The Pastorale is a typical piece of the sort one expects from an Italian composer and not different from the 'Christmas concertos' by Italian composers as Corelli, Torelli and Manfredini. It begins with a 'chorus' - called ripieno - which is repeated at the end. In between come a recitative and two arias, embracing a pastorale which is sung by soprano and tenor in parallel motion. It is a typical lullaby, beginning with the words "My Jesus wants to sleep now" and several times Jesus is indeed lulled to sleep: "Sleep Jesus, sleep and be silent", "Beautiful eyes, sleep". The arias are about mourning and the "demons of eternal fire", again referring to Jesus' Passion, but they hardly disturb the pastoral atmosphere of the whole.

Only two non-vocal works from Veneziano's pen are known, and only one of these is for an instrumental ensemble. That is a shame, because the sonata is a very nice piece. The two other instrumental items are by Alessandro Scarlatti, not a Neapolitan by birth, but working there for many years. In his instrumental works recorders play a prominent part, as in the Sinfonia prima. One recorder is also involved in the Sinfonia seconda, alongside a trumpet and strings.

The two main singers here are Jenny Högström and Filippo Mineccia. I have heard the latter in several recordings lately. I greatly appreciate his sensitive performances in which he avoids excessive virtuosity, for instance in the ornamentation. He seems very well aware of the character of the music he performs, and that is the case here too. Ms Högström is a new name for me, but it is a most pleasant acquaintance: she has a beautiful voice and does exactly what she has to do to bring this music to life. Kevin Skelton and Marc Pantus only participate in the Pastorale; they both sing well, but I would prefer a somewhat stronger voice when it comes to Marc Pantus. The instrumental works are given excellent performances; the blending of recorders and violins is delightful.

I am pretty sure that Veneziano's works are recorded here for the first time. They are well worth listening to, and suggest that Veneziano was a fine composer whose oeuvre deserves to be further explored.

Johan van Veen