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Princely Splendour – Choral works from 18th century Rome
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Exsurge Domine [3:01]
Ad Dominum cum tribularer [3:27]
Giovanni Battista COSTANZI (1704-1778)
Christus factus est [2:52]
Dixit Dominus [9:36]
Giuseppe Ottavio PITONI (1657-1743)
Felix namque [2:28]
Ex altari tuo [2:44]
Requiem aeternam [4:23]
Dies Irae [1:11]
Tuba mirum [1:39]
Tommaso BAI (c1650-1714)
Cum jucunditate [2:45]
Giovanni GIORGI (c1700-1762)
O sacrum convivium [3:17]
Improperium expectavit [4:07]
Giovanni Battista CASALI (c1715-1792)
Improperium expectavit [2:28]
Sebastiano BOLIS (c1750-1804)
Kyrie eleison [3:04]
Christe eleison [2:17]
Kyrie eleison [3:55]
Harmonia Sacra/Peter Leech
Martin Knizia (organ)
rec. Church of St Thomas the Martyr, Bristol, 13-14 July 2013
Texts and translations included

The best known music of the great churches of Rome is inevitably that of the time of Palestrina. He wrote over one hundred masses as well as much other sacred music during the time that he was employed at various churches there. Such was his reputation that after his death his style was copied by his successors and came to be expected of them.
Much of the music on this disc is in this style and is therefore usually thought, insofar as it is known, accordingly to lack originality and musical vitality. It is certainly true that in the first half of the disc there is little that could not have been written much earlier. In itself that should not necessarily imply a lack of musical interest. In the event there is a surprising variety of character here as well as much interesting and enjoyable music.
Alessandro Scarlatti is probably the best known composer to be represented here. It was a wise choice to start with “Exsurge Domine”, whose bold and joyful polyphonic opening is followed by an impressive homophonic conclusion. Pitoni is a name occasionally encountered in British Cathedral music lists and his two short unaccompanied motets are both worth hearing. Even more so are the three extracts from his Requiem of 1735 for choir and organ. The opening “Requiem” is impressive but the “Dies irae” is most unexpected. It is a duet for two sopranos and if the words were indistinct you might think of it instead as a setting of part of The Song of Solomon. Peter Leech in his very full and interesting notes suggests that they might represent angelic heralds but the music does not seem to me to convey that impression. It is nonetheless a delightful movement.
The items by Bai and Casali are good examples of the use of the Palestrina style, as is the short motet by Costanzi. The latter’s setting of “Dixit Dominus” is however a very different matter. It is for double choir and organ, and is a varied and simply glorious piece which is probably the highlight of the disc. The three sections of the “Kyrie” of 1778 by Sebastiano Bolis also suggest a composer worth exploring further. The first might well suggest the title of the disc, the middle, a trio for two sopranos and bass, is in a style more typical of its period, and the last is an inventive fugue.
Harmonia Sacra is a group of singers who come together for occasional intensive weekends of singing. They sound fresh here and apparently the size of choir is approximately the same as that used in the Sistine Chapel in 1770, albeit that women’s voices are used here. The recording gives the clear impression of a church acoustic without becoming too muddy.
Peter Leech has previously recorded a fascinating disc with the Aylesbury Choral Society of Georgian church music by such unfashionable composers as Samuel Wesley, Attwood and Linley — available through the Society’s website. Both discs suggest that he relishes the opportunity to demolish preconceived ideas. The present disc certainly provides much material for thought and enjoyment. Its only fault is a somewhat short playing time but when the quality and interest is so high this is easily forgiven.
John Sheppard