Davide PEREZ (1711-1778) Mattutino de' Morti
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano), Salvo Vitale (bass)
Ghislieri Choir and Consort/Giulio Prandi
rec. 9-12 September 2013, Aula Magna of the Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia, Italy. DDD
Texts and translations included DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88843 051022 [70:21]
"Such august, such affecting music I never heard and perhaps may never hear again, for the flame of devout enthusiasm burns dim in almost every part of Europe and threatens total extinction in a very few years. As yet it glows at Lisbon and produced that day the most striking musical expression. (...) It closed with the Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna which thrilled every nerve in my frame and affected me so deeply that I burst into tears". Thus wrote the English novelist William Beckford (writer of the Gothic novella Vathek) in 1787 after attending a performance of the Mattutino de' Morti by Davide Perez as part of the annual feast of the Saint Caecilia Confraternity in Lisbon. To a music-lover of our time such words may seem a bit exaggerated. It may be conceivable that a listener would react in this way to a performance of Mozart's Requiem, but to some unknown work by a largely unknown quantity as Perez ... Some may find sacred music from this time hard to swallow anyway, especially considering the influence of opera. That influence is certainly present here but in a rather modest way. Listening to this recording the Mattutino de' Morti turns out to be sincere in the treatment of the subject, certainly in comparison to some other compositions of the time.
Davide Perez was a prolific composer. The largest part of his output comprises sacred music, but that was not what was to be expected when he started his career in Naples, where he was born in 1711. At the age of just 11 he became a student at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto where he remained until 1733. He then started to compose concentrating on music for the theatre. His operas were performed not only in Naples, but also in Rome, Palermo, Genoa and Florence. In 1750 one of his operas was mounted in Vienna. In February 1749 he competed with Niccolò Jommelli in a public examination for the position of maestro di cappella at the Vatican. He lost the competition, although he was first choice of the musicians. A colleague stated that he "composes, sings and plays like an angel".
His fame as an opera composer resulted in his being invited by the King of Portugal to become mestre de capela and music master to the royal princesses. He held this position until his death. Opera was important at the court in Lisbon and the circumstances of the performance of Perez' operas were pretty much ideal. This all changed when an earthquake hit Lisbon in November 1755. The court turned to sacred music and opera became far less important. As a result Perez composed few works for the stage during the rest of his life. Instead he wrote a large amount of sacred music in every genre, among them the Mattutino de' Morti which was first performed in 1770.
The occasion was the pilgrimage to Nossa Senhora do Cabo, a tradition which is still alive today and which originated in the Middle Ages and enjoyed a period of great popularity in the 18th century. The legend that an image of Our Lady appeared at Cabo Espichel, a headland looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, led to the construction of a church and a sanctuary in 1701. Every time the monarchy presided over the feasts ensembles and singers from the court participated in the performances of music, including the Mattutino de' Morti. It was an annual tribute to pilgrims and deceased members of the Confraternity of Nossa Senhora do Cabo. This explains why this work combines texts from the Office of the Dead and texts from the liturgy for the pilgrims. Shortly after the first performance the work was adopted by the Confraternity of Saint Caecilia, to be performed during their annual ceremony in commemoration of deceased musicians. It remained part of the standard repertoire in Lisbon until the end of the 19th century.
The Mattutino de' Morti comprises three nocturnes, each of them divided into three responsories. Each responsory consists of two sections; the second is followed by a verse after which the second section of the responsory is repeated. Every third responsory has two verses, the second being Requiem aeternam. The first section of the responsory is for solo voices and choir, the second for choir alone; the verses are for solo voices. The third responsory of the third nocturne - and therefore the last responsory of the whole piece - is the longest and has three verses. The second is a setting of the first section of the Dies irae from the Requiem Mass. The last verse is again the Requiem aeternam, followed by Libera me Domine.
Obviously the operatic influences come especially to the fore in the solo sections. A good example is the verse from the second responsory of the first nocturne, 'Qui venturus est', for soprano and strings. However, there are also some tutti episodes which are very dramatic. Examples are the second responsory from the second nocturn ("Have mercy on me, whilst thou comest in the later day") and the opening of the first responsory from the third nocturne, 'Libera me Domine'. The words "in die illa tremenda" (in that fearful day) are performed by the choir, accompanied by powerful chords from the orchestra. Perez uses the instrumental forces very effectively throughout the whole work. He uses them to single out specific words or phrases, such as 'Quia peccavi' (Nocturn I, resp. 2) with its prominent role for the wind, and "iudicare saeculum per ignem" (to judge the world by fire) in the third responsory from the second nocturne. There is also quite a strong element of intimacy and subtlety. "Whom I myself shall see and not another, and mine eyes shall behold" is the text of the first verse from the first nocturne (resp. 1) which is sung to wonderful effect by the soprano, accompanied by two transverse flutes. Another fine example is the verse 'Dirige Domine' (nocturn 1, resp. 3): "Direct O Lord my God my way in thy sight".
The solo parts are partially technically demanding, and that goes especially for the bass part which includes some very low notes. Perez didn't use them to give the singer an opportunity to show off, but for expressive reasons. In the very first responsory the words "de terra" (from the earth) - followed by a ascending line on "surrecturus sum" (I shall rise), sung by the choir - and in the second responsory the word "foetidum" (stinking [from the grave]) are set to probably the lowest notes a bass can sing. The latter responsory is about Lazarus being resurrected from the dead, and is scored for bass with two bassoons.
Having listened to this work a couple of times I can understand why it has remained in the repertoire for such a long time and why it made such an impression on visitors who attended a performance. It fully deserves to be performed and this recording is a major contribution to the catalogue. The vocal and instrumental forces used here are pretty much in accordance with the numbers deployed at the first performance in 1770. There is documentary evidence of later performances with much larger forces, but it seems right that Giulio Prandi decided to remain close to the 1770 performance. Roberta Invernizzi and Salvo Vitale give excellent accounts of the solo parts. The smaller solos are also well sung by the Voci di Concerto, as they are called in the booklet. There is, for instance, a wonderful duet of Salvo Vitale and Marco Bussi (notturno III, verse 2). There are some moments where some singers use a little too much vibrato, and the two main soloists are also not always free of it, but considering the general level of these performances it hardly matters. The orchestra has all it takes to bring the colourful instrumental score to life.
This is a highly impressive recording of a work of incisive expression. It suggests that the oeuvre of Perez is well worth being thoroughly explored.