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Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703)
Giuseppe Ottavio PITONI (1657-1743)
Deus in adiutorium [1:11]
Alessandro MELANI
Dixit Dominus [7:21]
Vox turturis audita est [4:59]
Laudate pueri [5:36]
Caeli gaudete [4:44]
Laetatus sum [5:15]
Salve, Mater et Regina [6:51]
Nisi Dominus [5:42]
Giuseppe Ottavio PITONI
Ave maris stella [3:41]
Alessandro MELANI
Magnificat [10:59]
Salve Regina [2:50]
Letanie della Beata Vergine [6:37]
Soloists of the Rheinische Kantorei
(Veronika Winter, Maria Skiba, Magdalene Harer, Elisa Rabanus (soprano), Franz Vitzthum, Edzard Burchards (alto), Hans Jörg Mammel, Immo Schröder (tenor), Matthias Vieweg, Markus Flaig (bass))
Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max
rec. live, 15 August 2012, Basilika of Kloster Eberbach, Germany DDD
CPO 777 936-2 [65:53]

This is the second recording which Hermann Max has devoted to Alessandro Melani. In 2008 CPO released a disc with a serenata and some sacred works which was reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf (review). That was the disc which brought me into contact with this composer, who I hadn't heard of before. In 2010 Naïve released a recording with sacred music, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini (review). The present disc also comprises sacred works, this time music for Vespers for the Virgin Mary.

Melani was born in Pistoia as one of seven sons of the bellringer Domenico di Sante Melani. Most of his brothers were musicians, and it seems a number of them were castratos. It is assumed Alessandro was a castrato as well. He started his career as a soprano in Pistoia cathedral, then became maestro di cappella in Orvieto and Ferrara respectively. After his return to Pistoia he was appointed to the same position at the cathedral there, but only four months after his appointment he moved to Rome where he became maestro di cappella of S. Maria Maggiore, and about five years later at S. Luigi dei Francesi. He remained in Rome until his death.

As a composer Melani was quite productive. His oeuvre includes a number of operas, some oratorios - most of which are lost - as well as liturgical music and some secular vocal works. His sacred oeuvre does not include a Vespers service. The four Psalms and the Magnificat which are traditionally part of Vespers are taken from various collections by Melani. They are separated by motets which could be used a substitutes for antiphons. The Vespers end with a setting of the Litany of Loreto.

The four Psalms and the Magnificat are for solo voices and choir with basso continuo, sometimes with an instrumental ensemble. Dixit Dominus is the most dramatic of the four Psalms, in particular the verses in the second half, which describe the day of the Lord's wrath. George Frideric Handel was to create a strongly theatrical piece on this text; Melani's setting is more modest but he certainly doesn't miss the opportunity to depict the text in his setting. He especially uses rhythm to single out these verses in a way which reminds me a little of Monteverdi's stile concitato. The tutti are for five voices, the solo part for the soprano is dominated by coloratura. The same is the case with Laudate pueri and more in particular its long-drawn-out Amen section which takes about half the time of the whole piece. The endless coloratura of the soprano is only interrupted by interventions of the 4-part choir. Laetatus sum has solo parts for two sopranos; the choir is divided into five parts. The last Psalm is Nisi Dominus, for four solo voices and two four-part choirs. Here Melani creates a marked contrast between the text "eat the bread of sorrow" and "he shall give sleep to his beloved". The Magnificat also includes some textual contrasts which Melani effectively translates in music.

These five elements of any Vespers were usually preceded by an antiphon which was repeated after the Psalm or the Magnificat. The first antiphons are omitted here which already indicates that this is not a kind of liturgical reconstruction. The motets used as substitutes for the repeats of the antiphons don't point into the direction of a specific feast day. Therefore they are merely examples of the way motets could be used. They are taken from two different collections of 1673 and 1682 respectively and scored for solo voices and basso continuo. Vox turturis has a free text which takes as its starting point a verse from the Song of Songs: "The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land". Notable is the tenderness with which Melani has set the text "With open arms and her broad lap the Mother most loving awaits you". The solo parts are for soprano and alto.

Caeli gaudete (Heavens, rejoice) is for soprano and bass. It is another motet in praise of the Virgin Mary. It closes with the line "Oh, remedy the harm that the wild angel of Avernus has brought into the world from the profound depths" and this is another example of Melani's skills in depicting a text. Whereas in the pieces Rinaldo Alessandrini recorded I noted various specimens of the use of harmony for expressive reasons, Melani's harmonic language in the pieces on this disc is much more moderate. One of the exceptions is the Salve Regina which includes chromaticism in the lines about crying and sighing, mourning and weeping. This setting is for two sopranos.

Harmony also plays an expressive role in the Litany which is scored for two choirs of five voices each, both with solo parts for two sopranos. The technique of cori spezzati - to use a term mostly associated with the polychoral practice of Venice around 1600 - is employed here to single out some phrases through the combination of the two choirs.

As the introitus Deus in adiutorium and the hymn Ave maris stella are absent in Melani’s oeuvre, these settings have been taken from the oeuvre of Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni, a composer who worked all his life in Rome. The dates of his life and death indicate that he belongs to a later generation but as his writing is rather conservative - rooted in the stile antico as practised by Palestrina . These two pieces are in fact rather too old-fashioned than too modern. However, writing in the old style was quite common in Rome during the 17th century and from that perspective these pieces fit well into this programme.

The booklet doesn't inform us which singer takes the various solo parts. Fortunately none of the eight soloists disappoints - on the contrary, all the solo contributions are outstanding. I am full of admiration for the way the two sopranos deal with the demanding coloratura in Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri respectively. The former is Veronika Winter, the latter probably Maria Skiba. The performances are characterised by good text expression - one of the hallmarks of Hermann Max's recordings - and a fine sense of rhythm, the latter thanks to the small number of singers and their great agility and flexibility.

Melani once again proves to be a very good composer and I wouldn't mind to hear more recordings of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen


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