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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725)
Passio secundum Johannem
Caroline Weynants (soprano), Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano), Guillaume Houcke (alto), Pierre Derhet, Maxime Melnik (tenor), Salvo Vitale (bass)
Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Millenium Orchestra/Leonardo García Alarcón
rec. 2016, Provinciaal Museum Begijnhofkerk, Sint Truiden, Belgium
RICERCAR RIC378 [59:05]

The Passion of Christ is one of the central elements in the Christian faith. The number of compositions which are connected to it bears witness to its importance. They show a wide variety in character. The narrative of Christ's Passion, as we find it in the four Gospels of the New Testament, was frequently set across Europe until the end of the 16th century. In the next centuries the composition of Passions, which strictly follow the text of the Gospels, seems to be virtually constricted to the Lutheran part of Germany. If we have to believe Werner Braun in New Grove (article "Passion"), in the Catholic parts of Europe Passions like those of Heinrich Schütz or Johann Sebastian Bach are almost non-existent. One of the few exceptions is the Passio secundum Joannem by Alessandro Scarlatti.

Taking this into consideration, it is remarkable that it has received so little attention. To my knowledge this is only the third recording of this work. Louis Devos seems to have been the first who recorded it (Arion, 1973); he himself—a tenor—sang the role of the Evangelist. The second recording featured the male alto René Jacobs in that part; the performance with an ensemble of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis was directed by Fritz Näf (deutsche harmonia mundi, 1981).

Until recently it was not known when Scarlatti composed this Passion. It was assumed that it was written in Rome and that Scarlatti had taken two Passion settings by Vincenzo Amato of Palermo, his paternal uncle, as his models. The Passion has been preserved in two manuscripts, both from Naples. Recently the musicologist Benedikt Poensgen stated that one of them, which dates from around 1685, is an autograph. There is some additional evidence for this dating and the assumption that it was written for Naples. There is a strong stylistic similarity between the Passion and two sets of Lamentations from the same period, one of them also from Scarlatti's pen, the other written by his colleague Gaetano Veneziano (1665-1716). The two composers were rivals for the position of maestro di cappella of the Real Cappella; Scarlatti was appointed to that position in 1683.

Scarlatti confines himself to the text of the Gospel after St John, chapter 18, verses 19-37. The Passion is not formally divided into sections. The various roles are given to solo voices. The part of the Testo (Evangelist) is scored for an alto, as is the role of Pilate. The part of Christ is for bass, those of Peter and Judas are set for tenor. The turbae are for four voices. The role of the Testo is set in a declamatory manner, and is basically syllabic. There are some notable exceptions, though. The first is the title: "The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to St John". The Testo closes the work in the same manner, when he quotes the Scriptures: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced." Both are melismatic, and in this way these two passages are used as a framework. Moreover, in both cases Scarlatti includes a minor sixth, either ascending—in the opening phrase—or descending. A third melismatic passage in the Testo's part is the announcement of Jesus's death. Scarlatti highlights references to prophecies from the Old Testament by setting them in an arioso manner. The same is the case with the part of Christ, who is accompanied by the strings and basso continuo. The choral passages are relatively simple.

Although this work is rather straightforward and does not include any madrigalian texts of a meditative or dramatic nature, it is quite expressive, especially thanks to the close connection between text and music. If one follows the Latin text closely, one will notice many specimens of text illustration.

In comparison with the two earlier recordings, this performance is by far the fastest. The Passion takes about 43 minutes here, in comparison to around 55 in the recordings of Devos and Näf. I have never heard the former, but I was always pretty satisfied with the latter. This new release is superior: the parts of the Testo and of Christ receive better performances here than in Näf's recording (by René Jacobs and Kurt Widmer respectively). Giuseppina Bridelli is admirable as Testo and Salvo Vitale brings just enough authority to the part of Christ. The other parts are also performed well.

That said, there are some issues here. The first is the inclusion of extracts from the Responsori per la Settimana Santa I mentioned above. The liner-notes do not give any reason for this. I do not see the need; liturgically it makes no sense and in my experience it damages the unity of the Passion. Fortunately the division into tracks offers the opportunity to programme the CD player in such a way, that one can hear only the Passion. These Responsories are highly expressive works, and it is to be hoped that they will be available on disc one day.

The second issue is that not only the tempi are faster than those in the previous recordings. There are also more pronounced dynamic differences, and overall the playing is more dramatic. In comparison, the interpretation directed by Näf is more meditative. It is hard to say which of them comes closer to the truth. I tend to think that the "truth" is probably somewhere in the middle. I feel that García Alarcón tends to exaggerate a little, whereas Näf seems to me a bit too restrained.

Lastly, in the liner-notes we read: "The Testo states that Christ bowed his head and then gave up the ghost; at this point Scarlatti states in the score that there must be a short silence before continuing." That silence is observed here, and although it is impossible to know for sure what Scarlatti considered "short", it seems too short to have a real effect. I find that rather odd: García Alarcón clearly opts for a dramatic interpretation, but here the dramatic effect of a substantial silence is almost nullified.

A new recording of this highly expressive work was long overdue. There is every reason to be happy with this performance, which is superior to Näf's (probably the only one still available). It is not perfect, but it is the best available right now, and it certainly deserves its place in any collection of music for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen

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