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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Missa 1660
Galilei Consort / Benjamin Chénier
rec. 2018, Chapelle Royale, Versailles
Texts and translations included

In pre-romantic times important events in the life of royals and aristocrats, such as weddings, birthdays and name days, were celebrated with performances of music, which was often specifically written for the occasion. One such event is the starting point of the present disc. In 2016 Alpha released a disc by the Galilei Consort, which was devoted to a mass performed in Venice in 1637 at the occasion of the birth of Louis XIV. It was part of a four-day celebration organised by the French ambassador in Venice. The present disc could be considered its sequel as it again marks an event in the life of Louis XIV: his marriage to the Spanish Infanta, Maria Theresia. And again it was the French ambassador in Venice who organised a celebration. In 1637 Giovanni Rovetta was commissioned to compose a mass; at the time he was assistent maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, and in 1643 he succeeded Claudio Monteverdi as maestro di cappella.

In 1660 the French ambassador commissioned Francesco Cavalli, who at the time was second organist at St Mark’s. His skills were highly praised, and he received a higher salary than the first organist, Massimilano Neri. However, Cavalli was also the main composer of operas, and as he was a man of repute, it was a logical choice to ask him to compose a mass to celebrate Louis’ marriage. The celebrations took place in January, and the ambassador then played a key role in the attempts to entice Cavalli to come to Paris to perform an opera as part of the marriage celebrations in the French capital. The ambassador negotiated with the authorities of St Mark’s to make sure that Cavalli’s post as organist would be retained for him during his absence.

The Mass took place on Sunday 25 January 1660 in the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo (known in Venetian as San Zanipolo), one of the largest churches in the city. Among the performers were singers from the chapel of St Mark’s as well as some who participated in opera performances during Carnival, and an ensemble of fifteen instruments. The ambassador was highly impressed by the performances and wrote to Cardinal Mazarin that he doubted that something of that kind would be possible in France, “because you would have to bring not only Mister Cavalli, respected master of music at the pinnacle of his art, but also all the virtuosi who came here to sing in the operas and that is not possible”. The booklet then describes the festivities of the next couple of days. It must have cost the ambassador a lot of money. Upon his return to France, he received six thousand livres for his expenses.

Benjamin Chénier, in his liner-notes, mentions that services for grand occasions usually lasted about three hours. This recording is rather modest, lasting just over an hour. Apparently it is not known exactly which mass was performed. It seems likely that only a part of Cavalli’s sacred oeuvre has been preserved. The Mass for eight voices performed here is the only mass from Cavalli’s pen which has come down to us. It is part of the collection Musiche Sacre, which dates from 1656, and therefore it cannot be the mass which Cavalli composed for this occasion. It is for eight voices in two choirs and includes obbligato parts for two violins and a string bass. Other instruments can be added to play colla voce. Here Chénier includes wind instruments in the obbligato instrumental parts as well.

The mass is performed within a liturgical framework. In most cases liturgical ‘reconstructions’ are largely based on guesswork. That seems to be the case here as well, since the liner-notes don’t include any information as to what music was performed during the celebration. Chénier has taken other pieces from the same collection. The programme includes two fanfares. No composer is mentioned, and therefore I assume that the music was written (or improvised) by the performers. It is a bit of a mystery what exactly the Elevatio is. It opens with a solo in the drums, and then the organ plays. This piece is announced as ‘anonymous’ in the track-list, but I wonder whether it is in fact a kind of improvisation by Freddy Eichelberger, the organist in this recording. It is full of dissonances, and the whole character of the piece suggests that it is a contemporary piece rather than something of Cavalli’s own time.

The documentation of the recording leaves something to be desired. The collection of 1656 includes six instrumental canzonas, but we are not informed which of them is included here. The booklet also omits the names of the singers who are responsible for the solos in the mass and in the motets. Chénier wrote interesting liner-notes, but the English translation is rather poor. This production deserved a better presentation.

Fortunately the performances are much better. There are eight soloists, divided into two groups, a choir of eight voices and an ensemble of six strings, two cornetts, four sackbuts, trumpet, drum and organ. Although there is a slight vibrato in some of the voices in solo passages, it is hardly disturbing. Overall the singing is excellent, both in ensemble and solo. A fine example of the latter is the sacred concerto O bone Jesu, for soprano and alto, whose names are not mentioned (they are probably Stéphanie Revidat and Pascal Bertin). The contributions of the instrumentalists are impressive and greatly contribute to the impression this music makes.

This reconstruction may be rather speculative, but it is a useful way to demonstrate the way this kind of music was used at the time. And as there are not that many really good recordings of Cavalli’s sacred music, this disc is an important addition to the discography.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Fanfare [1:44]
Toccata [2:59]
Francesco CAVALLI
Kyrie [5:28]
Gloria [14:34]
O bone Jesu [5:00]
Credo [13:23]
Canzona [4:07]
Sanctus [3:36]
Elevatio [5:20]
Francesco CAVALLI
Agnus Dei [4:22]
Plaudite, cantate [3:50]
Fanfare [1:09]
Francesco CAVALLI
Laudate Jerusalem Dominum [3:29]

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