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Govanni Alberto RISTORI (1692-1753)
Missa in C [24:04]
Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio [25:10]
Miserere in c minor [14:49]
Heidi Maria Taubert (soprano), David Erler (alto), Andreas Post (tenor), Cornelius Uhle (bass)
Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Batzdorfer Hofkapelle/Matthias Jung
rec. 2017, Stadtkirche, Radeberg, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 200-2 [64:09]

The court in Dresden was one of Germany’s main musical centres in the first half of the 18th century. Its chapel had many famous masters in its ranks, such as the violinist Pisendel, the lutenist Weiss and the flautist Buffardin. Despite the various nationalities of the chapel’s members, the taste of the court was predominantly Italian. The music by Vivaldi was especially popular, and after his death it was Galuppi whose music was purchased. Moreover, when in 1730 Johann Adolf Hasse was appointed Kapellmeister, the chapel was directed by someone who wrote in purely Italian style.

Hasse is one of the best-known composers who worked for a considerable time in Dresden. Others are Johann David Heinichen and Jan Dismas Zelenka. They are rather well represented on disc, but only in recent years has the Italian-born Giovanni Alberto Ristori attracted the attention of performers. He was almost completely ignored for a long time because a substantial part of his oeuvre has been lost. The Dresden court acquired most of his sacred music after the his death, but the manuscripts were removed for safekeeping during World War II and never returned. This is highly regrettable, considering the quality of the three compositions recorded by Matthias Jung and his ensembles on the present disc.

Ristori was born as the son of the director of a travelling company of Italian comedians. They were in the service of the Saxon elector Johann Georg III in Dresden shortly before Ristori was born. When he was in his early 20s and already married, he joined his father when the company settled again in Dresden. At that time, Friedrich August I was elector and also King of Poland (as August II). Ristori had already made a name for himself with his opera Orlando, performed to great acclaim in Venice. His first opera in Dresden, Cleonice, performed in 1718, also earned much success. In the 1720s, he composed two comic operas but, because of the dominance of Hasse in the field of opera, he focused largely on the composition of sacred music. He had plenty of opportunities to write sacred works, because Hasse and Zelenka were often not in the position to provide the music for the court chapel, the former because of his frequent absence, the latter due to illness.

There was much need for such music, since Crown Prince Friedrich August (1696-1763) and his wife Maria Josepha, daughter of Emperor Joseph I, were Catholic, which strongly affected the position of the Catholic community in Dresden. Above all, they supported the music performed in the (old) Catholic Court Church. It is there that Ristori’s music was performed. The three pieces included here are all intended for the Catholic liturgy.

The Mass was its most important part. The fact that it could not be too long resulted in a number of masses with only a Kyrie and a Gloria, but Ristori’s Missa in C comprises the complete Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei). It is for four voices and orchestra; the latter plays a considerable part in this Mass as well as in the other two works. In this respect they are comparable with Zelenka’s sacred works. I do not know how many singers were involved in performances in the court church at the time. It is quite possible that the composers had more singers at their disposal than, for instance, Bach in Leipzig and Telemann in Hamburg. In any case, there is a clear contrast between solo and tutti episodes. There are no real arias; the solo passages are entirely embedded in the musical fabric.

The Kyrie opens homophonically and then turns to a fugal episode. The Christe is for the four solo voices. The Gloria, relatively short, is a mixture of episodes for solo voices and tutti. In the Credo Ristori – in line with a long tradition – takes special care of the sections about Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and death. He does not miss the opportunity to depict the resurrection. It is a bit surprising that the Sanctus opens with a passage for solo voices. As one may expect, the words “pleni sunt coeli” (heaven and earth are full of your glory) are set for the tutti. The Benedictus begins with a duet of soprano and alto, and the Hosanna is for the entire ensemble. The Agnus Dei is split into three sections. In each, the first line is given to the solo voices, while the last ("miserere nobis" and "dona nobis pacem" respectively) is for the full ensemble.

The second work is specifically related to the court in Dresden. The Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio attest to the veneration of St Francis Xavier (1502-1556), a founding member of the Jesuit Order, who was canonised in 1622. Since 1709 Jesuits were active at the Dresden court and brought his feast with them. Maria Josepha chose St Francis Xavier to be the patron saint of the house of Wettin. His memorial day on 3rd December was upgraded to the status of a high feast. The first extant settings of the Litaniae de Sancto Xaverio date from 1721. Ristori composed two settings; one of these has been lost. The setting included here, dedicated to Maria Josepha, was part of her private library. The work’s texture is comparable to that of the Litaniae Laueretanae. Composers often made a contrast between the invocations and the prayer “ora pro nobis”, for instance through the opposition of solo voices and tutti or through the splitting of the ensemble in two choirs. Ristori, on the other hand, does not follow a clear pattern here. For instance, the section opening with the words “tuba resonans Sancti Spiritus” (track 9) is given to the bass, who performs the first lines solo. Only then the entire ensemble enters. There is not that much opportunity for depicting the text, but Ristori highlights “idolorum destructor” (destroyer of idols) and “tuba resonans” (resounding trumpet). The Litanies open with the Kyrie: after an instrumental introduction the choir sings the first Kyrie on a chromatically ascending figure.

In the course of time, the penitential psalms, among them the Miserere, have been set often, because they were part of the liturgy for Lent and especially Holy Week. Ristori’s Miserere in c minor dates from 1752. A copy was owned by Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke, Musikdirektor in Hamburg from 1789 until his death in 1822, which has the name of Hasse as its composer. In Dresden, penitential psalms were a fixed part of afternoon services in the court church during Lent from 1730 onwards. Ristori’s setting is not entirely original. Large parts are based on a composition by Antonio Biffi, who from 1702 until his death in 1732 was maestro di cappella of St Mark’s in Venice. Ristori includes instrumental interludes, and allocates some passages to solo voices. Two sections – “tunc imponent” (which is based again on Biffi) and the second section of the doxology (original music by Ristori) – are fugues.

It brings to a close a disc with three pieces of fine quality. The role of the solo voices is modest, and the solo episodes are not very demanding or operatic in character. It seems to me that these works would be very suitable for many choirs around the world. I do not know if they are available in modern editions, but choral conductors may find it well worth investigating. The performances here are pretty much ideal. The four soloists have very fine voices; Heidi Maria Taubert and David Erler are especially impressive. The choir, comprising 21 voices, is agile. Its sound is transparent, and as a result the text is always intelligible. The orchestra does everything right, and considerably contributes to Ristori’s music making such a good impression.

In short, this is a splendid disc which every lover of choral music will enjoy.

Johan van Veen

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