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Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (c.1681-1732)
Missa Sancti Pauli (1715): Kyrie and Gloria [29:11]
Sonata (Largo - Allegro assai) [3:23]
Motet: Fastos cćli audite (Motetto per ogni Santi, e per il giorno di tutti gli Santi) [6:34]
Missa Sancti Pauli: Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei [21:20]
Aria: Pie Jesu, ad te refugio [6:43]
Adriána Kalafszky (soprano); Péter Bárány (countertenor); Zoltán Megyesi (tenor); Thomas Dolié (bass) with Lóránt Najbauer (bass)
Purcell Choir
Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegy
rec. Grand Hall of the Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest) 22-24 January 2017. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
GLOSSA GCD924004 [67:23] 

This is the only available (ever?) recording of this Mass. Though Conti’s music was highly regarded by Johann Sebastian Bach, who ‘borrowed’ his setting of the offertory Languet anima mea (sung by Magdalena Kožená with Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel, DG Archiv 4741942), it’s seriously under-represented in the catalogue.

Principally renowned as a theorbist for 30 years at the Habsburg court – Quantz referred to him as ‘the best theorbo player of all time’ – he was compelled by ill-health in 1726 to abandon his virtuoso career and concentrate on composing. He had by then succeeded Fux as Viennese court composer and already had a series of compositions to his credit, including this Missa Sancti Pauli, which was continuously performed at the Schottenkirche, where it’s preserved in the library, for more than 150 years, last recorded as performed in 1857.

The Schottenkirche library also includes a B-flat sonata and the motet for All Saints’ Day, here sung at the right point in the Mass, and the tenor aria Pie Jesu, which serves to round off the programme.

It’s not surprising that, as a composer of operas and an instrumentalist, Conti’s sacred music should both sound rather operatic and show a concern for orchestration, mainly for strings. The music may not be anywhere near the quality of his greatest contemporaries; there are times when I felt that I could almost have written it myself, given the formula, but then he surprises by a dramatic gear-shift. His style often anticipates the classical, as if a young Haydn were experimenting at composing a Mass. Even the Credo contains some dramatic moments.

All concerned make a strong case for the music. There are no serious shortcomings among the soloists and their voices blend well with the choir and orchestra. The only marginally weak link is Péter Bárány (countertenor), who is rather exposed in the motet. Diction throughout is clear.

You may not have heard of the Orfeo Orchestra, but they are led by none other than baroque expert Simon Standage. With some very fine theorbo playing – perhaps the equal of Conti himself – and a fine contribution from the organ loft, György Vashegy has a very competent team at his command. The recording is very good and the notes were very helpful in getting the facts together for this review, alongside an equally helpful article by Monika Hennemann in the Oxford Companion to Music.

Johan van Veen thought (or hoped) that we were on the verge of a Conti revolution when Virgin released their recording of his azione sacra or oratorio David (Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis – review). That’s download only now, from Erato, without the booklet, but it’s available very inexpensively, around Ł5/Ł6 in mp3/lossless format. That may be more than the Ł2.99 which I reported in DL Roundup August 12_2, but Sainsbury’s no longer offer downloads and Ł5 or Ł6 won’t break the bank. (Naxos Music Library no longer seem to have it for streaming.)

An Arcana recording of Conti’s music featuring Bernarda Fink seems to have disappeared without trace, but it was not much to Kirk McElhearn’s liking – review – though the one Conti item on another recital by Fink, this time with Il Giardino Armonico may be more worth exploring (Il Piano di Maria, Decca 4781466 – review; now download only).

The new recording offers the only substantial contribution by Conti to the catalogue apart from the Erato David and a Tactus album of his cantatas from 2010, which I haven’t heard. I would marginally recommend David first, even though it’s a download with no booklet; it’s so inexpensive that you should think of buying both it and the new album. The new Glossa CD costs around Ł12.50 but it can be downloaded, this time with booklet, for Ł7.99 in lossless sound. The Tactus CD seems to be out of stock, but subscribers can try it from Naxos Music Library.

Not a high priority release, then, but a useful one in helping to establish Conti’s valuable but well-nigh forgotten place in musical history, and well worth hearing in these accomplished and well-recorded performances.

Brian Wilson

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