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Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774)
Requiem & Miserere
Requiem: Missa pro Defunctis in E flat major, HocJ A1.3 (1756)
Requiem: Libera me in C minor, HocJ E.2 (1756)
Miserere in G minor, HocJ C1.23 (1759 /1765?)
Gudrun Sidonie Otto, Miriam Feuersinger (soprano), Helen Charlston, Gaia Petrone (alto), Daniel Johannsen, Valerio Contaldo (tenor), Sebastian Myrus, Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass)
Il Gardellino/Peter Van Heyghen
rec. 8-10 October 2019, Augustinus Muziekcentrum, Antwerp, Belgium
Latin texts with English translations

If, in the estimation of some critics, Verdi’s Requiem is his best opera, then the same might be said of Jommelli’s setting – a composer also best known for his operas, which pave the way from the high Baroque period to Mozart. Couched, unusually, in the major key, this Mass for the Dead – written for the funeral of Maria Augusta, the mother of Jommelli’s employer Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg – opens with a gentle, consoling throb with syncopated rhythms and warm homophonic chords, which are sculpted tenderly in this performance by Peter Van Heyghen and the singers of Il Gardellino.

That serene lucidity is reminiscent, perhaps, of the earlier Requiem setting by Campra which set a precedent in the French tradition for quieter, more reflective musical realisations of the liturgy, which do not dwell so much on the anxious drama of judgement and possible damnation, but rather on consolation and repose – take, for instance, Fauré’s and Duruflé’s settings. However, Jommelli’s work gives way to a jaunty Kyrie in stilo antico, then a galant style Christe eleison which puts one in mind of Pergolesi, as do the chromatic inflections of the first section of the Agnus Dei.

To exploit the dramatic possibilities of the Dies Irae sequence, Jommelli begins this section robustly – but still in the major key – with a brief choral acclamation, before moving on to a succession of solo passages, in dialogue with the choir, as though this were an operatic scena. The choir emphasise the terse chords of the line beginning “Confutatis” before the soloists render the “voca mea” in mellifluous chains of thirds, just as Mozart does in his later setting, leading one to surmise that he surely knew this score.

As the combined soloists also constitute the choir, with no other additional singers, the solo interjections blend seamlessly and subtly with the choral sections. En masse as the chorus, the vocalists are attentive to the dramatic contrasts inherent in the music, even on so localised a level as the alternating loud and soft chords on ‘Iudicandus homo reus’: they refrain from unduly exaggerating this and let the music speak for itself. The staccato second syllables on the repetitions of “Sanctus” verge on becoming mannered, but that is redeemed by the affecting lilt in the triple time Osanna section which follows, radiating a dance-like joy, and capped by the vibrant strings of Il Gardellino in accompaniment. In avoiding vibrato the singers’ sound is lithe, but they colour their timbre sensitively to create here a bright, open texture, and there a gaunt, grey one, suitable to express mourning and grief.

Van Heyghen draws out from his forces an appropriate gravitas for the stately dotted rhythms which open the Libera me, appended to the Requiem, comparable to the ‘Gratias’ and ‘Qui tollis’ movements of Mozart’s ‘Great’ Mass as a late exercise in Baroque musical technique. Again, though, the performers balance expression with structural clarity and coherence in true Classical poise, as the strict counterpoint of ‘Quando coeli’ is crisply delivered, and the little aria ‘Tremens factus sum’ brings out the trembling effectively through the brisk alternation of quaver chords in the strings with the tremolando semiquavers icily played sul ponticello.

The disc is rounded off with the more sombre Miserere setting for choir with continuo accompaniment alone. Its provenance is not known exactly, but Van Heyghen, in his detailed CD notes, surmises that it could have been performed on the same occasion as the Requiem. The world of the opera house is totally banished as the choir sing the solemn chords of each verse with a beautiful sullen hue, providing a touch more alacrity for some passages such as ‘Amplius lave me’. Jommelli’s setting recalls those by Antonio Lotti and Leonardo Leo, and the choir’s thoughtful and leisurely chanting of the plainsong for the interspersed verses draws the work into yet older traditions of liturgical music. Van Heyghen explains in the notes that, in the absence of clear instructions in the extant scores, it is only presumed that plainsong verses were interspersed in line with general custom, and he has attempted to recreate 18th century performance practice in the rendering of it here. Overall the Miserere constitutes a sober conclusion to what is, in some surprising ways, a rewarding and uplifting disc.

Whilst some may question the suitability of this generally affable, outgoing music as a setting of the Mass for the Dead, it is certainly an eloquent and succinct score that deserves to be heard. It is surely no more of an incongruous pairing of music with words than Mozart’s ‘rococo-operatic sweets of sin’, as Stravinsky deemed his mass settings, and listeners who wish to explore the repertory of 18th century choral music beyond these and Haydn’s examples will be amply satisfied by Il Gardellino’s offering.

Curtis Rogers

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