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Niccol˛ JOMMELLI (1714-1774)
Requiem (Missa pro defunctis) in E flat major (1756) [55:15]
Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Carlo Vistoli (alto)
Raffaele Giordani (tenor)
Salvo Vitale (bass)
Choir & Orchestra Ghislieri/Giulio Prandi
rec. 2019, Gustav Mahler Hall, Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
ARCANA A477 [55:15]

Niccol§ Jommelli is, or was best known as an opera composer, though he also wrote cantatas, oratorios and other sacred works, and was a significant figure in the church music of his time. He met with Charles Burney, who declared him to be the greatest living Italian composer; “in the face not unlike what I remember Handel to have been, yet far more polite and soft in his manner.”

The Requiem recorded here came about upon the death of Marie Auguste of Thurn and Taxis, mother of the Duke of WŘrttemberg, in whose service Jommelli was employed as Ober-Kapellmeister. Of necessity, the work was brought together rather hastily, with one source indicating it to have been completed in three days. Despite this it became enduringly successful, with a wide circulation in manuscript copies before print publication in the early 1800s. In his booklet notes, Raffaele Mellace sums up this popularity in the way that it is “characterised by a luminous intimacy which does not, as is normally the case in Requiems of this century and the next, set out to terrify or impress with spectacular effects, but aims for a beautiful singing style and a subtle narrative in sound, both of which convey a message of profound consolation.”

This intimacy of expression is enhanced by Gregorian chant at the opening of the Requiem, and interspersed at another two points amongst its movements. Whatever the grandeur of scale or ambition of emotional expression elsewhere, this brings us back to the religious essence of the work, and is a conscious attempt to follow performance customs of the time, restoring “the authentic musical balance that Jommelli’s contemporaries would have heard.” The Introitus undulates gently, providing a beautiful and indeed ‘hypnotic’ curtain-raiser to what follows. The Kyrie Eleison has off-beat string rhythms that are prescient of Rossini, and the Dies irae has some vocal duet passages that are a reminder of Pergolesi, as well as some distinctly operatic solos. Jommelli of necessity recycled some of his own previous work to complete this urgent commission, each example of which is listed in the booklet.

There is a good deal of well-considered structural symmetry in this Requiem, and that satisfying quality of its whole is equal to its many fine musical moments. Choir and orchestra are light in tone and highly responsive to the many quick changes in mood throughout the work. Organ and strings are well balanced, and the organ has a soft tone that blends and adds warmth rather than penetrating the texture. All of the soloists are very fine, and work very well together in duets and ensemble sections such as the salve me. Soprano Sandrine Piau deserves particular mention, her voice soaring above with both strength and beauty.

There are one or two recordings that precede this one, the most recent also being from 2020 with il gardellino conducted by Peter van Heyghen on the Passacaille label. I haven’t heard this one, but I did take a listen to another recording on Bongiovanni GB2215-2 which has been around since 1999 and can probably now only be found as a download. This isn’t all bad, but there is some slightly swoopy singing and the organ chimes through the sound with an oddly relentless character, the whole being by no means preferable to this fine Arcana recording.

Especially useful in this release is the complete printed sung text with access points referenced, and translated into English, French and German, as are the booklet notes. Such attention to detail makes this an easily recommendable release, and with such an excellent recording nothing need hold you back from acquiring this “message of light, faith and great comfort.”

Dominy Clements

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