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Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774)
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Carlo Vistoli (alto), Raffaele Giordani (tenor), Salvo Vitale (bass)
Choir & Orchestra Ghislieri/Giulio Prandi
Rec. 2019, Gustav Mahler Hall of Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Texts and translations included
ARCANA A477 [55:15]

Once in a while, two recordings of the same work are released at about the same time. That is not that surprising, if it is a famous piece, such as Bach's St Matthew Passion or Mozart's Requiem. It is remarkable, though, if it concerns a piece that was hardly known before. The reason may be the recent publication of a modern printed edition, but that is not the case with the Missa pro defunctis by Niccolò Jommelli. It is now available in two recordings. In addition to the one to be reviewed here, Passacaille released a performance under the direction of Peter Van Heyghen (review).

Even the composer, although certainly not an unknown quantity, is a relatively marginal figure in the performance practice of our time. Jommelli is one of those composers who suffers from having lived in a time which was dominated by some of the greats of music history: the young Mozart and his older colleague Haydn. If that is not bad enough, one of the main developments in music history - the 'invention' of the crescendo, or, to be more historically correct, the 'ensemble' or orchestral crescendo - has been attributed to the Mannheim school and to Johann Stamitz as its main representative whereas it is very likely that Jommelli was the first who used it. His contemporary Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote: "It was said that when Jommelli first used this effect in Rome the listeners involuntarily rose from their chairs and they realised that they had stopped to breathe only when the music began to mute again". Rome was the city where Jommelli occupied the post of maestro di cappella at San Pietro. In this position he composed a large amount of sacred music.

His reputation was such that in 1753 he was offered three different positions, in Lisbon, Mannheim and Stuttgart. He chose Stuttgart; his future employer, Carl Eugen, Duke of Würtemberg, was a great lover of music and had been a pupil of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In Stuttgart, Jommelli would have almost unlimited possibilities for the composition and performance of music, in particular operas.

Although Jommelli had written many sacred works during his time in Rome, in Stuttgart he hardly composed any music for the liturgy. That may be due to the fact that the court was Protestant, whereas the Duke was a Catholic. And so was his mother, Maria Augusta von Thurn und Taxis. It seems that Jommelli had written only four sacred works during his time in Stuttgart, and each of them was intended for a special occasion. One of them was his Requiem, which he composed at the occasion of the death of Maria Augusta on 1 February 1756. As there was obviously not much time for the composition of a Requiem mass, he reworked some music he had written earlier. A large part of the Missa pro defunctis is dominated by counterpoint. One could call this work conservative, as was so much music for the Catholic liturgy, written in the stile antico or stile osservato. There are only a few moments where Jommelli's credentials in the field of opera manifest themselves. One of them is the Benedictus, a short but unmistakably operatic solo for soprano. The work is not very dramatic, but is rather characterized 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 to 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", Raffaele Mellace states in the liner-notes to the present recording.

The entire work is written in the key of E-flat and closely related keys (C minor, B-flat major). Mellace calls it a 'sacred key', and refers to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, who described it as the "tonality of love, devotion, intimate dialogue with God and symbolizing, with its three flats, the Holy Trinity". Despite being written in the stile antico, the work includes some graphic text illustration, for instance in the Offertorio: a descending chromatic line on "de poenis inferni" (from the pains of hell) and the figure of notes tumbling down on "ne cadant in obscurum" (lest they fall into everlasting darkness).

Jommelli's sacred music from his time in Naples and Rome was probably mainly known there and in other parts of Italy, but his Requiem soon disseminated across Europe. About 130 complete manuscript copies are known. It was regularly performed well into the 19th century, until it was overshadowed by Mozart's Requiem. The fact that so many copies are available, but no autograph, forces the performer to decide which one to use for a performance and/or a recording. In many later performances wind and brass instruments participated, but from the surviving list of payments of the performance at Maria Augusta's funeral it can be concluded that the vocal parts were sung by eight singers - one female and seven male - and the orchestra included four violins and organ. Nothing is known about the other parts. Both Van Heyghen and Prandi use an instrumental ensemble of eight violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass and organ. The main difference is in the vocal department. Van Heyghen confines himself to the eight singers involved in the first performance. Prandi uses a choir of twenty singers and four soloists, who don't participate in the tutti. As a result Van Heyghen's performance has a stronger coherence between soli and tutti; the blending of the voices is also better than in Prandi's recording.

The singing of the four soloists in Prandi's performance is generally pretty good, even though it is noticeable that Sandrine Piau and Carlo Vistori take trouble to reduce their vibrato. They mostly succeed, but when in particular Piau is on her own, she lets it go, for instance in the Benedictus. The choir is excellent, but not as transparent as Van Heyghen's smaller ensemble.

An interesting aspect of Prandi's recordimg is the insertion of plainchant. Although he does not pretend to offer a liturgical reconstruction, it is nice to hear the Requiem being put in a kind of liturgical setting. The way the plainchant is sung, is based on 18th-century performance practice.

Both recordings have their particular qualities, and I am happy to have both. If you can afford it, you may consider purchasing both. If you opt for this recording by Prandi, you certainly won't regret it. That is also due to Jommelli, whose Requiem is a very fine and rewarding work.

Johan van Veen

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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