Thursday 21 August 2014

Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome

Princely Splendour - Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech - Nimbus Alliance
Princely Splendour - Sacred music from 18th century Rome; Harmonia Sacra, Peter Leech; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A fascinating survey of sacred music from 18th century Rome, much of it with Royal connections

This disc from Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra on Nimbus Alliance presents a selection of sacred choral works from an era which is still relatively neglected, 18th century Rome. The music on this disc was all written for Rome, and that means that it can be seen as stylistically conservative. All the composers on this disc wrote sacred music in the expected stile antico emulating Palestrina, whose music was still a strong influence in Rome. But there is still much to enjoy, especially as Peter Leech has selected a variety of works which have surprising Royal connections, to the exiled House of Stuart. The composers on the disc include Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Battista Costanzi, Guiseppe Ottavio Pitoni, Tommaso Bai, Giovanni Giorgi, Giovanni Battista Casali and Sebastiano Bolis. Apart from Scarlatti, none of them names well known now but whose work is certainly worth exploring.

The disc opens with Exsurge Domine by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725), who became senior maestro at Santa Maria Maggiore in 1707 A date which probably reflects the group of unaccompanied masses and motets that Scarlatti wrote at this time. Exsurge Domine is a lively piece with a slower chromatic second park and displays the choir's bright forward tone and clean lines. Scarlatti's Ad Dominum cum tribularer appears later on the disc.

Prince Henry Benedict, Cardinal York
Prince Henry Benedict,
Cardinal York
The remaining composers on the disc are rather lesser known. Giovanni Battista Costanzi (1704 - 1778) seems to have worked his entire life in Rome, Costanzi was responsible for giving music lessons to Prince Henry Benedict Stuart and his brother, Prince Charles (the young pretender) sons of Prince James Frances Edward Stuart (the old pretender) and Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska as the exiled Jacobite court was based in Rome. In 1719, on their marriage Prince James and his wife had been invited to Rome where the Pope recognised him as King of England.

When Prince Henry was ordained, eventually becoming Cardinal York, he appointed Costanzi as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia in the Vatican.  Leech in his article in the CD booklet quotes Charles Burney's description of Vespers at St. Peter's in 1770, when Cardinal York officiated and Costanzi directed the music. Costanzi's setting of the Vespers psalm Dixit Dominus is for double choir and organ and is a substantial, attractive and exuberant work which owes rather less to the stile antico. Though Costanzi's Christus factues est (from the Holy Week liturgy) is very much in this style and may date from Costanzi's period directing the Capella Giulia.

Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska's monument in St Peter's in Rome
Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska's
monument in St Peter's in Rome
Prince Henry Benedict's mother, Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska died in 1735 at the Convent of Santa Cecilia in Trastavere. The music for her funeral was composed by Giuseppe Ottavio Pittoni (1657 - 1743). Leech and Harmonia Sacra perform three movements from the Requiem. Accompanied by organ, this is a work which also seems to blend stile antico moments with more modern idioms. There is an attractive Requiem Aeternam, a Dies Irae sung by two intertwining solo sopranos whose vocal lines are very much on the archaic side, and a rather interestingly dark Tuba Mirum. The disc also includes a selection of Pitoni's motets, Felix namque and Ex altri tuo, elegant expressive works where the influence of Palestrina can be felt.

The composer Sebastiano Bolis (1750 - 1804) is perhaps even less well known than Pitoni. In 1778 he took over one of Costanzi's appointments, thanks to patronage by Cardinal York. His Kyrie for double choir concludes the disc and is a substantial big-boned work and certainly deserves rather wider exposure.

Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra
Peter Leech and Harmonia Sacra
The remaining items on the disc are all interesting, but their composers have less historical links to the Jacobites and hence must be considered for their music alone. We have a wide selection, Cum jucunditate by Tommaso Bai (1650 - 1714) who worked in the Capella Giulia as a singer and as maestro di capella; O Sacrum Convivium and Improperium expectavit by Giovanni Giorgi (1700 - 1762) who succeeded Pitoni at San Giovanni in Laterano in 1719, and Improperium expectavit by Giovanni Battista Casali (1715 - 1792) also worked at San Giovanni in Laterano.

Here, I have to confess that the music on the disc seemed to be fascinating and interesting, but it is a disc that rather needs dipping into. I found that after a few tracks, the variants on stile antico though charming and imaginative rather felt a little too the same.

The performances are of a very high order. Leech and his choir are persuasive advocates and, whilst I would not listen to this disc every day, I welcome the window onto the world of 18th century Italian sacred music in Rome.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725) - Exsurge Domine [3.01]
Giovanni Battista Costanzi (1704 - 1778) - Christus factus est [2.51]
Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni (1657 - 1745) - Felix namque [2.28]
Tommaso Bai (1650 - 1714) - Cum jucunditate [2.45]
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725) - Ad Dominum cum tribularer [3.27]
Giovanni Giorgi (1700 - 1762) - O sacrum convivium [3.17]
Giovanni Battista Casali (1715 - 1792) - Improperium expectavit [2.28]
Giovanni Giorgi (1700 - 1762) - Improperium expectavit [4.07]
Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni (1657 - 1745) - Ex altari tuo [2.44]
Giovanni Battista Costanzi (1704 - 1778) - Dixit Dominus [9.36]
Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni (1657 - 1745) - Requiem (Excerpts) [7.13]
Sebastiano Bolis (1750 - 1804) - Kyrie [9.16]
Martin Knizia (organ)
Harmonia Sacra
Peter Leech (conductor)

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