Thursday 13 December 2018

Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale

Alessandro Scarlatti
Alessandro Scarlatti
A. Scarlatti, Gallus, G. Gabrieli, J.S. Bach; Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond, Helen Charlston, Nick Pritchard, Marcus Farnsworth, English Concert, Laurence Cummings; St John's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Scarlatti's Christmas mass makes a delightful opening to this Christmas concert with a different

Laurence Cummings and the English Concert gave us a Christmas programme with something of a difference on Wednesday 12 December 2018 at St John's Smith Square. With soloists Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond, Helen Charlston, Nick Pritchard and Marcus Farnsworth, along with the choir of the English Concert, they performed Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale, Jacobus Gallus' Omnes de Saba, Giovanni Gabrieli's O Magnum Mysterium and Johann Bach's cantatas Selig is der Mann BWV57 and Ich freue mich in dir BWV133.

The first half consisted of Scarlatti's mass interleaved with the two motets. The mass proved a delightful discovery, though quite what the Christmas connection was I am not sure, except perhaps a certain exuberant joyfulness in the writing. Scarlatti used nine vocal parts divided into two groups, a five-part solo group (Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond, Helen Charlston, Nick Pritchard and Marcus Farnsworth) and a four-part choir, with the solo group sometimes used as a semi-chorus and sometimes with individual solos. Scarlatti seemed particularly fond of using the two sopranos together in delightful short duets.

The 'Kyrie' was a surprise, it was delightfully joyous with richly engaging textures and some nice contrasts between the two vocal groups, and whilst some of the writing was quite 'stile antico' there were plenty of twiddly bits for the soloists. And then in complete contrast the 'Gloria' was rather gentle. Though there were lively moments, it was the more thoughtful passages which stayed in the mind.

We moved straight onto Jacobus Gallus' motet Omnes de Saba, with some lovely rhythmic detail in the various moving parts. Here the choir was accompanied just by continuo. The 'Credo' of Scarlatti's mass followed, a perkily ebullient movement which fairly rattled through the text often with the two vocal groups in dialogue. Only the central 'Et incarnatus' section slowed things down, with the important lines mainly assigned to soloists. The 'Sanctus' was surprisingly lively, this seems to be a mass where Scarlatti delighted in confounding expectation, and the plainchant 'Benedictus' was followed by a perky 'Hosanna'.

Giovanni Gabrieli's motet O Magnum Mysterium used just continuo, and made its mark with some lovely mystery in the harmonies, before concluding with rather a jazzy 'Alleluia'.

For the 'Agnus Dei' for the mass, Scarlatti again had soloists and choir in dialogue, with the five solo voices weaving in and out, answered by simpler choral responses. Scarlatti did not write much sacred music, but what I have heard I have enjoyed and I certainly wondered why this delightful mass is not better known.

For the second half we moved from Italy to Leipzig, for two contrasting Christmas cantatas by J.S. Bach, carefully chosen so that each of the soloists got their moment. In Selig is der Mann BWV57 we had a surprisingly sober and very un-Christmassy dialogue between Christ (Marcus Farnsworth) and the Soul (Rebecca Outram). Farnsworth had a pair of arias, the first sombre with a lovely wandering feel to the vocal line (which Farnsworth sang with admirable evenness) accompanied by the rich textures of three oboes. Farnsworth's second aria was vivid and vigorous, and taken at quite a lick yet Farnsworth gave us some lovely fast passagework. As the Soul, Rebecca Outram had a pair of arias, yet it was in the recitatives which the nub of the cantata was carried, here was the real message. Outram sang neatly and stylishly, but her lower register rather failed to carry.

Ich freue mich in dir BWV133 was an altogether more lively affair, with just two oboes this time but in fact oboes d'amore which added richness to the tone. Helen Charlston's striking aria was accompanied by a trio of the two oboes d'amore and bassoon, giving a lovely contrasting support to Charlston's admirably serious and focused performance ('Have faith, God's mysterious being is now incarnate'). Tenor Nick Pritchard did not get an aria, just an accompanied recitative yet it was delivered vibrantly and the recitative had an important message about God made incarnate. Cecilia Outtram sang her aria with neat, bright tone, essentially making vocal interjections into a striking string texture. Marcus Farnsworth's recitative led to the finale chorale.

But we left the hall on a very upbeat note as the ensemble performed Jacobus Gallus' Omnes de Saba again, this time with instrumental accompaniment, and delightful it was too, before they all wished us 'Merry Christmas'.


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  2. The bassoon solo by Sally Holman was an extraordinarily virtuosic performance. I thought Rebecca Outram did not really get it together. The chat where Laurence Cummings turned around reveals him as having a wonderful tenor vpice


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