Friday 28 June 2024

Something of a minor revelation: choral music by Giovanni Bononcini who was brought to England as Handel's operatic rival

How are the mighty fallen: Choral music by Giovanni Bononcini; Rowan Pierce, Esther Lay, Helen Charlston, Guy Cutting, Giles Underwood, Choir of Queen's College, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music, Owen Rees; Signum Classics

How are the mighty fallen: Choral music by Giovanni Bononcini; Rowan Pierce, Esther Lay, Helen Charlston, Guy Cutting, Giles Underwood, Choir of Queen's College, Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
25 June 2024

Known as a rival to Handel, Bononcini wrote far more than Italian opera and this disc of his choral music written in England is something of a minor revelation

Giovanni Bononcini is best known in the UK today as Handel's rival who finally retired the scene after plagiarism scandal, leaving the way open for Handel. Bononcini arrived in London in 1720 to join Handel in the Royal Academy of Music as part of a group of composers responsible for creating opera. Bononcini was around from 1720 until 1732 when, indeed, there was a plagiarism scandal. But he was already well known in the city.

His opera Camilla (based on his 1696 opera Il trionfio di Camilla) with a new English text was so popular that it had 111 or 112 performances from 1706 to 1728, making it the most popular and successful work of its period, after The Beggar's Opera.  Some of these were with adapted music but others were with Bononcini's original score. And when he finally arrived in London, his operas, including Griselda from 1722, often rivalled Handel's for popularity. Bononcini had a knack for creating graceful, elegant and appealing melodies. In the later 1720s his operatic output decreased following his appointment as director of the private concerts of the Duchess of Marlborough.

But this new disc from the Choir of The Queen's College, Oxford, the Academy of Ancient Music, conductor Owen Rees, with soloists Rowan Pierce, Esther Lay, Helen Charlston, Guy Cutting and Giles Underwood on Signum Classics invites us to explore a different side to Bononcini. Owen Rees presents a programme of the composer's sacred music, Ave maris stella, Te Deum, Laudate pueri and When Saul was King.

This is because besides writing operas, Bononcini took part in the rest of London's burgeoning musical life. He was active in the original Academy of Ancient Music, and he may have written his grand setting of the Te Deum for it. This is the first recording of the original, London version of the work; Bononcini revised it and later presented it in Vienna. His setting of Laudate Pueri may also be linked to the Academy of Ancient Music, and of course these would be as concert works as both pieces set the Latin text. But two years after his arrival in London, Bononcini was commissioned to write an anthem for the funeral of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. The resulting piece, When Saul was King was performed at Westminster Abbey by more than 70 singers and players. 

We begin with a shorter piece, Ave Maris stella, which still shows Bononcini's skill at combining melodic charm with constructional interest. Bound by a walking bass, he treats us to a nice variety of vocal scorings as the verses unfold, ending with some wonderful choral counterpoint.

When it comes to the Te Deum, it is interesting to compare the work to Handel's large scale essays in the genre. Handel seems to have taken on board the English model of Purcell, with a largely choral texture integrating short solo moments. Bononcini, however, gives us thirteen movements which include solo arias for soprano and alto, plus duet and trio arias as well as choruses. In terms of works that are familiar, Bononcini is a lot closer to, say, Bach's Magnificat in this work. He has a knack of combining quite old-fashioned construction, including walking basses and choral counterpoint, with a lovely melodic felicity. Yes there are grand moments, but wonderfully melodic ones too. He does not create a large-scale, impressive structure from smaller moments, in the manner of Handel, instead it is simply a varied and engaging journey through the text.

With Laudate Pueri we are in the same sound world, though the choral writing in the opening movement with its rich use of resources - scoring of two high and two low vocal lines (not uncommon in seventeenth-century Italian sacred music) and no fewer than four violin parts in the instrumental ensemble - makes it especially memorable. And again, there is an engaging gracefulness to Bononcini's melodic writing.

When Saul was King is gloriously austere, with a striking accompanied recitative and aria for alto (Helen Charlston) at its centre which makes for a pared down yet richly satisfying work. Here, you feel that Bononcini is responding both to the situation and to the way English music might have approached the text.

The performances are uniformly winning, making us take the music seriously and never seeming to indulge in any special pleading. The result is a minor revelation, a composer whose music deserves to be better known and whose large-scale choral works could easily sit alongside those of Handel. In the music on this disc, Bononcini displays the knack of managing to have one foot in the past whilst all the while writing music that is appealingly approachable.

Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) - Ave Maris Stella
Giovanni Bononcini - Te Deum
Giovanni Bononcini - Laudate pueri
Giovanni Bononcini - How are the mighty fallen
Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Esther Lay (mezzo-soprano)
Helen Charlston (alto)
Guy Cutting (tenor)
Giles Underwood (bass)
Choir of Queen's College, Oxford
Academy of Ancient Music
Owen Rees (conductor)
Recorded 23-25 June 2023, Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford

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