Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Stabat Mater, for 10 voices (c. 1715) [23:20]
Antonio LOTTI (1666–1740)
Crucifixus, for 10 voices [2:35]
Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)
Quam amarum est, Maria (pub. 1655) [5:11]
Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736)
Crucifixus, for 16 voices [4:01]
Leonardo LEO (1694-1744)
Miserere a due cori (1739) [18:32]
Antonio LOTTI
Crucifixus, for 8 voices (c. 1717/19) [2:41]
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
rec. 26 September 2010, Abbaye d’Ambronay, France
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0709072 [56:20]

One of my favourite concert experiences this year was hearing Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Radio Choir at the Berlin Philharmonie in a spellbinding performance of Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus and Thomas Tallis’s forty-part Spem in alium. The two sacred motets for unaccompanied choir preceded Rattle’s Mahler 8 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, eight soloists, Berlin Radio Choir, MDR Radio Choir Leipzig and children’s choir. The thinking behind this unusual programme was described in the notes as “suggestive programme juxtapositions building time-bridges to the past from the future.” The explanation might have been quite a mouthful, if rather pretentious, but the concept worked magnificently. My point is that the audience response demonstrated to me that early sacred music is for everyone not just for the specialist listener. It will be worth looking out to see if Sir Simon releases a CD of his Berlin performances of Lotti and Tallis. It was good to hear again Lotti’s eight-part Crucifixus and also his ten-part setting of the Crucifixus.

Specialising in performing early music the vocal and instrumental ensemble Les Arts Florissants was founded in 1979 by conductor William Christie and is resident at the Théâtre de Caen in France. Under the direction of Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants recorded these unaccompanied sacred scores of the Italian baroque at a live concert in September 2010 as part of the Ambronay Festival at the 9th century Benedictine Abbey in the village of Ambronay in eastern France.

The first and longest work on this disc is the Stabat Mater for ten voices from Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti. Although Scarlatti spent many years working in the Portuguese and Spanish courts his best known score is probably the Stabat Mater a product of his Roman period. In this account Scarlatti’s somewhat serious mood feels highly contemplative rather than dramatic allowing a near constant purity of sound. For those wanting a more dramatic reading I cannot recommend highly enough the 1973 performance by the Schütz Choir of London under Roger Norrington on Decca 443 868-2. Norrington’s use of more extreme dynamics is both thrilling and reverent. Leonardo Leo was also Neapolitan by birth. His substantial Miserere a due cori dated 1739 looks back to Renaissance polyphony alternating Gregorian chant with organ accompaniment between the choruses. Often overshadowed by more illustrious contemporaries Leo’s compositions do not get the credit that his quality deserves.

I recall first encountering the sacred music of Venetian composer Antonio Lotti and finding it a revelation. Lotti’s setting of the Crucifixus is in my view a true masterwork. It seems that it was taken from the Credo in F of his Missa Sancti Christophori. Also present is Lotti’s very fine Crucifixus for ten voices. Born near Bergamo Giovanni Legrenzi was active in Venice from 1670 where he obtained several appointments. Legrenzi gained a high reputation as a teacher. Evidently his pupils included Caldara, Lotti and Vivaldi. Published in 1655 Legrenzi’s Quam amarum est, Maria is a delightful motet scored for two sopranos and basso continuo. It is sung here by Hannah Morrison and Maud Gnidzaz. In this setting the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene lament the death of Jesus. Yet another Venetian, Antonio Caldara is represented by his setting of the Crucifixus for sixteen voices. Its structure is bolstered by a sympathetic basso continuo.

If I could use only two words to sum up these live performances of sacred music titled Lamentazione the words would be ‘purity’ and ‘reverence’. Les Arts Florissants under Paul Agnew demonstrate a rare finesse in scrupulously prepared performances of smooth vocal sonorities and impeccable unity. In his endeavour to achieve pin-point precision director Paul Agnew has probably sacrificed a degree of character. Providing vividly clear sound the Benedictine Abbey at Ambronay proves to be a marvellous recording venue that Agnew described in the notes as a “sumptuous acoustic”. Throughout the recording I didn’t detect any audience noise. I wouldn’t have known this was a live recording if it hadn’t been stated in the notes.

Michael Cookson

Purity and reverence.