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Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
Vespero delle Domeniche
Dixit Dominus 5. toni sine intonatione [5:36]
Confitebor tibi Domine 6. toni [5:16]
Beatus vir 5. toni [6:28]
Laudate pueri Dominum 4. toni [3:31]
In exitu Israel de Aegypto proprii toni [7:10]
Laudate Dominum omnes genres 3. toni [2:03]
Credidi propter quod locutus sum 2. toni [3:44]
In convertendo Dominus captivitatem Sion 8. toni [2:25]
Domine, probasti me et cognovisti me 5. toni [7:30]
Beati omnes qui timent Dominum 6. toni [3:02]
De profundis clamavi ad te Domine 7. toni [4:46]
Memento Domine David 1. toni [6:06]
Confitebor angelorum 8. toni [4:14]
Magnificat 5. toni sine intonatione [7:13]
Coro Claudio Monteverdi, Gruppo Strumentale La Pifarescha/Bruno Gini; Alberto Dossena (organ)
rec. 2-4 May 2014, Chiesa di S. Bernardino (Cr), Italy. DDD
Texts included, no translations
DYNAMIC CDS7714 [69:11]

Francesco Cavalli is one of the great names in the history of Italian, and particularly Venetian, music. He was the city's main composer after the death of Monteverdi in 1643. Today he is mostly associated with opera. In that department he is still in the shadow of Monteverdi but there is an increasing interest in his music for the stage. Cavalli's operas represent a significant phase in the history of opera as it moved from an almost strictly monodic style to a form in which there was more room for lyricism.

In comparison his sacred music is not given that much attention. The number of recordings devoted to this part of Cavalli's oeuvre is fairly limited. That is partly due to the fact that it is not very sizeable. This can be explained by the fact that he was reluctant to commit his music to print as he confessed in the preface to Musiche Sacre of 1656, the first collection which was entirely devoted to his own compositions. Before that some of his pieces had been included in anthologies.

Cavalli may have become best known for his operas; his musical education did not point in the direction of opera. He received his first music lessons from his father, the organist Giovanni Battista Caletti, and sang as a treble in the choir of the cathedral of the city of Crema where he was born in 1602. He attracted the attention of the Venetian ambassador Frederico Cavalli who persuaded Caletti to let him take the boy to Venice. Cavalli would act as his protector which inspired Francesco to adopt his surname. In 1616 Cavalli entered the chapel of St Mark's which was then under the direction of Monteverdi. In 1620 he was appointed organist of the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; he was dismissed in 1630 as he was too often absent from his duties. An advantageous marriage gave him some independence which allowed him to travel. The 1630s also saw his first activities in the field of opera.

In 1639 he succeeded Giovanni Pietro Berti as second organist of St Mark's; in 1644 Massimiliano Neri was appointed first organist but in fact it was Cavalli who acted as such and received a higher salary than Neri. His skills as organist were highly praised and a contemporary compared him to Frescobaldi. Neri departed in 1665 and Cavalli was appointed his successor. In 1668 Giovanni Rovetta who had succeeded Monteverdi as maestro di cappella of St Mark's, died and his position was given to Cavalli who held this post until his death eight years later.

It is interesting to compare Cavalli's earliest sacred compositions to the music which is the subject of the present disc. In New Grove it is observed that "Cavalli's earliest surviving piece, the solo motet Cantate Domino, is almost indistinguishable in style from Monteverdi", but "most of his later works deliberately avoid extremes of gesture, even though a sensitivity to the imagery of the text remains the rule." That said, the music in his Musiche Sacre reflects the monodic style of the time, with features of the seconda prattica. The second collection of 1675 is very different. It comprises three sets of Vesper music: Vespero della Beata Vergine, Vespere delle Domeniche, e altre Salme and Vespero delle Cinque Laudate. All these pieces are for eight voices in two choirs and basso continuo. Although there are passages for reduced voices - here sung by a group of favoriti - stylistically these works are very different from the pieces in Musiche Sacre. In fact Cavalli here returns to the stile antico of the late 16th century and links up with the cori spezzati tradition established by Willaert and the Gabrielis.

This could be the reason that this Vesper music doesn't attract the attention of performers. It is telling that Jane Glover, in her Cavalli biography (London, 1978), spends less than two pages to this collection. Her assessment isn't very positive: "The psalms are competent, and slightly automatic. (...) The three Magnificats, one from each set of Vespers, continue to show these occasional signs of fatigue and automatic composition". It seems to me that these assessments are based on a one-sided picture of the time this music was written. The stile antico continued to play a major role in sacred music during the 17th century. One of the most famous examples of a piece written in that style is Gregorio Allegri's Miserere. It is true that there is little text expression in these Psalms and in the Magnificat. However, Cavalli doesn't fail, for instance, to illustrate the phrase "et exaltavit humiles" in the Magnificat by scoring it for low voices. In Beatus vir the last three lines before the closing doxology are written in a declamatory manner - a clear specimen of the monodic style. That said, there is not much text expression in the sacred music of the Gabrielis either, and nobody will assess their compositions with such scepticism.

The fact that this music is rooted in the past is underlined here by the use of two groups of one cornett and three sackbuts each which play colla voce. They are not used indiscriminately: in De profundis clamavi, for instance, the whole Psalm is performed with voices and basso continuo alone; it is in the last verse - "And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities" - that the choir is joined by the wind. There are other Psalms as well where the wind instruments are used with the specific aim of emphasizing a part of the text.

As I have already indicated Cavalli's sacred music received little attention. Bruno Gini has delivered substantial contributions to a better knowledge of that part of his oeuvre. In 2008 he recorded five Magnificat settings (review) and one year before that he recorded one of the other sets of Vesper music, the Vespero delle Cinque Laudate. The present disc is another notable addition to the catalogue. Choir and favoriti sing very well; it is just a shame that in the tutti episodes the text is very hard to understand which is only partly due to the acoustic. This aspect should have been given more attention; the delivery in the passages sung by the favoriti is considerably better. The playing of the cornetts and sackbuts is excellent; in some cases I felt that they were a bit too dominant and tended to overpower the voices.

This is probably not the ideal recording but very respectable and the best which is available right now. Those who are interested in Cavalli's sacred music will enjoy this disc. They should also investigate Concerto Palatino's recording of the Vespero della Beata Vergine, originally released on Harmonia Mundi and later reissued on Glossa.

Johan van Veen



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