A. SCARLATTI Vespro della Beata Vergine • Harry van der Kamp, cond; Roberto Fernández de Larrinoa (vn); Menno van Delft (org); Netherlands CCh • ATMA 2533 (59:47 Text and Translation)
This is a curious compendium, given that Alessandro Scarlatti, a prolific composer of sacred music, wrote only one complete set of vespers, the Vespero di Santa Cecilia in 1720. This disc contains seven works (a number of BiblicalRead more significance to be sure)—five Psalm settings, a hymn, and a canticle, dating from between 1703 and 1720. Two are taken from the set noted above, but the clear factor for combining these is that they are all scored for four- or five-voice chorus using a sort of cantus firmus tenor line that one ascribes to the stile antico. There is a discrete violin part as well as an organ continuo, but these works are clearly meant as workaday pieces for ordinary services. As such they come under the rubric of a Baroque Gebrauchsmusik, of which Scarlatti was a master. The premise that the setting and use of cantus firmus “makes them part of a closed group and presupposes a common origin in time,” as Jörg Jacobi states in his notes, may or may not be accurate, but there is a certain common aural thread that does make them similar. This is the use of varied textures, from full voice counterpoint (and final fugal sections) to episodes that pair off sections of the chorus as contrasts. Jacobi makes a good point at the end of his notes equating this with Scarlatti’s own allusion to chiaroscuro in art that he posited in 1716. There is little of the so-called modern style or stile moderno here; rather, Scarlatti adheres rather closely to the official church style developed by Palestrina that features simple development of counterpoint, frequent use of suspensions, and coloristic contrast. Three of these pieces are rather substantial in length. For example, the Psalm Dixit Dominus that begins the series consists of contrasting sections beginning with a polychoral statement that sounds like a cross between a madrigal and Gabrieli. The delicate scaffolding entrances of the hymn Ave Maris Stella, on the other hand, show a sensitive use of vocal registers, and the solemn homophony at the “Solve vincla reis” is truly penitential in its slow-moving harmony depicting the loosening of the chains of the sinners; they unwind deliberately in a sinuous line of four-part harmony. This shows that Scarlatti was a master of a style that had already become old-fashioned.
The Netherlands Chamber Choir is a well-known entity insofar as choral music goes. It has a reputation for a clear, precise sound, and this recording substantiates this completely. The sopranos soar, the tenors and basses support, and the entire group produces a sound that is delicate and ethereal when needed, powerful and thick in the homophonic sections. Harry van der Kamp keeps the tempos flexible, unfolding the music in a series of waves. The sound is resonant, no doubt because of the recording venue in St. Augustine Church in Amsterdam, which suites the mood of the works well. If you are a fan of choral music or sacred music of the Baroque, this will be one disc you will want for your collection.