I sometimes wish that record companies would
cease inventing new labels; now we must get used to a new mid-price
label from Virgin Classics, Premium, selling for around £8.50
in the UK. I must nevertheless welcome my first encounter with
the new label, since it restores what I believe is the only current
recording of Jommelli’s Lamentazioni, albeit with a grumble
or two, which I’ll deal with first, concerning the lack not only
of texts and translations – merely the opening words of each verse
– or any indication where they may be found, but also of any information
in theRead more notes as to what chapter of Lamentations is set for the
Wednesday in Holy Week.
The text comes, in fact, from Lamentations 1 1-14. For convenience of intending purchasers, I give it below, something which I find that I’m having to do far too often. It’s actually the lesson for Matins of Maundy Thursday – in monastic usage, intended to be sung at midnight, but the practice arose of singing the office on the preceding evening, with the candles extinguished one by one until a single candle was left on the high altar to signify the Light of the World. The practice, referred to as Tenebræ (Latin = darkness), had been popular in France and Italy and French composers of Jommelli’s generation continued to write music for it, but it had become less common in Italy by his time. In late Elizabethan England, too, several composers set the text of parts of Lamentations, though the lessons from that book, retained in the 1549 and 1552 Anglican Prayer Books, had been replaced in 1559. The most recent recording of an Elizabethan setting comes on a splendid CD, Hymns, Psalms and Lamentations – Sacred Music by Robert White (Signum SIGCD134) where Gallicantus, directed by Gabriel Crouch sing White’s 6-part setting of part of the same Latin text, Lamentations 1 8-13.
Jommelli sets the whole text, divided into three portions – Lamentazione prima, etc – because the first lesson at Matins is thus divided by versicles and responses suitable for the day. The three passages from Lamentations 1 from the first Nocturn of Matins. Each verse is preceded by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a reminder that the original Hebrew text forms an acrostic – a poem with each section beginning with the letters of the alphabet in order. These Hebrew letters form part of the setting, as also do the opening words Incipit Lamentatio Jeremiæ prophetæ – here begins the lamentation of the prophet Jeremiah. At the end of each section is added the words Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum – Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God. The three Nocturns are separated by the singing of appointed psalms from the weekly cycle – in this case Nos. 68-76 (69-77).
None of this is well explained in the booklet, which says merely that different portions of Lamentations were set in different countries and at different times, without saying which portion is included here, or explaining why Jommelli refers to this as music for Wednesday in Holy Week when it’s prescribed in the Roman Breviary for Maundy Thursday.
Jomelli, regarded by many of his contemporaries as the greatest opera composer of the century, sets the lamentations in a dramatic and religio-operatic style as a duet between two high voices. Gérard Lesne receives higher billing than Véronique Gens on the cover of the CD, but they both sing exquisitely well – too well, perhaps, for the music to be regarded in the light of a meditation on the Passion, but that’s the way that Jommelli writes it. Listen to tracks 27-30: at first you would hardly believe that what you hear is a setting of a lament that the heathen have entered the sanctuary of the temple (tr.27). The mood changes dramatically on track 28, in which the speaker concludes that his sufferings have made him vile. After a happily skipping setting of the letter Lamed (tr.29), the most famous words from this chapter receive an appropriately affective treatment: O vos omnes qui transitis per viam – O all you that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow (tr.30) – words repeated on Good Friday in the Improperia or Reproaches. As Peter Wells wrote in his review of Jommelli’s 1749 setting of the Passion, one would hardly know that one was not listening to opera (K617 K617062, 2 CDs.
Sadly, it appears that the K617 recording is no longer available
and there are not too many available recordings of Jommelli’s
non-operatic music, but his Miserere (overlook the fact
that it’s called Misere throughout the track listings)
and five other sacred works can be found as an incredibly inexpensive
Nuova Era download from hmvdigital.com UK, for a mere £1.79. The
sound is advertised as 192kb/s, but, in fact, there’s only one
track at that minimum acceptable level – the rest are at 225,
256 or even the maximum 320kb/s. (Sylva Posser, Giovanna Manci;
La Magnifica Communità/Maurizio Ciampi, 59:12.
Jommelli’s Lamentations are a world removed from renaissance polyphony or even the French settings of the previous generation, such as those of Charpentier, also (very well) recorded by Gérard Lesne and Il Seminario Musicale on Virgin (Leçons de Ténèbres, budget-price Virgin 2-CD Veritas 5220212. I referred to Lesne as a vocal treasure on that recording, but he is no less so in Jommelli’s operatic-style setting and he is very well abetted by Véronique Gens and all concerned. Lesne was also the director of the Charpentier recording, a role into which Christophe Rousset, fits equally well here, which is not surprising when he and Véronique Gens had already done well in 1994 by Jommelli’s Armida Abbandonata (Ambroisie AMB9983).
It’s all very affective, in the same way that Jommelli’s music for Armida Abbandonata is. (For the opening Sinfonia of Jomelli’s Armida Abbandonata and two arias, Ah! ti sento, mio povero core and Odio, furor, dispetto, alongside music by Glück, Handel and Haydn, try the Sony CD Armida, Annette Dasch and the Bavarian Kammerphilharmonie conducted by David Syrus, 88697100592.)
With very good recording, these excellent performances of this affective music can be confidently recommended – apart from that crucial absence of texts and translations, which I have sought to remedy for potential purchasers. At its new mid-price it’s well worth considering.