|Review by beardawgs March 30, 2005 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
|To my knowledge, this is the first complete recording of Alessandro Scarlatti’s ‘Cecilian Vespers’ and it is the most welcome addition to his (SACD) discography. This is live recording made in April 2004 in California, apart from the last item, “Audi, filia” recorded in the same venue few days later, without the audience.
Similar to much more famous, Handel’s Carmelite Vespers collection, parts of Scarlatti’s vespers are composed over a period of time in his later years for Rome (some 13 years after Handel), but the similarities don’t end there. Not just formally, but musically, especially “Dixit Dominus” that opens the collection, draws heavily on Handel’s reckless exuberance and joy, with constant exchange of musical ideas from soloists to the choir and vice versa. McGegan’s direction is equally energetic, always looking forward and full of vigour and élan. Verses and numbers are performed without breaks, and the whole Dixit passes through on a single breath.
Each big number (psalm setting) is separated with Antiphons, some in the ‘old style’ (Gregorian chant), or composed for high voices, serving as introductions for what is to follow. Gradually, we’re introduced to the St Cecilian (or Caecilian) story of her desire to remain a virgin in her marriage to Valerianus, her narrative sections being the Antiphons, and her prayers being the psalm settings. Intimate prayers are scored for solo soprano or alto, like “Laudate Pueri” and “Salve Regina” (exactly as in Handel’s case). Even if Scarlatti’s music lacks some of Handel’s dramatic and expressive variety, regular choral ‘interruptions’ of the solo vocal lines are most welcome addition towards textural diversity.
Excellent group of singers shines through. In complex vocal overlapping of “Dixit Dominus” and “Laetatus sum” they complement each other perfectly, while Dominique Labelle sets the right intimate tone with her weightless soprano of “Laudeate pueri” in between (all 3 items are on the disc 1, closing with a round of applause, so I reckon that was the first part of the concert).
Disc 2 opens with two short choral Psalms, introducing a couple of organs, Cecilia’s instrument. Short hymn “Jesu, corona” follows, very intimate and quiet, Scarlatti this time concentrating more on words and their meaning, than musical variety. Vespers are rounded up with relatively short “Magnificat” for full vocal and instrumental forces, appropriately lifting up the spirit of the congregation. Three bonus items follows, “Nisi Dominus” for soprano and alto, with Susanne Ryden and Ryland Angel (countertenor), perfectly floating their extended vocal lines around each other, while Dominique Labelle is back for solo motet “Salve Regina”. This is a set of four virtuoso soprano arias, with long sustained lines and some very theatrical and dynamic fast music. Final item, “Audi filia” brings us back to the joyful exuberance of celebrations, and giving the two sopranos and countertenor one final opportunity for showcasing their excellent vocal and dramatic abilities.
Even if Scarlatti might lack some of Handel’s invention and genius, this is a beautiful collection of composer’s late musical style, still rooted in Palestrina’s old cannons, but inevitably looking forward towards the late Italian baroque. Although written for the church service, this is a very theatrical music, with some brilliant dynamic and dramatic outbursts, while choir, orchestra and particularly soloists respond perfectly to every minute nuance of the score. McGegan has proven himself again as undisputed baroque specialist.
The recording is clear and focused, especially kind towards the singers. Colours are perfectly captured and dynamics are natural, not to big, this is a baroque orchestra after all. I have two reservations – first of all, I didn’t hear church acoustics, back channels are too shy and there’s almost nothing coming from behind. Left – right separation is excellent, every singer placed naturally and up front, with the orchestra and choir perfectly blended in. But I wouldn’t mind hearing more of the big church acoustic. The other problem might be a serious one – there is a constant low frequency hum every time the music goes quiet or silent, probably a due to space and microphone positioning. It hits you as soon as the disc starts, then you forget about it as the music grows louder, but it comes back at every break. It can be annoying, it didn’t bother me much, but it can be a problem for some.
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