Classical Reissue Reviews

“The Italian Collection” = HANDEL, A. SCARLATTI, G. GABRIELI, CALDARA, CAVALLI, LASSUS, PALESTRINA, ANERIO, ALLEGRI, LOTTI and STEFFANI – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro (5 CDs box)

At half the normal price, this is really hard to resist.

Published on January 14, 2014

“The Italian Collection” = HANDEL, A. SCARLATTI, G. GABRIELI, CALDARA, CAVALLI, LASSUS, PALESTRINA, ANERIO, ALLEGRI, LOTTI and STEFFANI – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro (5 CDs box)

“The Italian Collection” = HANDEL, A. SCARLATTI, G. GABRIELI, CALDARA, CAVALLI, LASSUS, PALESTRINA, ANERIO, ALLEGRI, LOTTI and STEFFANI: Venetian Treasures; Music from the Sistine Chapel; Miserere; Iste Confessor – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – Coro 16099 (5 CDs), 5+ hours [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Coro has decided to offer some of its Sixteen discs in a one-package collection at about half the price, though the CDs are separate and in their original guise. We covered none of these, so I will mention them all.

The Handel album is a disappointment. I had great hopes because I love this group, and the Dixit Dominus, written at the tender age of 22, show the composer in the first thralls of what would be a great choral career. But this performance has some harsh upper singing, and sound that matches it in hardness and lack of warmth. There are much better recordings available. The Steffani was covered here in a recent review in another recording, and even though this is a fine reading it cannot complete with the likes of Bartoli and Diego Fasolis. That reading is simply on fire, the Italianate passion coming through in every bar, and while Christophers is hardly lacking when a certain requisite amount of heat is needed—and much more so than most of the English period specialists—I would not recommend this as a first choice.

On the Scarlatti disc the Sixteen are back in form, giving us readings that are competitive and as accomplished as any on disc. This Stabat Mater is excellent in all respects—one of the choicest items in the sacred repertory—and Christophers and company have its fullest measure. Especially gratifying is the short mass La Stella, an undated work that most likely hails from his early years in Italy, reflected in a mixture of styles. The Te Deum is a powerful and joyous piece of great inventiveness in its two four-part choirs and organ accompaniment.

Venetian Treasures takes us to the world of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and all of its stolen Byzantine adornments, starting with Orlando Lassus, the man who was the founding influence of this unique and startlingly effective sound world inspired by the acoustics of the great cathedral—actually a state chapel at the time this music was written. Venice, itself a vastly important city, kept suffering setbacks because of various incursions—the Ottoman invasion, the loss of Cyprus to the Turks, and then the plague. But it kept rebuilding, and its illustrious choral foundation was known all over Europe primarily because of the composers on this recording.

The elder Gabrieli was an exact contemporary of Lassus, and joined him in the Bavarian court musicians from where Lassus hailed at the time.  Cavalli was connected to Venice his entire life as a singer, organist, and maestro di cappella, while Caldara, who was only five years old when Cavalli died, spent his early years as a cellist and singer at St. Mark’s, and though his last 20 years or so were spent in the confines of Vienna, the Stabat mater given here is one of his best works, most likely derived from an earlier composition written while in Venice.

This disc is full of many riches and provides a good summary of the richness of music and continuity of style among these composers all conditioned to some extent by the environment of St. Mark’s, certainly an experience that left indelible marks on all of them.

As we turn northward to Rome we get treated to music from the grand collection of the Vatican library, much of it devised for performance in the Sistine Chapel. Of the four composers on this disc, Palestrina is obviously the most well-known, but it is the music of Felice Anerio and Gregorio Allegri that proves most interesting. Anerio, who was born in 1560, began his career as a choirboy at St. Mary Major in Rome, sang under Palestrina for four years and wrote a wide variety of music, sacred and secular. But when his master died, Anerio was appointed to the honorable position of Papal composer, and would prove himself the equal of any of his Italian peers. Particularly noteworthy here is his own Stabat mater, an exquisite piece that was originally published in the late 1800s under the name of Palestrina, which gives you an indication of its quality. The difficult 2/3-disguised meter and the haunting harmonies make this a worthy successor of the great prototypes that went before.

Allegri’s music is not as well known, though most any Renaissance fan knows his wonderfully seductive Miserere. But there is a lot more to him than just that one piece, worthy though it is, and the purity and mastery he shows in his motets and masses easily equal the very best of the polyphony that was being created at the time. The Sixteen know this music well, and this collected tour through the famous chapel makes this one of the best of their releases.

Finally, since I mentioned Allegri, where would we be if the Sixteen didn’t record the Miserere? This last album is actually titled such even though he is not the most important composer here—that honor would surely go to Palestrina—and unfortunately the performance, which is a good one, fails to convey the mystery and distinctive sense of pathos that is found in the recording by the Tallis Scholars.

Yet the Pope Marcellus Mass is quite nicely rendered, this famous work being supplied with a stream of silky choral sound that marks it as among the best offered. The Stabat mater Dolorosa, one of Palestrina’s last pieces, was written for Pope Gregory XIV, and is a model of complex harmony and expression using the simplest and most economical of means. And the opening Crucifixus of Antonio Lotti, easily his most famous work, brings an ear-opening awareness to the beginning of this program, heralding the beauties to come, all displayed in excellent recorded sound.

So for fans of the Sixteen this is well worth the outlay, even though there are a few bumps in the road. That’s all the problems you will ever get with this choral group.

TrackList:

“Handel” – HANDEL: Dixit Dominus; STEFANI: Stabat Mater
“Venetian” – ANDREA GABRIELI: De profundis; GIOVANNI GABRIELI: Hodie completi sunt; CALDARA: Crucifixus; Stabat Mater; MONTEVERDI: Domine ne in furore tuo; LASSUS: Missa Bell’ Amfitrit’ Altera; Tui sunt caeli
“Sistine” – FELICE ANERIO: Ave Regina caelorum; Regina caeli laetare; Stabat Mater; Magnificat secondi toni; PALESTRINA: Ascendit Deus; Ave Maria; Angelus Domini descendit; Assumpta est Maria; ALLEGRI: Christus resurgens ex mortuis; Missa “Che fa oggi il mio sole”; MARENZIO: Che fa oggi il mio sole
“Miserere” – LOTTI: Crucifixus; PALESTRINA: Stabat Mater Dolorosa; Missa Papae Marcelli; ALLEGRI: Miserere Mei
“Iste” – DOMENICO SCARLATTI: te Deum; Iste Confessor; Missa Breve “La stella”

—Steven Ritter




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