Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet
Alpha Classics Alpha 400
This is a welcome first recording of this Benevoli Mass, one of the glories of the Roman colossal baroque. Written for four four-voiced choirs, Niquet doubles up each choir with another one, in a manner typical of Roman performance practice in the 17th century. Taking advantage of balconies in the recording venue, the groups are split up at a considerable distance and each has its own conductor to relay Niquet’s beat (there is a video of part of the recording on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6mHJNKOSXs). This again reproduces Roman practice. Less typical of that practice, however, is the strong presence of wind instruments. By the 1660s when this Mass was probably written, cornetts and sackbuts were very rare in Rome; singers predominated, supported by violoni or bass violins and organs, with a few violins. Niquet here uses a choir of cornett and sackbuts as well as one of dulzians, so that the sound world is both wind-heavy and old-fashioned, too early 17th-century Venetian perhaps, to be true to Benevoli. The recording engineers have done sterling work and the effect of being placed as a listener at the centre of all of these groups is very effective, but the winds overpower the singers at times and, particularly, muddy the texts. That said, the orchestration is successful and there are quieter moments and good contrast between textures, though some singing with organ only would have been welcome in the Mass – in the Christe, for example. The long full tutti sections at the end of each movement are enormously powerful and performed with a strong sense of momentum and inevitability. The other works on the CD provide lots of contrast, from the motet Regna Terrae for twelve sopranos, to some excellent instrument-only playing in Palestrina’s Beata es, virgo Maria and in a Frescobaldi canzona. Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino, sung as an Introit, is anomalous and serves only to emphasise the Venetian quality of the sound throughout. Even more anomalous is the plainchant, performed quickly and rhythmically in a medieval manner with drones, rather than the slow festive unornamented way we know was sung in the 17th century. Benevoli’s sixteen-voice Magnificat is included as a communion motet, which is strange, but is a welcome addition nonetheless. Something of an odd mix then, from the purist’s point of view, but an exciting result which certainly gives us a vivid appreciation of Benevoli’s individual voice. The group uses transcriptions made by the late Jean Lionnet, a crucial figure both in researching Roman baroque music and in encouraging its performance by French groups. It is hard to believe that it is twenty years since his untimely passing.
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