Sacred Music in Lombardy 1770-80

Francesca Lombardi Mazzullli soprano, [Ensemble Autarena], Marcello Scandelli
66:58
Pan Classics PC 10364
Carlo Lenzi: 2 sonatas, 2 Lamentations
Mozart: 2 sonatas (KV 225, 245), Exsultate jubilate

The name of Carlo Lenzi is likely to be known to few, a number that does not include Grove Online. He was born near Bergamo in 1735, subsequently receiving a musical education in Naples. On its completion Lenzi returned to northern Italy, where in 1767 he was appointed maestro di cappella  at Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. It was a post he would retain until his death in 1805, despite going blind during the 1790s. Lenzi left a substantial extant body of sacred works, among which are 34 Lamentations settings for Holy Week.

The setting of passages from the penitential Book of Jeremiah was one of the most commonly adopted forms in Holy Week for composers during the Renaissance and Baroque, its dark severity ideally suited to the week’s final days. The two here by Lenzi, for Maundy Thursday, composed in 1780 and Good Friday (1778), follow the usual pattern of Hebrew incipits followed by verses from Jeremiah – here divided between aria and passages of quasi-accompanied recitative – with a coda on the recurrent text ‘Jerusalem, return to the Lord thy God’. Lenzi’s settings are thoroughly in accord with his Neapolitan training in the sacred style that dominated southern Europe during the second half of the 18th century, with passages of dramatic, operatic intensity juxtaposed with coloratura writing. Yet there is an individual, at times almost eccentric streak at play here, too, with writing that at times appears fragmentary or disjointed. In part I think this impression derives from Lenzi’s fondness for breaking up the vocal line with orchestral ritornellos. Yet elsewhere, as at the words ‘bonus est Dominus’ (The Lord is good) in the Good Friday setting, the music takes on an exquisite inner beauty. The (poorly translated) notes make big claims for Lenzi’s music. I’m not sure they are substantiated here, but the music is certainly interesting and it is equally certainly shown in the best light by the performances. I’ve recently much admired Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli in several operatic performances and here again she is outstanding. Although designated as a soprano, the voice has an appealing coppery quality of instrumental purity and a strong, well-produced middle range that suggests she may well end up as a mezzo. She also has a finished technique, with coloratura cleanly and precisely articulated and – glory be – a proper trill. Her diction, however, could be better.

Lombardi Mazzulli is very well supported by Ensemble Autarena, who on their own account intersperse the Lamentation settings with a pair of Sonata’s based on the Seven Last Words commissioned in 1771 by Cadiz Cathedral, the same establishment that would give Haydn a similar commission sixteen years later, The first starts in particularly impressive style, with a stormy, dramatic passage presumably depicting the earthquake, though later lapses into a more perfunctory allegro.

Also included are Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate, qualifying for inclusion on a CD devoted to music from Lombardy by dint of the fact that it was composed in Milan for the soprano castrato Venanzio Rauzini, and two of his so-called Epistle Sonatas (KV 245 and KV 225). They of course have nothing to do with Lombardy, having – like all their fellows – been composed for Salzburg Cathedral. Lombardi Mazzulli’s performance of the famous motet is most appealing for the reasons already cited above. In addition her diction here seems better, probably because she is more familiar with the work, and she strongly projects the central recitative. The two sonatas are perfectly legitimately played with one-per-part strings and greater dramatic emphasis than is usual. As noted above, the jury is still out on Lenzi, but the disc is well worthy of attention, particularly for Lombardi Mazzulli’s fine singing.

Brian Robins