Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Recorded live on 17 & 18 April 2004 in First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California; remaining items recorded without an audience on 20 April
CD No: AVIE AV 0048 (2 CDs/SACDs) Duration: 2 hours 11 minutes Reviewed: January 2005
The Cecilian Vespers
Reviewed by William Yeoman
Alessandro Scarlattis glorious colours have never shone so brightly through the sepia tints of time than in this new live recording of his The Cecilian Vespers, a work believed to have been commissioned (in its final form) in 1721 by the powerful Cardinal Francesco Acquaviva dAragona to honour the patron saint of the Church of St Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome. The psalm settings, together with their attendant contextualising antiphons (chanted or concerted), burst to overflowing with novel ideas as Scarlatti pits the stile antico of Palestrina against the stile moderno of Vivaldi, of the church against the opera house and the private salon ideas which McGegan and his forces realise to perfection over its 90-minute span.
With its majestic choruses (passim), ensemble set-pieces (like the astonishing setting of the sixth verse of the Dixit Dominus), coruscating coloratura passages (the florid, dance-like Amens), independent string writing and instrumental obbligatos (listen to the beautiful writing for oboe in two of the concerted antiphons), Il Vespero di Santa Cecilia provides ample room for all the performers to flex their interpretative muscles, both corporate and individual. Sopranos Susanne Rydén and Dominique Labelle project the texts with warmth (a quality often lacking in many authentic performances) and expressiveness; young tenor Michael Slattery and countertenor Ryland Angel skip through their parts leggiero ma con dignificato; Neal Daviess baritone is rich and redolent of humilitas.
The choral interjections strike like sheet lightning, such is the choruss rhythmic precision, counterbalancing the fluidity of its subdued chanting and the nobility of its illuminated initials (like the opening of the Magnificat), while the purl of the orchestra beneath everything, flowing unostentatiously around an attractive continuo section, lets Scarlattis masterful instrumental writing speak largely for itself.
Nicholas McGegan presides over these riches with a masters touch, binding the components into a forceful and cohesive whole while allowing room for a certain deliberate looseness. The recording is first-class (I can only imagine what it sounds like in SACD!). The second disc is generously filled out by audience-less recordings of a second and very substantial Nisi Dominus, a Salve Regina and an Audi, filia, a Gradual for St. Cecilias Day. The whole package is beautifully presented and includes notes, photos, and complete texts and translations.