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GRAMOPHONE ( 08 / 2018)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

This is a project that has been 20 years in the making. In 1996 Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel released a recording on Naxos of polychoral works by Orazio Benevolo – a French composer based in Rome during the 17th century, whose monumental, often festal works delight in the spatialised sonic drama of the stile moderno with its scattered choirs and instrumental ensembles. Now Niquet returns to a composer whose music is so much more than a novelty, making a powerful case for works whose sheer scope is both their appeal and a significant barrier to their rediscovery.

This new recording places the composer’s mighty Missa Si Deus pro nobis (never before recorded) at its heart, framing it liturgically with a processional plainchant hymn, Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino by way of Introit and Benevolo’s own 16-voice Magnificat as a Communion motet. The effect, enhanced by the vivid immediacy and careful balance of a recording made at Paris’s Notre-Dame du Liban, makes congregants of its listeners, surrounded on all sides by the eight choirs of Le Concert Spirituel (whose forces include both singers and instruments and range from five to 10 performers). What’s startling here is the range and intricacy of the polyphonic effects woven through Benevolo’s Mass. Monumentality is never reduced to one-note grandiosity, and textures vary from the tender sensuality of the suspension sequences of the Christe that roll, wave-like, from choir to choir, to punchier, more declamatory homophony in the Credo and rhythmically charged contrapuntal dances in the second Kyrie. If there is a casualty among so much splendour it’s harmonic interest; this is music whose paths might be limited but whose textural landscapes along the route more than make up for that.

Shawms and dulcians and even a racket add their wonderfully characterful rasp and husk to the purer voices of Niquet’s singers, creating a multi-dimensional sonic tapestry of gritty beauty. The Magnificat, with its lean verse sections, varies the pace pleasantly, and the Monteverdi has all the rhythmic definition and urgency you’d want, as well as an unusual grandeur and scope from its vast forces.

As compelling sonically as it is historically, this is a recording whose interest extends well beyond the specialist – a glorious re-creation not just of a lost composer but of an era.

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