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GRAMOPHONE ( 04/ 2019)
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Château de Versailles

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Reviewer: Richard Lawrence

To celebrate the Treaty of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, and to mark the consequent wedding of the young Louis XIV to the Infanta Maria Theresia, Cardinal Mazarin commissioned an opera from Cavalli. Ercole amante was eventually performed in Paris in 1662, by which time the cardinal was dead and the queen was pregnant. (It is to be revived at the Opéra Comique next November by Pygmalion under Raphaël Pichon.) But earlier, on January 25, 1660, the French ambassador in Venice had arranged for a Te Deum and a Mass to be sung at the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; and it is presumed that it was this setting by Cavalli that was performed. Better known as the Messa concertata, it had been published in the collection Musiche sacre in 1656.

The Mass is laid out on an expansive scale, scored for double choir and soloists, two violins and violoncino, and other instruments ad lib. On this recording it is punctuated by two motets, for two and three voices respectively, and some anonymous – improvised? – doodling on the organ. I don’t know why it should include Lauda Jerusalem, one of the psalms for Vespers, but it makes for a suitably joyful conclusion.

There is much antiphonal writing, as you would expect, and much in the way of sonorous but empty grandeur. Passages like the surprising chromatic cadence at ‘miserere nobis’ in the Gloria are all too rare. Here and there are reminders that Cavalli was above all a composer of opera. And there’s the rub. The report from the French ambassador to Mazarin (quoted in the poorly translated booklet note) refers to the choir’s inclusion of famous musicians who had come to sing in the operas during the Carnival. Some operatic extravagance would be welcome here, the male alto soloists being particularly reticent. Moreover, with a choir of only eight voices balancing the eight soloists, the element of contrast is pretty well absent. The cornetts and trombones sound splendid, though, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Of those parts, the motet O bone Jesu for unnamed soprano and alto is particularly well worth hearing.

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