ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI: Lamentazioni – Enrico Gatti cond. – Glossa (2 CDs)

by | Oct 23, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI: Lamentazioni per la Settimana Santa – Chrstiana Miatello, soprano / Gian Paolo Fagotto, tenor/ Ensemble Aurora/ Enrico Gatti – Glossa GCD 921205 (2 CDs), 57:17; 55:56 [Distr. by Naxos] ***½:
Violinist and leader Enrico Gatti offers a scholarly but very readable background to Scarlatti’s setting of the Lamentations, which were to be sung during Matins in Holy Week. I’ll provide only a summary here, but Gatti’s extensive notes are worth reading, just as this recording is worth hearing if you have any interest in vocal music of the Baroque. (By the way, I’m anything but an expert on Catholic ritual, so my apologies beforehand if my summary isn’t entirely accurate.) Matins, as the name implies, was originally a vigil service of the Catholic Church held in the early morning hours, but progressively the time was moved to the end of the previous day. This means that in later times, Matins for Good Friday, for instance, would have been celebrated in the late afternoon of the preceding Thursday. If you aren’t thoroughly confused, let’s go on.
Each Matins service was divided into three Nocturns, each of which was further subdivided into three psalms and three lessons. The lessons were derived from three different sources: the Old Testament, writings of the Church Fathers (especially St. Augustine), and New Testament Epistles (especially those of Paul). As befits Holy Week, an important source of the first set of lessons was the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which mourn the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and Babylonian Captivity. The Matins of Holy Week was accompanied by a ritual snuffing out of candles displayed on a triangular candleholder called the hearse (hericia), which is pictured on the cover of this recording. The extinguished candles may have represented the desertion of Christ by the Apostles. A single candle, hidden from view behind the altar, remained lit. At the end of the service, the lit candle was restored from behind the altar to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus. This action corresponds to a hopeful passage at the end of Lamentations, which promises that Jerusalem will be restored if its people return to God: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.”
Scarlatti wrote his Lamentations in 1706 on commission from an unknown patron. He supplied six Lamentations, two for each of Holy Thursday (to be sung, remember, on Wednesday evening), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. While Scarlatti was a highly influential opera composer, here he mostly eschewed an operatic approach, writing in a sparer vocal style, with equally lean instrumentation (two violins, viola, and continuo). But as Gatti points out, the style is nonetheless elaborately contrapuntal “with expressive chromaticism in relation to melancholic affects (wailing and mournful cries, etc.). . . .” Gatti also associates the syncopated rhythms in the work with an attempt to express “sobs of pain.” So instead of a public and declamatory operatic style, Scarlatti turns to the more intimate expressive gestures of the madrigalists.
The result is a restrained drama that often recalls the writing of Handel in his Italian cantatas. I’m sure Handel, who came to Rome that same year and worked for many of the same patrons that employed Scarlatti, took some cues from the older composer. In fact, if you enjoy Handel’s early cantatas, you should also enjoy the Lamentations. The lovely fourteenth number, Cogitavit Dominus, sounds a lot like passages in Handel’s Dixit Dominus of 1707.
Good examples of the expressive writing that Gatti mentions occur in the seventeenth and eighteenth numbers, Defecerunt prae lacrymis oculi (“My eyes are spent with weeping”) and Ieursalem convertere (“Jerusalem, return”), where a series of stuttering pauses and syncopations seems to mimic sobbing, if not outright wailing. I think Handel may have learned a thing or two from Scarlatti that served him in both his cantatas and operas.
Drama, yes, but the drama is low-key, restrained as befits the subject, and if you’re looking for Baroque fireworks, this is not the place to turn. However, Scarlatti’s solemn, austere writing has beauties of its own that will repay your patience and pay dividends on repeated hearings of the work.
This performance very much reflects Gatti’s informed view of the piece and its character. The playing and singing both have a quiet dignity, without any kind of emotive excess. While the playing is very fine, I’m not as happy with the work of Christina Miatello, who has a tendency to pipe and doesn’t every time ease into her sustained notes; sometimes it seems as if she’s tuning as she goes. In her favor, however, is the ability to catch just the right emotional accents in the music. So on points, her performance passes muster, especially given the sensitive accompaniments of Ensemble Aurora. Recommended, then, with slight reservations.
—Lee Passarella

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