Album Review

Posted: Tuesday 11th May 1999
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Crucifixus – American Record Guide

This recording brings together classic works for Holy Week by Italian composers from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries. Some of the works, like the Palestrina Stabat Mater and Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, are very well known.

The program opens with the Palestrina and concludes with Domenico Scarlatti’s setting of the same text. I will confess that this is my first acquaintance with the Scarlatti Stabat Mater, an early work most likely written in Rome during his tenure as maestro di capella of the Basilica Giulia (1713-19). It is a more expansive setting than Palestrina’s, but then, who could ever top the deceptively simple eloquence of the concise masterpiece? Scarlatti’s setting is in ten parts with continuo. His expert counterpoint seems natural and spontaneous, at the service of the larger expressive purpose of the music. Every second work on the program is a motet on the text “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” from the Nicene Creed. The three settings by Antonio Lotti (c. 1667-1740), in six, eight and ten parts, seem to explore the different facets of the anguished and impassioned expression suggested by the text. An impressive 16-part setting by Antonio Caldara (c. 1670-1736) precedes the concluding Scarlattis Stabat Mater.

It seems that highly-accomplished English concert choirs are springing up faster than weeds. Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers are new to me, and the booklet gives no information about them other than photographs. The group photograph shows a mixed choir of 26 voices. I assume that they take their name form the 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari. That together with the content of this disc suggests that they specialise in Italian renaissance and baroque repertory. Like so many English choirs their sound is smooth and well-blended. The basic tone is very warm, further enhanced by the acoustics of St. James’s Church, Clerkenwell Green, London. Backhouse’s interpretations are anything but dispassionate. Even in as understated a work as the Palestrina Stabat Mater, he introduces dramatic, almost romantic dynamic inflections that give the performance a vivid shape and propulsion. The singers demonstrate that they have plenty of power for the most stunning climaxes, but their tone never becomes wild or operatic.

The Allegri Miserere seems to be performed from the corrupt but widely-accepted edition of Sir Ivor Atkins. The semi-chorus verses sound distant and somewhat compressed, apparently an attempt to give the impression of spatial separation.

Apart from some untidy solo singing in the “Inflammatus” of Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, these performances display and extraordinarily high level of technical polish. The music is magnificent and the program is effectively planned with the Allegri as the centerpiece, flanked by the shorter motets of Anerio and Gesualdo, the “Crucifixus” motets intervening and the Stabat Mater settings to open and close.

American Record Guide