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Masses of Miracles

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre
08/04/2008 -  
“Mostly Mozart Festival”:
Alessandro Melani: Litanie per la Beata Vergine Maria for nine voices and continuo
Alessandro Scarlatti: Messa per il Santissimo Natale
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi: Missa Romana (“di S. Emidio”)

Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini (Conductor)

Rinaldo Alessandrini (© Eric Larrayadieu)

When Igor Stravinsky overheard the statement that Verdi’s Requiem was too operatic to be religious, Stravinsky turned and answered, “What are you talking about? Verdi’s religion was opera.”

We will never know whether Giovanni Pergolesi would transform himself into the world’s greatest opera composer liturgical writer. He died at the age of 23, partly from overwork, partly from being hit in the head by an orange. But from the few buffa operas we know of him, and the Stabat Mater, which he finished writing on his deathbed, we know that he would have been astonishing.

And last night, when the incredible ancient-instrument/choral ensemble Concerto Italiano played his “Roman” Mass, the Rose Theatre heard what would have been known in Pergolesi’s Rome “una vero miracolo, a miracle of music-making.

This reviewer had heard Concerto Italiano only with vocal recordings of Gesualdo and Gabrielli. Lstening to them live, it was apparent that, like Lazarus, dead old music can rise from the grave and dancing with breath and breadth.

The Pergolesi Missa Romana had its Rome premiere in 1734. but obviously Pergolesi was Neapolitan through and through. Not that the Mass was operatically lyrical. But under the conducting of Rinaldo Alessandrini, it became the most enchanting operatic drama, a drama which had its comic side as well.

The miracolo of the work is that every movement had a different style. The opening Kyrie was triumphant (with a pair of hautbois shining out even more than the trumpet). The Gloria could have come from Messiah, with a joyous choir suddenly stunned into solemnity with the essential Hominbus bonae voluntatis—good will towards men.

This work for double choir (10 voices) and double orchestra, (17 players) and a duet between soprano (from one choir) with counter-tenor (across the stage) was simply heavenly. Another soprano in the Credo had a solo which should have been the cadenza of a violin concerto. I don’t know her name, but somehow she retained both the boyish purity and power of the castrati of the era. Other movements might have come from Bach’s Magnificat, but all of it was original, surprising (every movement ending pianissimo) and endearing.

Concerto Italiano was ideal. One hears ancient orchestras constantly, but they sound….well, ancient. Maestro Alessandrini gives the group the kinetic push, the fierce sense of words and drama to make the works new.

This Pergolesi, only 30 minutes long, one movement repeated Neapolitan style (and it could have gone on for an hour) took up the second half of the program. The other familiar name was Alessandro Scarlatti (yes, Dominico’s dad), with a Christmas Mass. That piece was for the nine-voice choir, along with two violins and continuo (double-bass, pedal organ and harpsichord,), but it seemed far more sumptuous.

In a way, the surtitles were distracting, and in this case, almost amusing. Yes, the words of the Mass were the usual pleading for saving and Lamb of God etc etc—but the music was jig-like jolly and as Christmassy as one could imagine. It was a lovely piece.

If Pergolesi and Scarlatti are familiar names, the opening composer, Alessandro Melani is a household word. Well….perhaps a household name in the households of the Tuscan town of Pistia, where the Melanis had been cathedral bell-ringers for many centuries.

But if the name and the music were unknown, his Litany to the Virgin had eight minutes of purity, sweetness and light. The few duets were in easy thirds, the nine voices sung the intricate choral music with transparent ease, and the work was produced with a comfortable satisfaction.

Let me confess that I was going to pass over tonight’s all-Vivaldi concert to hear Garrick Ohlsson playing Mozart at Avery Fisher Hall. That has been changed. The Concerto Italiano vocalists have exhibited their miracle last night. Tonight, I must listen to the soloists of the orchestra itself. The words of the Masses were inspiring to the religious, I suppose. But the music produced by Maestro Alessandrini had a spirituality which transcended mere religion

Harry Rolnick



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