Scarlatti The Cecilian Vespers (1721) Avie

Déjà Review: this review was first published in February 2005 and the recording is still available.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
The Cecilian Vespers (1721)
Nisi Dominus 
Salve Regina 
Audi Filia 
Susanne Rydén, Dominique Labelle (soprano), Ryland Angel (counter-tenor), Michael Slattery (tenor), Neal Davies (baritone, chanteur)
Philharmonia Chorale
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicolas McGegan
rec. live, 18 & 20 April 2004, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, USA
Complete texts and translations
Avie AV0048 SACD [2 discs: 131]

Nicolas McGegan is capable of astonishing feats of music-making. His Hungaroton recording of Telemann’s opera Der Geduldige Socrate (tragically out of print) is one of the finest recordings of anything ever done, certainly one of the outstanding opera recordings of the twentieth century.

Alessandro Scarlatti at his best achieves that ecstatic, thrilling energy in the high Baroque style that Bach achieved in parts of his b minor Mass; and this music, even in the very first number, Dixit Dominus, is among Scarlatti’s very best. The elaborate almost delirious contrapuntal choruses and their dialogue with the soloists is truly exhilarating. Scarlatti, like Bach and practically no-one else, could create a musical edifice by weaving two — or three — independent, seemingly unrelated, melodic lines together; indeed Scarlatti was more daring than Bach at times. When one of them is a voice and one an instrument, the effect is stunning, especially when they play in extremely close harmony at the extremes of their range.* This performance is everything one could ask for, the chorus is precise and full of life, the soloists sing tunefully, accurately and with commitment. The energy of the music is so high level I found I couldn’t listen to the whole concert at one sitting, but needed to rest a day in between halves. The brief antiphons are welcome, but do not work out so well as a would a full slow movement between high energy allegro movements, as in, say, the three movement Vivaldi concerto form. And, this music which reaches forward as well as back to mix high Baroque and Gregorian chant shows us that Scarlatti, at least as much as Bach, deserves to be acknowledged a transitional composer, makes Bach sound very “Classical,” even a bit stodgy, by comparison.

Recording is accurate giving full definition to soloists against each other and each against the chorus, in the SACD surround tracks both side to side and in depth, with all musicians in the front of the hall, the chorus behind the soloists.

This is a live recording, and contains a few moments where a soloist might have sounded a little better given a second chance in the studio with a good editor, but here it is as it was. Audience noise is all but non-existent except for applause before intermission and at the end.

We are now coming to a situation of incompatibility between two systems of surround sound. The familiar one we know from recordings of films, where there are three front channels — right, left, and centre — and two or three rear channels — right, left, and perhaps centre as well — has been joined by another system which is often now used for classical music recordings (e.g., DG and, apparently, Avie). This system is: centre front, and right side front and side, and left side front and side, where the side speakers are placed at or just slightly behind the listening position. This recording sounds to me as though it is mixed in the side speaker surround system. This system is more practical for small listening rooms, or rooms where the listening position is a sofa placed against a wall of the room, and was indeed recommended as long ago as the 1970s for listening to SQ quadraphonic disks. Surround sound recordings mixed for side placement of surround channel speakers do not sound as realistic when played back with rear placement of surround channel speakers. Packages should be marked as to which speaker placement is recommended, and perhaps there will be double issues of the same recordings in both systems. It isn’t reasonable for recording companies to expect people to move their surround speakers to different positions from recording to recording, or to switch between two separate systems, that is a total of eight speakers, two of which are disconnected all the time. Some modern and classic sound sources (e.g., my new Sony DVP NS 755V DVD player, and my classic Aphex Systems AVM 8000 processor from the 1970s) can be adjusted so as to create virtual extra speakers and allow the use of more than six channels all the time; presumably these systems accomplish the shift from one system to the other automatically. A practical compromise for persons such as myself who have a rear arrangement of surround channel speakers is to disable the rear centre channel, if any, and move the listening chair back against the wall so the rear speakers are indeed nearly beside us. Ideally this should also include readjustment of the speaker distance settings in the sound source equipment.

Another approach would be to listen to the 2.0 channel SACD tracks through a fake surround sound processor, and this might give you the best sound with your system; you will have a pleasant surround sound ambience, but with no depth definition in the ensemble sound.

This is a beautiful recording in every way, no matter how you listen, and since there is no actual musical information in the surround channels, only ambient information, it is worth a little fiddling with things to get it to sound its best with your equipment.

*Handel learned a lot from Scarlatti, and turned this trick only once that I know of, in his Ode for St. Cecilias’s Day.

Paul Shoemaker

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The following response was received from the recording’s producer/engineer, David Bowles:
I am familiar only with the standard “ITU Recommendation 775” 5.1 speaker placement. This specifies a centre speaker position of 0 degrees, front left and front right speaker position of -30/+30 degrees, and left and right surround speaker position at -110/+110 degrees. This was the layout used for mixing and mastering in surround. Both the mastering engineer and I felt that a higher level of surround channels did not contribute positively to the sound image (from the mix position). No LFE signal was included, as there was only one “16 foot” instrument in the ensemble (string bass), and the church acoustic was boomy as it was.

As stated in my production notes, the front three microphones in the surround array were placed equidistantly. However, instead of placing the surround microphones in an equidistantly to them (i.e., a pentagon array), I separated them by twice that distance (for more spatial separation). I used a semi-coincident pair of cardioid microphones in the church for the surround channels, this was angled at the requisite +110/-110 degrees.

I can only suggest that listeners add or subtract level on surround channels to their taste. Each recording presents its own challenges of repertoire and acoustic and ideally is approached on those terms alone. To my knowledge most DG and Avie projects are produced by different producer/engineer/mastering teams, all with different sets of ears. Therefore it is difficult at best to assert that all DG and Avie releases employ a “side” surround speaker position in preference to the ITU Recommendation 775 standard.