Handel dixit PAS1130

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus (HWV 232)
Giovanni Battista Ferrandini (c1710-1791)
Il Pianto di Maria
Deborah Cachet, Rachel Redmond (soprano), Sophie Rennert (mezzo-soprano)
Vlaams Radiokoor
Il Gardellino Baroque Orchestra/Bart Van Reyn
rec. 2022, AMUZ, Antwerp, Belgium
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Proper Music
Passacaille PAS1130 [56]

The combination of the two works on this disc is a bit odd. Thematically, there is no connection between them except that Il pianto della Maria was once attributed to Handel. In the 1990s, it was discovered that it was not authentically from his pen, and the most likely composer was Giovanni Battista Ferrandini.

Handel’s Italian sojourn is well documented and his compositions from this period are frequently performed. That certainly goes for his setting of Dixit Dominus, one of the most dramatic sacred works from his oeuvre. However, in many cases we don’t know exactly why he wrote them and at which occasions they were first performed. That has resulted in much speculation. The persistent suggestion that Dixit Dominus was written for a performance of the Vespers as part of the celebrations of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel by the Carmelite order in Rome is repeated by Aurélie Walschaert in her liner-notes. However, there is no firm evidence of that.

Handel connects the past with the present: it is scored for five voices (two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass) and five-part strings, with split violas – a practice common in the 17th century. Most of the verses are for the tutti but include solo episodes which in most performances are sung by members of the choir, as is also the case here. On the other hand, the dramatic setting of some of the verses – especially those about the Lord’s wrath – and the operatic traces in the solo sections point in the direction of the increasingly theatrical treatment of sacred texts in the course of the 18th century. There are only three solo sections: ‘Virgam virtutis tuae’ is for alto, ‘Tecum principium’ for soprano and the lyrical ‘De torrente’ is a duet for two sopranos.

The solo parts are sung rather well by Deborah Cachet, Rachel Redmond and Sophie Rennert, and that goes for the most dramatic section – “Dominus a dextris tuis” – as well as for the lyrical penultimate section: “De torrente in via bibet”. The most dramatic choral section is the one in between: “Judicabit in nationibus”. Choir and orchestra shine in the staccato episode on “conquassabit”. There is no lack of recordings of this work, as it is one of Handel’s most popular sacred compositions. This recording by the Flemish Radio Choir and Il Gardellino Baroque Orchestra has to be reckoned among the best available.

Ferrandini was from Venice, but at an early age he went to Bavaria where he acted as an oboist. He remained in southern Germany until 1755 when he was allowed to move to Padua for health reasons. In 1771 Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited him there; they held him in high esteem.

As the veneration of Mary, the mother of Christ (the ‘Holy Virgin’), increased, her lament for the death of her Son on the cross was given more and more attention. The Stabat mater is just one specimen of a number of texts about her grief. Il Pianto di Maria is special, in that here the feelings of Mary are central; for the most part she is the protagonist.

Ferrandini was held in high regard in particular for his operas. The cantata recorded here, subtitled ‘a sacred cantata to be sung before the Holy Sepulchre’, is reflecting this, as it is a very dramatic piece in which not only the voice, but also the strings express the text in a sometimes very drastic way. The cantata begins with a recitative in which a narrator – comparable with the testo in 17th-century Italian oratorios – describes the events leading to Mary’s lament. Then Mary comes in, singing a cavatina. The vocal line is rather simple, moving up and down in a quiet tempo. It is the strings which express her grief most strongly, with some strong dissonance. This is followed by another recitative, beginning as recitativo secco, but turning into a recitativo accompagnato when the acts of several people are mentioned: “By one disciple betrayed, slandered by another, abandoned by the most faithful ones, condemned as a guilty person by an unjust tribunal”. The strings continue by depicting the scourges, the thorns, the nails, with some forceful chords. The description of Christ’s misery ends with the words “forsaken by Heaven”. The strings fall silent, and Mary continues, “Is it not enough that I must hear his fair name uttered amid the blasphemies of this barbaric crowd?”

The cavatina is then repeated, after which Mary sings another recitative with basso continuo, which falls silent on her closing words: “Ei muore, Ei muore!” (He dies, He dies!). The next aria, in which Mary talks about her “mournful sighs” and her Son’s “atrocious torments”, is full of strong dissonances and fierce chords in the strings. In the following recitativo accompagnato the strings vividly depict the earthquake which accompanies Christ’s death. It ends by looking forward to the future: “God had decreed three quakes for the entire world: one at the death of the Word, the other at his resurrection and the third at last – O, in thinking of it I tremble – at the Day of Judgment.”

The last aria follows, and is dominated by descending lines which contain strong chromaticism toward the end of the A section. At the end of the cantata, the narrator returns with the moral conclusion in a short recitativo accompagnato: “The earth shook with terror, when a god must perish in cruellest torments. O man you too shall tremble since you too are of earth.” After the voice falls silent, the strings close the cantata with whipping chords.

Unfortunately, Ferrandini’s extant oeuvre is not very large, but it would be interesting to hear other parts of it. Il pianto di Maria is undoubtedly a masterpiece, and it is no surprise that it once was attributed to Handel. In a way that may well have been a matter of good luck, as it has helped the piece to become well-known. I have not heard that many performances of this piece. All in all, I am pretty happy with the performance by Sophie Rennert, who has a very fine voice, and delivers a differentiated performance. She shows a good feeling for drama in parts of this work, but also the ability to express the feelings of Mary as described in this cantata. Now and then she uses a little too much vibrato, especially in forte passages, but overall she keeps it nicely in check. Il Gardellino Baroque Orchestra leaves nothing to be desired in the way Ferrandini’s musical illustration of the described events are executed.

The two works brought together here, may have nothing in common, but they are connected in that both are masterpieces which receive convincing performances.

Johan van Veen

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