28 February 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | February 2017: Carlo Lenzi & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — SACRED MUSIC IN LOMBARDY 1770-80 (F. Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Ensemble Autarena; Pan Classics PC 10364)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | February 2017: Carlo Lenzi & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - SACRED MUSIC IN LOMBARDY 1770-80 (Pan Classics PC 10364)CARLO LENZI (1735 – 1805) and WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Sacred Music in Lombardy 1770-80Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Ensemble Autarena; Marcello Scandelli, conductor [Recorded in Nuova Chiesa di San Massimiliano Kolbe, Bergamo, Italy, in January 2015; Pan Classics PC 10364; 1 CD, 66:58; Available from Naxos Direct (USA), JPC (Germany), and major music retailers]

Lombardy in the eighth decade of the Eighteenth Century was a region both in the clutches of ancient dynasties and on the cusp of modernity. The gateway to the European continent, the region’s principal city, Milan, was already a bustling center of commerce and culture. By the decade’s end, Milan’s great temple of operatic worship, Teatro alla Scala, would be erected and inaugurated with a performance of Antonio Salieri’s aptly epic Europa riconosciuta. Milan was also the seat of archiepiscopal authority in and beyond Lombardy, the city’s Duomo—the Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente, incomplete in the 1770s despite construction having begun in the Fourteenth Century—a grandiose symbol of the importance of the Church in everyday life. In inimitable Italian style, Lombards have for countless generations craftily integrated the exercise of faith with celebration of the joys of living. From their inceptions, new forms of musical expression were utilized by Italian composers and composers fluent in Italy’s musical languages to transform the rituals of the Church into very personal works of art. From the polyphonic masterpieces of Palestrina to Puccini’s early Messa a quattro voci, liturgical music has played a prominent rôle in Italian musical life, nowhere more tunefully than in Lombardy. Focusing on the sacred music of one remarkable decade in the Eighteenth Century, this imaginatively-conceived and skillfully-engineered Pan Classics release presents music written for Lombardy by a visiting composer who needs no introduction, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, alongside works of superlative quality by an Italian composer awaiting the modern exposure his music deserves, Carlo Lenzi. That the music of the forgotten composer is as enjoyable as that of his eternally popular colleague is this disc’s most welcome surprise, but its greatest accomplishment is the captivatingly melodious recreation of a time and a place that are now perhaps preserved only in music.

Born in 1735 near Bergamo, the town some forty kilometers northeast of Milan that is now famous among music lovers for having also been the birthplace of Gaetano Donizetti in 1797, Carlo Lenzi benefited from the exceptional opportunities for musical education afforded by distant Naples, attaining an admirable level of mastery of the prevalent musical forms and trends of both his own and previous generations. His forty-year tenure at Bergamo’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, today perhaps the best-preserved church in the Lombard Romanesque style, earned him a wide exposure and some degree of celebrity within relative proximity to Bergamo. To what extent Lenzi and his work were known beyond Bergamo is largely a matter of conjecture. The reach of Lenzi’s reputation was sufficient to attract the young Bavarian Johann Simon Mayr to his tutelage. Three years before Lenzi’s death in 1805, Mayr relocated to Bergamo in order to succeed his teacher as maestro di cappella. [Most Mayr biographers identify the composer’s ecclesiastical employer as Bergamo’s Duomo, the Cattedrale di Sant’Alessandro, but, surely not insignificantly, both Mayr and Donizetti are buried in Santa Maria Maggiore.] Mayr’s teaching of Donizetti known to have been comprehensive, it is unlikely that the eventual composer of Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore was unacquainted with Lenzi’s music.

What cannot be ascertained with any measure of historical accuracy is how widely Lenzi’s musical output circulated among fellow artists of his time or how much of other composers’ work reached Lenzi in Bergamo. Though hardly a cultural backwater, Bergamo was no Naples or Venice. Still, the town’s proximity to Milan cannot have failed to yield some measure of musical cosmopolitanism. Delightfully played by Ensemble Autarena under the direction of cellist Marcello Scandelli, the Sonatas included on this disc strongly suggest that, in addition to a thorough knowledge of Italian music of previous generations gleaned from his studies in Naples, Lenzi was aware of the music of his north-of-the-Alps contemporaries. In the extended Sonata Prima, the influences of Durante, Jommelli, Pergolesi, Traetta, and other exponents of the Neapolitan school are apparent, but so, too, are kinships with the work of Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Boccherini, and the Haydn brothers. The Ensemble Autarena musicians revel in Lenzi’s part writing, their cleanly-articulated playing disclosing the excellent quality of Lenzi’s craftmanship. The Sonata Terza is a piece with considerable merits, as well, and Ensemble Autarena’s performance is an ideal introduction to Lenzi’s straightforward but eloquent style.

Both of the Lamentations for Holy Week exquisitely sung on this disc by Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, two of the thirty-four settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah Lenzi is known to have written, were likely composed for the soprano castrato Giovanni Tajana (1755 – 1829), a singer about whom little information survives. What little anecdotal evidence exists suggests that Tajana enjoyed a successful career in opera in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, his name appearing in conjunction with performances as far afield as London. Lenzi’s 1780 Lamentazione seconda per il Giovedì Santo is a work of tremendous histrionic power, the composer’s use of text revealing a poetic sensibility worthy of comparison with more renowned composers’ similar aptitude. Treating the ‘De lamentatione Ieremiæ prophetæ’ text with which settings of the Lamentations traditionally begin not as a formality but as a vital, emotionally significant portion of the lament, Lenzi wrote engrossing music to open the Lamentazione, and the soprano’s phrasing in this performance establishes an atmosphere of affectionate reverence. As the movement progresses, the grace with which Lombardi Mazzulli sings ‘Cogitavit Dominus dissipare murum filiæ Sion; tetendit funiculum suum, et non avertit manum suam a perditione: luxitque antemurale, et murus pariter dissipatus est’ transports the prophet’s words directly to the listener’s heart. Her technical acumen tames the difficulties of ‘Defixæ sunt in terra portæ ejus, perdidit et contrivit vectes ejus; regem ejus et principes ejus in gentibus: non est lex, et prophetæ ejus non invenerunt visionem a Domino,’ inspiring awe without disrupting the prevailing contemplativeness of the text.

The simple elegance of the largo setting of ‘Sederunt in terra, conticuerunt senes filiæ Sion; consperserunt cinere capita sua, accincti sunt ciliciis: abjecerunt in terram capita sua virgines Jerusalem’ that starts the second movement shimmers in the Mediterranean sunlight of the soprano’s warm timbre. The bravura demands of Lenzi’s allegretto ‘Defecerunt præ lacrimis oculi mei, conturbata sunt viscera mea’ are considerable, but Lombardi Mazzulli confronts every challenge unflinchingly. Her traversal of ‘Effusum est in terra jecur meum super contritione filiæ populi mei, cum deficeret parvulus et lactens in plateis oppidi’ in the Lamentazione’s final movement is characterized by ethereal tonal beauty and a nuanced but wholly natural handling of words that haunts with its immediacy. The resolution of musical incarnations of Lamentations is also governed by tradition, and Lenzi was no less astute in dealing with the final statement of ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ than in his approach to the prefatory text. Guided by the composer’s ingenuity, Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing of the Lamentazione’s conclusion is alert, focused, and attractive.

Dating from 1777, the Lamentazione prima per il Venerdì Santo is a work of intricacy even greater than that of its slightly older sibling. The composer having again devoted the best of his art to his setting of ‘De lamentatione Ieremiæ prophetæ,’ Lombardi Mazzulli responds with vocalism of the purest bel canto. The expressivity of her singing of ‘Misericordiæ Domini, quia non sumus consumpti; quia non defecerunt miserationes ejus’ reaches profound depths of spirituality, and the unexaggerated subtlety with which she shapes her reading of the melodic lines of ‘Novi diluculo, multa est fides tua’ is indicative of an artistic philosophy centered on respect for the music. The recitative ‘Pars mea Dominus, dixit anima mea; propterea exspectabo eum’ is sung with the communicative intelligibility of an accomplished Evangelista reciting Gospel in a Bach Passion. In the third movement, the contrasts engendered by Lenzi’s shifts in tempo are enhanced by the lucid playing of Ensemble Autarena. Lombardi Mazzulli voices both ‘Bonus est Dominus sperantibus in eum, animæ quærenti illum’ and ‘Bonum est præstolari cum silentio salutare Dei’ lustrously, and the incandescence of her vowels gives ‘Bonum est viro cum portaverit jugum ab adolescentia sua’ an added aura of religiosity. In her account of ‘Sedebit solitarius, et tacebit: quia levavit super se,’ it is the incisively-enunciated consonants that drive the vocal line. Epitomizing the vibrant stile galante that Lenzi adopted in his Lamentations, ‘Ponet in pulvere os suum, si forte sit spes’ and ‘Dabit percutienti se maxillam, saturabitur opprobiis’ in the Lamentazione’s last movement possess dramatic force of an operatic nature, and Lombardi Mazzulli sings the music accordingly, her performance bold but always exhibiting impeccable taste. Like its counterpart in the 1780 Lamentazione, the closing ‘Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ is a resourceful, overtly theatrical setting of the text. The performance on this disc preserves a rare union of superb music and an artist technically and temperamentally ideally suited to singing it.

Well-chosen companions for Lenzi’s Sonatas, Mozart’s Church Sonatas in D major and A major (K. 245 and 225), composed in 1776 for inclusion between the readings of the Epistle and Gospel in Salzburg Masses, are performed by Ensemble Autarena with a sure grasp of Mozart’s idiom. Well-intentioned but wrongheaded attempts at convincing listeners that every piece that issued from Mozart’s pen is a masterpiece lead some performers to artificially inflate the Sonata’s significance. They are good music, but their appeal is too easily obscured by playing them as though they were symphonies in miniature. Ensemble Autarena​’s playing enables the listener to hear the Sonatas on an appropriate scale, sounding much as they must have done when played as interludes in their original liturgical context.

Composed in January 1773 for the Italian composer and soprano Venanzio Rauzzini (1746 – 1810), the creator of the rôle of Cecilio in Mozart’s 1772 opera Lucio Silla whose vocal range may have been a fortuitous accident of nature rather than a result of blade-wielding human intervention, the motet ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ (K. 165) is one of Mozart’s most familiar sacred works—and, considering its abundant melodic charm and imposing technical demands, rightly so. Singers of virtually every Fach with the range required by the music or a reasonable approximation thereof have recorded the motet. Among the fruits of their labors, it is Swiss soprano Edith Mathis’s lovely, eminently stylish account that Lombardi Mazzulli’s performance recalls. In the opening movement, ‘Exsultate, jubilate, o vos animæ beatæ,’ Lombardi Mazzulli executes the difficult bravura passagework with confidence undermined by only a few of the most dizzying passages, but she never engages in thoughtless grandstanding. Not yet seventeen years old when he composed this music, the young Mozart was already attentive to the ways in which music could be used to both convey and heighten the impact of text, and the vocal writing in ‘Exsultate, jubilate,’ undoubtedly tailored to Rauzzini’s florid technique, is a model of artful use of music to mirror the moods evoked by words. Lombardi Mazzulli is one of today’s most persuasive performers of vocal music composed before 1800, and the joy that her singing of ‘Exsultate, jubliate’ exudes is as important a component of her performance as her fleet coloratura and crystalline trills.

In this performance, the recitative ‘Fulget amica dies, jam fugere et nubila et procellæ’ is sung with the concentration that it deserves. The serene valley between two virtuosic peaks, the bewitching dolce ‘Tu virginum corona, tu nobis pacem dona’ is rarely the most memorable portion of a performance of ‘Exsultate, jubilate,’ but as sung by Lombardi Mazzulli it is a sequence of breathtaking pulchritude, the singer’s breath control as impressive when sustaining the long melodic lines of this movement as when hurtling through its companions’ fiorature. The motet’s culminating ‘Alleluia’ is in this performance what Mozart surely intended it to be: two-and-a-half minutes of elation that uplift the soul regardless of the listener’s faith. Particularly in performances of music composed before 1800, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli is one of today’s most capable young singers, but her singing on this disc illustrates the most precious of her gifts. As performed by Lombardi Mazzulli, music is not a distraction or even an diversion: it is a friend.

One of the most fascinating aspects of music is the series of relationships that link composers and their work. Whether north or south of the Alps, east or west of the Atlantic, or near to or far from the equator, music has developed in each successive generation of artists in ways that their forebears might never have imagined. One of the most fascinating aspects of music in the past half-century has been the rediscovery of an expanding phalanx of gifted composers whose works were for many years neglected. In addition to renewing the diffusion of his own music, the rediscovery of Lenzi deepens listeners’ understanding of Mozart and the cultural surroundings in which his enduring masterworks sprang to life. Supplementing the educational value of this release, Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli and Ensemble Autarena perform this music with incontestable fondness. It is fondness that the listener is moved to reciprocate.