> Choral and Song
Les Arts Florissants and Paul Agnew: "Lamentazione"
Motets by Caldara, Legrenzi, Leo, Lotti and D. Scarlatti. Virgin Classics 0709072
This sort of music could easily be swathed in an all-purpose "devotional" tone, beautiful and monotonous. From the outset, however, with the building sonorities of Domenico Scarlatti's ten-part Stabat Mater conveying a sense of yearning, the chorus of Les Arts Florissants, under the direction of tenor Paul Agnew, breaks the pattern in favor of a wider expressive palette. In this and in Leonardo Leo's Miserere Mei Deus for double chorus, the other "big" piece anchoring the program, sectional contrasts of mood, texture and dynamic provide aural variety and clarify the musical structures. The music acquires a hitherto unsuspected drama and intensity.
While singers in historically informed productions have lately been allowing a modicum of vibrato into their sound, the chorus of Les Arts Florissants adheres to that old-time, straight-toned religion. But that doesn't translate into thin or pallid tone, and Agnew can turn the sound to expressive purposes: note the beseeching quality of the sopranos in the Scarlatti. Faster-moving passages are forthright and strongly directional; melismatic phrases, in Antonio Lotti's ten-part Crucifixus and the Leo, are deft and graceful. The individual, precisely tuned choral strands are cleanly etched in the slower passages and, aided by a churchly ambience, expand into full, balanced textures.
Performance flaws, while comparatively minor, stand out against the general high level. The two Lotti Crucifixus settings, performed a cappella, expose the choral basses as woolly, with uncertain tuning at the start of the eight-part setting, in which the dynamic contrasts also become too aggressive. The duetting soloists of Giovanni Legrenzi's Quam Amarum Est Maria intone their lines clearly, but they don't bind the notes into a real legato, and the text is unduly obscured.
The ambience cited earlier lends a nice liturgical atmosphere to the proceedings, and the clean, "open" organ registrations sound warm and enveloping. The textures become a bit congested in Antonio Caldara's sixteen-part Crucifixus, but the dense part-writing itself may be the culprit.
STEPHEN FRANCIS VASTA