This live recording of Alessandro Scarlatti's Cecilian Vespers comes close to being that rare find: an illumination of a previously concealed masterpiece. This music for the Vespers service of the Feast of St. Cecilia (November 22) was first performed in Rome in 1721. Like Bach in several of his larger pieces, the aged Scarlatti brought preexisting and new music together into a new and ambitious ground plan. But the music survived only in fragments. Reassembled by a Swiss scholar, the Vespers music had its modern premiere in 1970 and has languished largely ignored by recording companies.
Now we know we've all been missing a great deal. Scarlatti's music here doesn't sound much like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, or any other familiar choral repertory of the early eighteenth century. He tends to use, and use inventively, individual or grouped soloists in impressively spacious, varied concerto-like structures, with the chorus sometimes fulfilling the role of the ritornello or refrain. His responses to the texts of the Vespers are vivid without being conventionally pictorial, and are all the more powerful for it. Check out the unique choral effect at "conquassabit capita in terra multuorum" ([The Lord] shall crush heads in the land of the many) in the Dixit Dominus section, the way the chorus expands on its percussive repetitions of the single word "sit" over the course of that same section, or the mystically calm treatment of the Nisi Dominus, to take just a few of many examples. There's very little over two CDs of music that doesn't sustain the listener's interest, and San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorale under Nicholas McGegan approach the music with a warm tone entirely appropriate to the operatic origins of Scarlatti's language. McGegan frames the polyphonic sections of the Vespers with the chants originally selected by Scarlatti himself, helping the listener imagine the Vespers service as a coherent liturgical thought.
Those operatic origins, however, at times prove the undoing of the four soloists on this recording. Their voices are pleasant enough, but Scarlatti by the time he composed this work had written dozens of operas for powerful nobles in Naples and Rome and had some of the finest singers in Italy at his beck and call. The music reflects that, with punishing runs of sixteenth notes that are integral to the large, deliberate structures Scarlatti erects. But these runs sometimes come out tense and smudged -- not throughout, but in several of the really tough passages. The fault is not that of the singers but of the conductor, who sent medium-sized voices to do a job meant for big, virtuoso instruments. Credit is nonetheless due to all concerned for reviving a wonderful example of the art of Baroque sacred music. The sound is generally quite fine for a live recording.