Alessandro Casari / Gli Erranti

Benedetto Marcello: Salmi

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Benedetto Marcello of Venice, who was both a composer and a lawyer, was a contemporary of Vivaldi and remained popular well into the 19th century.

The brother of Alessandro Marcello, he remains best known for a set of 50 psalm settings (salmi in Italian) composed in the mid-1720s; four of them are presented on this 2003 recording, along with a three-movement organ sonata. These psalms are rather curious works. For one thing, they are in Italian, not Latin; Marcello employed a paraphrase by poet Girolamo Giustiniani. Annotator Marco Bizzarini hastens to assure the buyer that this was not "a case of coming closer to the positions of the Protestant churches ... nor even less a surprising anticipation of the liturgical reform accomplished in Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council"; instead, he says, it was a kind of scholarly experiment. They are fairly sizable works, however, that proceed in stately alternations between a group of soloists and a choir, which Marcello seems to have conceived of as quite large (one-voice-per-part performance would make no sense here); even the eight-voice group heard here is on the skimpy side. There is no orchestra, only an organ-and-winds continuo, and the psalms do not make use of Vivaldi's operatic type of vocal melody. Indeed, it's interesting to consider that this music coexisted with Vivaldi's in Venice. Marcello's psalms employ plenty of word-painting and are made up of sequences of sharp, dramatic contrasts; it's almost as if the music of Sch├╝tz had been given a High Baroque harmonic language and moved 100 years forward. Despite the scholarly apparatus present in the booklet, including a listing of a "comitato scientifico," the performances by the Ensemble Gli Erranti are quite strong. Fans of Baroque singing will want to acquire this album simply for the presence of the gorgeous countertenor voice of Alessandro Carmignani, which has an unusual low, flutelike quality. The lively and varied continuo realizations from organist and director Alessandro Casari, with active bassoon parts, are another strong point. You can see why Vivaldi's sparkling scores supplanted this rather deliberate music in the public mind, but Marcello is worth the revival he receives here.

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