Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Musical Treasures from the Cardinal King

Henry Benedict Stuart, the younger brother of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," was a lover of music and frequenter of the opera before taking his orders. After becoming a cardinal, Henry forsook the secular and became a strong patron of sacred music composers. This release presents a sampling of the Cardinal King' patronage, with music ranging from the 1740s through 1791.

Stylistically, most of the compositions walk a fine line between sacred and secular. Their polyphony harkens back to the late renaissance. The a capella pieces especially have an older 17th-century sound to them.

And yet when instruments are added, the accompanying patterns seem to have more in common with mid-Baroque Italian opera (albeit with an organ, rather than a harpsichord filling in the harmonies).

Relatively well-known Italian composers such as Niccolo Jommelli and violinist Carlo Tessarini are represented, but the most interesting works (to me, anyway) come from lesser lights. Sebastiano Bolis was Henry's maestro di Cappella for almost twenty years. And while he composed a large body of work, he remains obscure and his music mostly unheard. His works presented here are masterworks of choral writing. While seemingly simple and unadorned, they nevertheless use some very piquant dissonances to emphasize words and lead voices to a proper resolution.

Even more obscure is Giovanni Zamboni, who may or may not be the son of a famous lutenist by the same name. Zamboni's music seems to draw on Monteverdi for inspiration. His works are contemporary takes on the art of the madrigal. Like Monteverdi, Zamboni starts with the text and uses it to shape the direction of the music. Knowing these works were written in the 1750s, I can only describe their sound as retro -- and beautiful.

The Cappella Fede and Harmonia Sacra, directed by Peter Leech have a smooth vocal blend. Each line is clearly articulated, making the contrapuntal passages especially effective. This is a recording I enjoyed very much, both for its artistry and its spiritual authenticity.

The Cardinal-King
Music for Henry Benedict Stuart in Rome, 1740-91
world premiere recordings
Giovanni Battista Costanzi, Niccolo Jommelli, Giovanni Zaboni, Sebastiano Bolis, Carlo Tessarini
Cappella Fede; Harmonia Sacra; Peter Leech, director
Toccata Classics

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