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Fanfare Magazine: 39:1 (09-10/2015) 
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CPO 7779362  

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Reviewer:  Barry Brenesal


It seems like the beginning of the plot for a very bad Broadway musical. Impoverished sexton Domenico Melani of Pistoia trains his seven sons in music to advance them socially, and four of them develop professional careers as castrati. The most notable of these was Atto (1620–1714), whose singing career was twinned with one as a spy for Cardinal Mazarin. The voice of Alessandro (1639–1703) was evidently judged not good enough to merit the knife, fortunately for him, though he proved successful in his own way. The noble Rospigliosi family helped secure him the title of maestro di cappella at the Pistoia Cathedral in 1667 after the departure of yet another Melani brother, Jacopo. But that same year Giulio Rospigliosi was elected Pope in Rome at Clement IX, and Alessandro followed, becoming maestro di cappella at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Clement was a learned and lenient man, who had no problems with commissioning an opera from Alessandro for Carnival in 1668. Atto is thought to have influenced his advancement to maestro di cappella at San Luigi dei Francesi, the French National Church, where he remained until his death, accepting a wide range of prestigious commissions. In later years he was listed as one of the “professors of music” under the protection of Ferdinando II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Alessandro Melani’s works were held in considerable regard during his lifetime, and his sacred concertos for two to five voices published in three successive collections. He has been largely neglected since then, as have most of his contemporaries aside from the likes of Alessandro Scarlatti. This recording attempts to pique interest in his music by building in effect a Vespers from 10 of Melani’s separate works. So we have psalm settings such as Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri and Nisi Dominus, motets that include Vox turturis audita est and Coeli gaudete, and the antiphon Salve Regina. They display a fine grasp of the harmonic, contrapuntal, and rhythmic procedures of the day that would create a festive and varied atmosphere. In particular, Melani enjoys playing lengthy, difficult melismatic passages for soloist over and around homophonic choral passages, often in 6/8 time. Though his thematic material is usually simple and in a popular style, its treatment includes irregular phrasing, brief, lyrically fluid recitatives, unprepared harmonic progressions, and heightened expressiveness through close attention to the text. His Vox turturis audita est is typical; while his Salve Regina, with its earnest tone, homophonic textures and chromatic twists, is something of an outlier but among the most impressive things on the disc.

Two sections of the Vespers as supplied here Melani does not appear to have set: the introit, Deus in adjutorium meum intende, and the hymn, Ave maris stella. These are supplied from music by Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni (1657–1743). He was still better known than Melani, holding several prestigious appointments in Rome throughout a very long life, though his pair of works are smooth and skillful, lacking the imagination that nearly all the selections by Melani possess.

The Solisten der Rheinischen Kantorei on this recording are 10 in number. While the liner notes state that boy sopranos or castrati were likely employed in this music, all adults are employed here in a standard SATB arrangement. As Melani prefers to give his themes in the top line, the division of range is 4/2/2/2. Their performances are excellent when in unison from the group, though the soprano soloists (unspecified, though at least two are alike in this fashion) aren’t completely secure in manipulating Melani’s fast-moving, heavily figured lines. They slur slightly, regularly, and very occasionally drop a fraction behind the beat. Das Kleine Konzert is a 12-person mixed instrumental ensemble from which little is heard save in a supporting role, where they perform expertly. Hermann Max conducts with lively tempos and propulsive rhythms, making much of the celebratory character of this music.

The sound is some of the best I’ve heard from CPO in a while, both close and expertly balanced between soloist, choir, and orchestral accompaniment. This is a fine release, despite my reservations over its soprano soloists, and whets the appetite for more by this neglected composer.



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