Quebec contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux started her career in a spectacular way: In 2000, at the age of 24 she won the Queen Fabiola Prize (1st Prix) as well as the Special Lied Prize at the [...]
Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux‘s performances always combine power and emotion. Accompanied by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, she sings Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater with majestic grandeur, and confers to Scarlatti’s Salve Regina a deep sense of serenity. This album is bound to become a reference point for Baroque music aficionados.
Numerous concertos by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) —several hundred in all—were written primarily for the orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was employed as violin teacher and director of the orchestra from 1703 until his death. The Venetian ospedale were charitable institutions whose main purpose was ostensibly to care for orphaned, abandoned or illegitimate children, but where the teaching of music became a primary concern.
The level of proficiency of both teachers and students became so high that to enter the ospedale became the ambition of more than just the orphaned: a plaque affixed to an exterior wall of the Ospedale della Pietà called upon the threat of being struck by lightning on anyone who attempted to pass off his legitimate daughter as an illegitimate one in order to get her accepted into the music school. Although this qualification of entrance was clearly difficult to enforce, and apparently often abandoned as money and influence went a long way then as now, another was not: all of the students were female.
It remains a unique phenomenon some 300 years later that one of the best orchestras in all of Europe was entirely female. Vivaldi’s concertos are proof of the virtuosity and discipline of the orchestra and soloists of the Ospedale della Pietà. In addition to the many concertos for solo violin or other instruments, Vivaldi composed at least 44 concertos for orchestra without soloist, perfect vehicles to show off the abilities of the Pietà ensemble. Vivaldi used the title Sinfonia interchangeably with Concerto for several of these works, and the works are in fact a unique synthesis of the formal and stylistic traits of the two genres.
Although best known today for his countless concertos, Vivaldi was also renowned in his day as a composer for the voice, writing numerous operas, cantatas, and sacred compositions. Sixty of Vivaldi’s church compositions have survived, including settings of portions of the Mass, psalms, antiphons, and hymns, as well as several solo motets. Most of the sacred works were undoubtedly composed for the Pietà, whose choir and vocal soloists were as fine as the orchestra. It has recently been discovered, however, that the famous Stabat Mater for solo alto voice and strings was commissioned for the church of S. Maria della Pace in Brescia in 1712, and stands therefore as one of Vivaldi’s earliest sacred works. It is a remarkably sombre and profoundly sorrowful work, with not a single hint of the exuberant concertist. Vivaldi sets only the first ten verses of the text, as was sung as a Vespers hymn at the feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Friday before Good Friday.
The structure is simple, the music of the first three movements repeated in the fourth to sixth movements, followed by three newly composed movements. All movements are in the dark, veiled keys of either F Minor or C Minor, the entire work ending on a particularly poignant tierce de Picardie.
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685, and by the age of 16 held a post as organist and composer of the Naples Royal chapel, where his father Alessandro was maestro. He spent time in Florence, Venice, and Rome, composing operas, oratorios, and cantatas, and establishing a reputation as a brilliant harpsichordist. He had a difficult relationship with his domineering father. At age 31 he successfully petitioned for legal independence, but Alessandro continued to try to control his son’s career.
In 1719, at age 33, he cut ties with his father by moving to Lisbon, and remained in the Iberian peninsula until his death in 1757. He was harpsichord teacher to the Infanta Maria Barbara, daughter of King João V of Portugal. When she married the Spanish Crown Prince Fernando in 1728, Scarlatti followed her to Madrid. It was probably for Maria Barbara that Scarlatti composed over 500 single-movement harpsichord sonatas. These are remarkable works, described by Scarlatti himself as “an ingenious jesting with art.” The sonatas are an intriguing blend of Italian and Iberian influences. Formally and stylistically they have more to do with Italy than Portugal or Spain. That said, they have a distinctly Iberian sound—Scarlatti managed to capture the sounds, smells, and sights of his adopted countries in these sonatas. The sonatas also drew international attention, particularly in England where they were all the rage.
The Newcastle composer Charles Avison capitalized on this by transcribing several of Scarlatti’s sonatas for string orchestra in the form of concerti grossi, each movement of the concertos ostensibly a Scarlatti sonata. The models for the fast movements of the 12 concertos are readily identifiable, but Scarlatti wrote few slow sonatas. Avison claims on the title page that the slow movements are taken from manuscript sonatas by Scarlatti, and indeed several are drawn from a set of unpublished four-movement sonatas for solo instrument and continuo by Scarlatti. In other cases Avison simply adapted the fast-paced keyboard sonatas by slowing them down. Finally, a dozen movements have no identifiable Scarlatti models, and were undoubtedly composed by Avison. The two slow movements of the Seventh Concerto in G Minor are adapted from movements of a continuo sonata in G Minor, K. 88, and the quick movements from the harpsichord sonatas in F Minor, K. 19 and in F Major, K. 17.
Before leaving for Portugal, Scarlatti’s work was largely in the field of opera and oratorio. He also composed a handful of sacred choral works, most probably written during his tenure as maestro di capella of the Basilica Giulia in Rome.
Unique in his output is a setting of the Salve Regina text for solo voice and strings, composed in Madrid shortly before Scarlatti’s death in 1757. It is his only sacred work for solo voice, and was written long after he had ceased composing church music. The legend that it was dictated by the composer on his deathbed ensured the work a certain notoriety, and it has survived in manuscript copies in several European libraries. The Salve Regina is an exquisitely simple and expressive setting of the imploring text, sung at Vespers during the Pentecost season. It has been suggested that it is Scarlatti’s farewell, not only to life, but also to the queen Maria Barbara whom he had served for so many years.
© Charlotte Nediger