The logo of Les Arts Florissants incorporates its customary ‘William Christie’ but this concert at the historic abbey in Ambronay was devised and directed by Paul Agnew, whose perceptive programme explores Italian Baroque sacred music composed in the stile antico. It places renowned masterpieces such as Domenico Scarlatti’s 10-part Stabat mater, Leonardo Leo’s double-choir Miserere and Antonio Lotti’s popular eight-part Crucifixus in context alongside music by Antonio Caldara and Giovanni Legrenzi, and another less familiar Crucifixus setting by Lotti. The concept also represents the trinity of major Italian musical cities: the two most substantial pieces represent Naples (Leo) and Rome (Scarlatti), whereas Legrenzi, Lotti and Caldara had roots in Venice.
The doleful phrases that commence Scarlatti’s Stabat mater are shaped fluidly by 20 singers (two per part). Regardless of occasional flaws inevitable from a live recording, textural transparencies resonate around the lovely Ambronay acoustic. The Choir of Les Arts Florissants is on exceptionally good form, even if its handling of vivid virtuoso passages such as ‘Inflammatus et accensus’ and the Amen suggests that single-voice interpretations sometimes enjoy an advantage (eg Concerto Italiano or Vox Luminis). Agnew’s singers are impressive in Caldara’s short 16-part Crucifixus and sopranos Hannah Morrison and Maud Gnidzaz take things down several notches for their sensitive performance of Legrenzi’s duet Quam amarum est, Maria. At the other end of the spectrum, Leo’s Miserere (1739) is sung with the boldness, authority, lamentation and soft compassion that the composer variously demands. This magnificent music made a strong impression upon Wagner during Holy Week at Naples in 1880 but it has not been recorded as often as it deserves; there was one notorious case when Decca used it as the title of an album of Leo’s music that it wasn’t even on. Agnew and his choir deserve plaudits for a masterly and valuable recording.