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Francisco Courcelle: Masses for Celebration

Notes & Reviews:

musica Dei donum - Johan van Veen
In recent years Spanish music of the 18th century is intensively explored, and this has resulted in recordings of hardly-known composers. On this site I have reviewed some of them, like a disc with symphonies by Baguer and discs with vocal music by composers like Jaime Casellas, Juan Francés de Iribarren and Jaime Torrens. Francisco Courcelle is another name which is completely new to me.

His name doesn't sound very Spanish, and that is because he was born from French parents in Piacenza in Italy. He came from a family of dance masters; his father was dance master to the Farnese family. At an early age he was active in Parma and becamemaestro di cappella of the Chiesa della Madonna della Steccata there. From 1727 to 1733 he also was maestro di cappella of the Duke of Parma, the future King Carlos III of Spain. When the Duke's mother Isabelle Farnese, the second wife of King Felipe V, was looking for a music master for the royal children, she turned to Courcelle, who arrived in Madrid in January 1734. He started to compose operas and villancicos. In 1738 he succeeded Joseph de Torres as maestro of the royal chapel and rector of the Colegio de Niños Cantores (the boys' choir of the chapel).

Courcelle played a major role in music life surrounded by such renowned composers as Domenico Scarlatti, Gaetano Brunetti and Luigi Boccherini. At the time the famous castrato Farinelli also lived in Madrid.

A large part of Courcelle's operatic output has been lost. What has remained is a large corpus of religious music: a considerable number of masses, and other sacred music like Offices of the Dead, sequences, responsories, Vespers, Magnificats, motets and villancicos. The two masses recorded here date from 1750 (Missa Ave maris stella) and 1763 (Missa Exultabunt sancti in Gloria). They are scored for four solo voices (SATB and SSAT respectively), 4-part choir and orchestra. Stylistically these masses are typical specimens of sacred music from the mid-18th century, in that they contain elements of the late baroque as well as the early classical period. As in so many religious works of the time the influence of the opera is clearly noticeable, in particular in the solo sections. A striking example is 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' from the Gloria of the Missa Exultabunt sancti in Gloria. In addition to the solo sections there are duets, trios and quartets, and some tutti sections also contain short passages for solo voices. The proportions of these masses are notable: the Credo and the Gloria are by far the longest, the Kyrie is much more concise, and the Sanctus and Agnus Dei take less than 2 minutes. Neither mass has a Benedictus.

These are live performances of a concert in Dallas in Texas, USA. As a consequence there are some technical imperfections, but by and large these performances are pretty good. Choir and orchestra are doing a fine job, and the soloists are mostly good as well. Tamara Matthews uses a bit too much vibrato now and then. Jeffrey Snider only sings in the trio 'Gratias agimus tibi' from the Gloria of the Missa Ave maris stella, but because of an unsatisfying balance between the solo voices he is hardly audible. Scot R. Cameron has an interesting voice: having started his career as a tenor he has developed his falsetto register, and both are fully integrated. Kim Childs has a nice and clear voice.

This is definitely a very interesting and musically compelling disc of a composer who fully deserves attention. This recording has made me curious about other music by Courcelle. Hopefully we will hear more from his oeuvre in the future.

The booklets of Dorian are pretty sloppy lately. The date of the recording is not given. Only from the biographies of the participants one may gather who the soloists are and what their voice type is. They should have been mentioned at the cover. The track numbering is rather user-unfriendly: in both masses the various sections are numbered independently (1 to 14 and 1 to 16 respectively). So track no. 1 of the Missa Exultabunt sancti in gloria is in fact track no. 15 of the disc. That is very confusing, and so are the timings of the various tracks. The liner-notes by Grover Wilkins should have been edited as well. A production like this deserves better.



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