The name of Benedetto Marcello doesn't appear all that often on concert programmes. He is almost completely overshadowed by his contemporary and compatriot Antonio Vivaldi. There was a time that it was the other way around. In 1841, when Vivaldi's music had long sunk into oblivion, a complete edition of Marcello's collection of 50 Psalm settings, with the title Estro poetico armonico, was published in Paris. In that edition the basso continuo part had been replaced by a piano accompaniment. This was a token of the music world's great admiration for these compositions which lasted from the years of the original publication (1724-1726), until well into the 19th century.
Benedetto Marcello was born into an aristocratic family, his father being both a violinist and a politician; he was a senator in the Venetian government. His mother was an artist and a poet. It is perhaps under her influence that Benedetto valued poetic use of words very highly. Like his father Benedetto was active in public life, as a lawyer and administrator. His aristocratic roots prevented him from being active as a professional musician and composer but he presented himself as a nobile dilettante. It seems there was a strong rivalry between Benedetto and his older brother Alessandro, who has become best known for his oboe concerto. According to one story Alessandro didn't think very highly of his brother's musical skills. The success of the latter's collection of Psalms proved him wrong.
The name of the collection is interesting as this was also the title of a collection of concertos by Vivaldi which he had published as his op 3 in Amsterdam in 1711. It has been suggested that Marcello's title could have been intended as a taunt in Vivaldi's direction. It may have been his way of indicating what he thought was lacking in Vivaldi's music: poetry. Marcello himself was praised for 'strength and regularity of design', and 'noble simplicity'. This simplicity was a feature associated with 'early music', meaning the music of the 16th century and early 17th century, in which Marcello was strongly interested. In a way one can see him as an early representative of what would become the standard in the time of Giuseppe Tartini. Tartini was also very critical of Vivaldi's music, especially his compositions for his own instrument, the violin. Marcello's criticism was particularly directed towards the music for the stage. In 1720 he published a treatise under the title Il teatro alla moda in which he dealt with the bad habits prevalent in the theatre at the time. He wanted to reform the style of singing and clear away exaggerated ornamentation.
This preference for naturalness comes clearly to the fore in his Estro poetico armonico and explains why these Psalms remained popular throughout the 18th century and beyond. They were performed across Europe, often in translations, including Swedish, Russian and French. They were also translated into English, and that brings us to the present disc. The four Psalms selected for this recording are sung to an English text. In 1757 Charles Avison, a major figure in English music life of the mid-18th century and a lifelong admirer of Italian music, published the whole collection in an English translation, in cooperation with his colleague John Garth. This must have been a major undertaking. Marcello didn't make use of the Latin text of the Vulgata, but rather an Italian paraphrase by the poet Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani. As in his settings Marcello aimed at a close connection between text and music, it was of the utmost importance to create a translation which would observe the way Marcello expressed the text in his music. Whether Avison's translations fully succeed here is hard to say as I don't know the original versions. It is a great shame that—as far as I know—the collection has never been recorded complete.
What this disc does reveal, though, is that Marcello's music is indeed distinctive and different from what was common at the time. Forget the opera of those days, or the motets by Vivaldi and his large-scale settings of the Gloria or the Magnificat. This is different. These Psalms have no clear pattern. There are elements of the old-fashioned motet—the symbol of the stile antico—but also of aria, arioso and recitative. Especially in the long Psalm 50 we find many recitatives, mostly sung by the bass, acting as the vox Dei, singing the words spoken by God. There is some text repetition, but there are no dacapos. It is clear, even in these English translations, that Marcello was very aware of the meaning of the text. There are several episodes where the text is vividly depicted. In Psalm 50, for instance, the words 'A mighty tempest shall rage around him', and in Psalm 46 'the mountains are shaken by the tempest of the same'. The opening piece, a setting of Psalm 11, begins with an eloquent musical expression of the text: 'In the Lord I put my trust: how say ye to my soul, as a bird tou your mountains, swiftly flee; and escape the secret snare that is laid for thy destruction?' Melodically and harmonically this music is probably something one has to get used to as it is so different from what one may expect.
This disc underlines the quality of Marcello's compositions, and should raise interest in his Estro poetico armonico. A complete recording of the original Italian version is long overdue. This recording attests to the popularity of Marcello's Psalms and also sheds light on an interesting and hardly-known aspect of English music life in the mid-18th century. The performances are little short of ideal. I have given an enthusiastic welcome to Voces8's recording of pieces from the large oeuvre of Purcell, and the qualities of the ensemble's singing come to the fore here as well. That said, I am not always completely satisfied with the solo contributions of the individual singers. Barnaby Smith is outstanding, but I am less enthusiastic about the (short) interventions of Charles MacDougall, although that may largely be a matter of taste. Dingle Yandell is quite expressive in Psalm 50, but sometimes he uses a little too much vibrato.
Marcello's collection ends with the Canon triplex, translated: 'Infinite six voice triple canon in lower fifth'. The text—Psalm 19 vs 5—fits the 'infinite' character: 'Their sound has gone out to the entire world, and their words have gone to the ends of the circle of the earth'. It is a short polyphonic masterpiece which brings a most fascinating and compelling disc to a close.