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David Vickers
Gramophone, October 2009

Ars Lyrica Houston’s debut disc contains Scarlatti’s La concettione delia Beata Vergine (Rome, 1703), which recycled music from his earlier oratorio I dolori di Maria sempre Vergine (Naples, 1693; now lost). Scored for four solo voices, two violins and continuo, this is a fervent piece of Catholic propaganda in which Heresy and the Serpent squabble with Grace about the plausibility of the Immaculate Conception, until the Archangel Michael intervenes and sets the record straight. The compact work is skilfully performed by the Houstonians. The group’s director Matthew Dirst contributes an impressive harpsichord toccata, and Barrett Sills plays a fine cello sonata in C minor with exemplary skill and taste. The cantata Euridice dall’Inferno (1699) depicts the heart-rending lament of Eurydice as she hopes that her beloved Orpheus will use his lyre to liberate her from Hades. The continuo group plays with sensitivity and Melissa Givens gives an impassioned performance of strongly characterised and eloquent music (although her voice is a bit strident in arias)…Scarlatti fully deserves his gradual rehabilitation.



John Terauds
Toronto Star, July 2009

There’s a pocket of period-performance excellence in Houston, Tex., but we don’t often get to hear it on disc. So all the better to get two world-premiere recordings, elegantly rendered, of the 13-minute cantata Euridice dall’Inferno, from 1699, and the 31-minute oratorio La concettione della Beata Vergine, first performed in 1703 by Italian Baroque master Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725). The disc is rounded out with a gorgeous cello sonata as well as an inventive Toccata for harpsichord. There is much to enjoy here.



John W Barker
American Record Guide, July 2009

Leading the program is Eurydice in the Underworld, a cantata in three recitative-aria pairs for soprano and continuo. Scarlatti composed a number of cantatas on the eternal Orpheus story, but this one views things from Eurydice’s side: she is trapped in hell (and not Gluck’s Elysian Fields), urgently impatient as she waits for her husband to come and rescue her. Soprano Melissa Givens works up lots of indignation in this piece.

Ending the program is a major work, over half an hour long. By contrast with the oratorio volgare of Giuditta, The Conception of the Blessed Virgin is an oratorium latinum—that is, an extra-liturgical sacred drama to a Latin text, in the form pioneered by Giacomo Carissimi, Scarlatti’s putative teacher. The subject is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which was argued back and forth extensively in the late Middle Ages but became a dogma of Roman Catholic faith in 1854. In this work, where four singers take characters but eventually constitute an ensemble (with strings and continuo), Gratia (Grace, an alto) announces the impending miracle, while Haerisis (Heresy—tenor) and Draco or Serpens (the Serpent, bass) protest, and the Archangel Michael intervenes forcefully; in the end, the two evil protesters admit they are defeated and the holy moment of the miracle is acclaimed.

This composition, in two short parts, seems to be a reworking of an earlier, perhaps larger work. It is a appealing affair, given a lively realization. Givens is again excitable and a bit strident in her Archangelic outbursts, while Joseph Gains has a gritty voice more symbolically than musically apt for Heresy. Timothy Jones seems a rather mild Serpent, but countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf (whom I remember as a voice undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) has developed a nice smoothness of voice and characterization for Grace. The small ensemble of two violins and four continuo players gives tidy support.

The running time is hardly lavish, and I wish some further vocal works by the composer might have been found as filler, instead of the Cello Sonata (augmented by a movement repeat) and a short harpsichord Toccata— rather irrelevant spacers. Still, for introducing us to these two rare vocal works in such convincing performances, this Houston ensemble has done itself proud and made an important contribution to the growing Scarlatti discography. Excellent notes, and this time Naxos actually gives us the vocal texts, with translation…



Johan van Veen
MusicWeb International, June 2009

I am glad that these particular pieces have been recorded. In particular the two vocal items are fine additions to the growing catalogue of Scarlatti’s vocal music. The interpreters have certainly succeeded in bringing the music’s quality into the limelight. Lovers of Alessandro Scarlatti’s music in particular should not overlook this disc.



Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Euridice dall’Inferno touches the common themes of love in all its guises and twists and turns reflected in the classical, pastoral world of ‘nymphs and shepherds’. It can be a difficult idiom to perform convincingly, although the text (Italian and Latin texts are printed here—and translated into English) is actually very readable in its own right. It’s scored for soprano and continuo (Baroque cello (Barrett Sills), archlute (Richard Savino) and harpsichord (Matthew Dirst) here) only, and in three pairs of recitative-da capo arias. As a consequence, the singer (Melissa Givens) and her emotions are very exposed. Her line is a clear one, conveying enthusiasm, sorrow and commitment to the paradoxes of Euridice’s plight aplenty…

The most substantial piece on this CD, which all lasts under an hour, is the also diminutive (31 minutes) oratorio on the Conception of the Virgin Mary. Again, Givens features: she is the Archangel Michael, and supported by Gerrod Pagenkopf (counter-tenor, Grace), Joseph Gaines (tenor, Hersey) and Timothy Jones (bass, The Serpent) with two of the same continuo players as in the cantata, plus violin (Alan Austin), Baroque violin (Jonathan Godfrey), double bass (Dennis Whittaker); Scott Horton here plays archlute. Their approach is decisive and melodious, full-bodied and confident…their singing is careful and precise—listen to the aria, ‘Nundum Sydera micabant’ [tr.26], for example: it neither lags nor inspires tedium. Indeed, we hear through it to the very lines of melody that were so important to Scarlatti…Ars Lyrica Houston can in no ways be considered ’deficient’…

The cello sonata number 2 in C minor is a four movement piece which truly emphasises the virtuoso capabilities of that instrument, here played —again—by Sills, with violone (Deborah Dunham), archlute (Savino) and harpsichord (Dirst). Their playing is businesslike whilst engaging, clean and clear without being plain. It’s a touching little piece, of which these four players make the most. And they leave you happy to return for more.

The A major Toccata in shorter still—in just two movements, an allegro and gigue. Of course, lovers of Alessandro Scarlatti’s music will be listening for traits in this solo harpsichord work (Dirst again) which the composer’s son, Domenico, employed. And sure enough they’re there—ostinati; runs; crossing hands; angular, jumping melodies. Though not to the exclusion of everything else—chiefly an inventive liveliness mixed with containment— which it exhibits.



Uncle Dave Lewis
Allmusic.com, April 2009

This Naxos disc, Alessandro Scarlatti: Euridice dall’Inferno, combines a never-before recorded cantata of that name dating from 1699 with a short Latin oratorio, La concettione della Beata Vergine (1702), also new to recordings, combined with a couple of Scarlatti’s instrumental compositions to provide variety. To have a vocal work of Alessandro Scarlatti wholly new to disc is not in itself unusual; he wrote hundreds of them, and not very many have been recorded, at least compared to how the situation is for Telemann and Handel in that category. However, Euridice dall’Inferno is an exceptionally fine example of his work in the genre, and well performed here by the Houston-based period instrument ensemble Ars Lyrica Houston, newcomers themselves to recordings.

Soprano Melissa Givens does an exceptionally fine job in Euridice dall’Inferno, putting across a strong sense of drama while maintaining vocal purity and never going over the top with it; a little reminiscent at times of a young Emma Kirkby. The opening aria gets one’s attention, partly as it has a progression very similar to that of “Dido’s Lament” in Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, written just a decade before. While one cannot altogether discount the possibility that Scarlatti may have heard this very, very famous piece, it is probably a coincidence, though poor Eurydice is, after all, in hell, so such a musical idea is certainly not inappropriate. This oratorio La concettione della Beata Vergine (Oratorio of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin) is pocket-sized, lasting only a little over 30 minutes, with no chorus, only four soloists, and realized here with a band of just six players. It is tuneful, attractive, and rather amusing in its highly secularized storyline: the Virgin Mary is about to be born, but the big dragon (or serpent) Heresy is already making plans to blot her out even before she is brought into the world. The Archangel Michael intervenes, with the assistance of numerous pagan gods—presumably without realizing that Christianity will result in their own downfall—and Mary is conceived in the immaculate conception long claimed for her. In this piece, bass Timothy Jones digs into the role of Heresy with relish and provides this work with its most bracing moments…The instrumental pieces, though, are a nice bonus; the harpsichord Toccata demonstrates that some of what we know of the son originated with the father, with its thin, constantly overlapping textures and use of odd harmonic devices. The Cello Sonata in C minor is involving and well played by Barrett Sills.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

After languishing in the shadow of his brilliant son, Domenico, the works of Alessandro Scarlatti are taking their place among the masterpieces of the Baroque era. He was to have a chequered life brought about by political changes, his early success, where he became the major Italian opera composer of his time, ended when a papal ban was placed on such staged performances. Using much the same style of music, he moved into the field of oratorio and cantatas where it is said he composed over six hundred scores. They mainly spoke of love and the trials and tribulations that so often surround it. Euridice dall’Inferno dates from 1699, by which time he had reached musical maturity and came before the opera ban. Scored for soprano and instrumental group, it is in the form of recitatives and arias, the music moving between drama and smooth lyricism. The oratorio, La concettione della Beata Vergine, followed immediately after the opera ban in 1703, and can be seen as seeking papal favour, the oratorio following on recent pronouncements from the Pope. For soprano, alto (countertenor), tenor and bass, and with a small instrumental group, it states at length the belief in Mary’s immaculate conception. His instrumental works were few in number, the present disc completed by the Second Cello Sonata and a keyboard Toccata. Melissa Givens gets around the acrobatics in both vocal works with a nice silvery tone, and has pleasing colleagues in the oratorio. Unanimity in the final Presto of the Cello Sonata is less than ideal, but elsewhere the period instruments of Ars Lyrica Houston are good, and play with a style we now accept as authentic Baroque. Ears quickly adjust to the very open acoustic.






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4:16:42 PM, 19 April 2015
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