Gaetano Veneziano (1665-1716): In Officio Defunctorum - Nocturns for the Dead / Ensemble Odyssee


Ensemble Odyssee’s album of music by Gaetano Veneziano (1656–1716) and Alessandro Scarlatti (1660–1725) is as much about the group and their approach to performance as it is about the composers and music they’ve chosen. That is, when an ensemble champions the work of a composer, they put both that composer and their own musical knowledge and taste on display. This is the relationship Ensemble Odyssee has with Veneziano, whose music they have recorded previously on the Pan Classics label. Here they continue to perform his work with dedication and energy. Their thoughtful approach is immediately evident in their clarity and precision, but really comes through in their depth of understanding of the music.

The group worked with all of the available sources for Veneziano’s sacred “Notturnos,” sets of lessons and prayers to be performed early in the morning before the sun has risen. In some cases the ensemble had to compose parts that were missing, or make interpretive decisions based on the surviving manuscripts. As a whole, it seems the group is careful but bold, unafraid of the field of early music performance that is at times stifling to creativity and expression. These three sets of three lessons each are of the Officium Defunctorum, or the Office of the Dead—not a proper requiem, but rather a set of works that would have been sung whenever a nobleman died. It is unclear whether they were meant to be taken together as a complete set, but certainly work well as such.

Two additional works are included here: Scarlatti’s Sinfonia Quarta, a very short, five-movement instrumental work for strings and winds; and a four-part Miserere by Veneziano. The former feels a bit out of place in the midst of all this rather severe sacred vocal music. It is relatively light-hearted and fleeting, a small musical tidbit by a composer with an imposing presence. Indeed, some suspect that Scarlatti’s 100 operas may have prevented Veneziano from composing in the genre while he was also living in Naples. On this record the tables have turned, and Veneziano’s work greatly outweighs Scarlatti’s, both in substance and in quantity. The Miserere is a fitting conclusion to the recording, touching upon the theme of death with its Requiem text. Voices are doubled by strings and organ for a richer texture, lending to the music’s gravity. The piece slowly grinds to a halt, pleading for mercy.

Ensemble Odyssee combines a knowledge and respect for early music with a fresh enthusiasm that makes this music exciting and haunting. Their performances of Veneziano’s Notturnos are cause for optimism, and I look forward to the group’s future recordings. For now, this record is an opportunity to hear music that is otherwise very difficult to find.

Gaetano Veneziano: Sonata | Ensemble Odyssee