[Buy it now! This is the CD of the year! The Pergolesi mass is a work of exuberant fancies. The Scarlatti is a work of unfathomable beauty and mystery. If I had to choose a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti to give evidence of his stature as a composer on a par with Monteverdi and Bach, right now I'd pick his Messa per il Santissimo Natale.]
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) composed only ten masses. The liturgical conservatism of his era made innovative masses out of fashion, elbowed aside by the quasi-operatic forms of the cantata and oratorio, at which Scarlatti excelled. In the years around 1707, however, the taste of Scarlatti's patrons, especially the cardinals of the Arcadian Academy, had shifted toward a kind of pastoral simplicity, the style Scarlatti perfected in his Cantata per la Notte di Natale of 1705. In 1707, however, Scarlatti was 'maestro di capella' -- capo di tutti capi, you might say -- at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. As such, he could write whatever he wanted, and it's clear that what he wanted was a work of the most profound intellectual beauty, a work that displayed all his skill at polyphony, harmonic innovation, rhythmic complexity, and expressiveness of a higher order than mere melodrama.
Scarlatti's Christmas Mass was such a composition, written for totally independent antiphonal choirs plus two obbligato violins that embellish the polyphony independently of either choir. The mood of this mass is serenely celebratory -- such music as the angel choirs might have sung. Even the Agnus Dei is less a plea for mercy than a carol of affection for the Holy Infant. Scarlatti's treatment of the acoustical space between the two choirs is spectacular; be sure to set up your sound system to maximize the separation, and to sit attentively between the speakers, wagging your head left and right as if watching a tennis match.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi ( 1710-1736) was commissioned to write his Mass in F major by the city fathers of Naples, following a terrible earthquake in 1731, to solicit the attention of Saint Emygdius, "that he might protect them from such scourges in the future by making intercession with God." Earthquakes apparently have the power to inspire bizarre inventiveness in music; the 12-voice earthquake mass by Antoine Brumel comes to mind, plus this fantastically colorful 'missa breva' by Pergolesi, in which the Kyrie lasts only 4 minutes but the Gloria depicts the wonders of nature for a full 24 minutes. This is also a work of spatial acoustic fireworks, with fragments of music and text exploding left and right, and seemingly above, behind, below, and inside your ears. Believe me, it's not what you'd expect from the precocious composer of galante comic operas. The patrons must have been delighted with it, since it has survived in three different scores, each requiring larger and larger forces. It was performed annually in September in Naples thereafter, and in Rome in 1734 -- "with all the musicians and violinists of Rome" according to a contemporary memoirist -- in honor of St. John Nepomuk, the favorite saint of the Hapsburgs.
Pergolesi lived a mere 26 years, making him as tragic an early loss to music as Mozart. This mass and his very famous Stabat Mater are music of supreme art and beauty.
Concerto Italiano, led by Rinaldo Alessandrini, sing and play these two awesome pieces of music as well as they deserve. That's intended as high praise; a better performance is probably not given to mere humans, only to angelic choirs and orchestras.