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Profeti della Quinta - Salomone Rossi: Il Mantovano Hebreo - The Telegraph (Live Review)

17 May 2016
The Telegraph
John Allison
4 Stars

The theme of this year's London Festival of Baroque Music is "The Word", aptly since in no other period of history is the ideal of verbal expressiveness quite so central to music. Amid typically interesting programming, this concert stood out for its texts: the ensemble Profeti della Quinta's exploration of the work of Salomone Rossi, who composed in both Italian and Hebrew for different constituencies in early Baroque Mantua.

Dubbed Il Mantovano Hebreo, Rossi (c1570-c1630) was stylistically perhaps more Mantovano than Hebreo, but both aspects of his musical makeup are important. Somewhat overshadowed by Claudio Monteverdi, his more famous contemporary, Rossi composed for the Gonzaga court as well as the synagogue - significantly so in the latter case, as he was a pioneer in cultivating a style of Jewish music going beyond the traditional liturgical soundworld.

Profeti della Quinta, founded in Israel's Galilee region but now based in Basel, has made Rossi's music a mission, and here it presented a portrait of the composer that included some of this purely instrumental pieces too. Some of these functioned as short, wistful interludes; but in places the two violins and chitarrone (a bass lute), led from the harpsichord by the ensemble's musical director Elam Rotem, built up effervescent momentum.

Many of the Hebrew settings heard here were psalms, and the group opened with "Shir hamma'alót" (Psalm 128), illustrating how Rossi's style was more transparent, less gritty than Monteverdi's. The five male voices blended while keeping their individual colours, which they used to illuminate the texts, notably so in the stark and sombre "Al naharót Bavél", a psalm beloved of many composers ("By the waters of Babylon"). The rich textures of Rossi's Kaddish must have been a revelation to congregations in early 17th-century Mantua.

The group also found room for one of Rotem's own works, a setting from the Song of Songs that - adhering to Italian Baroque style - makes sensuous use of consonants. It fitted the festival's theme perfectly.

Rossi's published volume of Hebrew sacred music may have been his most distinctive achievement, but his Italian works are worth hearing too. "Sfogava con le stelle", taking words thought to be by Monteverdi's librettist Ottavio Rinuccini, is full of longing, and the more musically advanced "Messaggier di speranza" shows what was lost when the Mantuan ghetto was sacked by Austrian imperial troops in 1630, the year in which Rossi disappears from the records.

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