FIOCCO: Missa Solemnis. Ave Maria. Homo quidam.
Greta De Reyghere, soprano; Hilde Coppé soprano; Jean Nirouët, alto; Jan Van Elsacker, tenor; Jan Van der Crabben, bass; Werner Van Mechelen, bass; Dirk Snellings, bass. Cappella Brugensis, Collegium Instrumentale Brugense/Patrick Peire, cond.
Naxos 8.557120 (B) {DDD} TT: 60:30

Don't play these at one go. Joseph-Hector Fiocco lived during the first half of the eighteenth century, born after Bach and dead before, reaching only 38. As the last name implies, he came from an Italian family. His father, born in Venice and also a composer, settled in Brussels in 1682 and married a Belgian woman. The entire family moved in the highest musical circles of Belgium. The statement, in Patrick Peire's liner notes, that one can consider Fiocco "certainly ... the most important Belgian composer of the first half of the eighteenth century" raises a slight smile and calls to mind the bestiary of Great English Cooks, Great American Demolition Derby Drivers, Great German Jitterbuggers, and Great French Blues Singers.

It's not that Fiocco is terrible or even uninteresting. He's a very good composer. His music moves with a Vivaldian bounce, with high trumpets often blazing away in the more festal sections. But you've only to compare him to Vivaldi himself to realize the gap between very good and genius—not that everything has to be a masterpiece, of course. Perhaps the title Missa solemnis raised my expectations. You won't find anything at the Olympian level of Beethoven, nor should you necessarily. The designation refers to the liturgical service, not the music.

Musically, it's a fascinating blend. One notes almost immediately the influence of Vivaldi in the string writing and in certain turns of phrase. The choral writing amalgamates the syllabic declamation of the French baroque (the Mass's opening "Kyrie eleison" rhythm is very characteristic of composers like Charpentier) with a contrapuntal approach more characteristic of Vivaldi and even Handel in an Italianate mode. The counterpoint becomes even more pronounced in the soloist sections. There's also a very French delight in mixing choral passages with different combinations of soloists, heard most clearly in the Mass's "Credo." Peire's liner notes try to make a case for an influence of the counterpoint of the great Flemish school, but I think he stretches a bit far. To me, the counterpoint is pure Baroque and one finds similar stuff in Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach. Every section is attractive and finely worked, if not especially penetrating. Furthermore, sections do tend to run together over the long haul. Beyond deliberate repetitions (the beginning and end of the Homo quidam get the same music, for example), certain musical tags show up from one section to the next. For me, Fiocco goes to the same well a little too often.

However, the Mass has some superior things. I think especially of the absorbing low sonorities of the "Crucifixus" (three basses, celli, bass, and I think bassoons) and the manically bright "Et resurrexit" which follows. The fleet "Sanctus" should call to mind the opening to Vivaldi's famous Gloria in D in its insistent vigor. In the "Agnus Dei," French syllabic writing fights with Italian counterpoint and melisma. Italy wins.

Despite a sensitive, musicianly performance from soprano De Reyghere and the Collegium Instrumentale, the Ave Maria simply didn't stick with me. On the other hand, it takes up less than four minutes of the program. With the more elaborate Homo quidam, we're back to the idiom and the artistic level of the Mass, but in a more concentrated space. Again, French and Italian elements co-exist, with the Italian predominant, due in no small part to the string writing, which comes right out of Vivaldi and his contemporaries, who had Dutch and Flemish publishers, by and large, so the music was close at hand for study.

The performances are very good indeed. The choral singing is rhythmically clean without rhythmic stiffness and the tone bright and clear. The soloists are ideally suited to the music. They sing with sensitivity to phrase and word-stress. They negotiate their runs without straining or barely hanging on. As good as all this is, the instrumentalists do even better, especially the violins, routinely given marathon runs of quick notes, and the trumpets, charged to play in the stratosphere. Peire asks and gets a lot from his forces.

Some may find the sound a bit bright. I think the music can stand it. Overall, a superior release from Naxos.

S.G.S. (October 2003)