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Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "Cantatas"

New Chamber Opera; The Band of Instruments
Dir: Gary Cooper

rec: August 19 - 21, 2002, Oxford, New College Chapel
ASV Gaudeamus - CD GAU 339 (© 2004) (63'21")

All’ombra di sospetto (RV 678)ac; Amor, hai vinto (RV 651)a; Lungi dal vago volto (RV 680)ad; Perfidissimo cor! Iniquo fato! (RV 674)b Qual per ignoto calle (RV 677)b

Mary Nelson, sopranoa; Charles Humphries, altob; Christine Garratt, transverse flutec; Caroline Balding, violind; David Watkins, cello; Gary Cooper, harpsichord

Like many of his Italian contemporaries Vivaldi composed a number of chamber cantatas. According to the latest count he wrote 37, which is considerable, but a small number in comparison to the hundreds by the likes of Agostino Steffani and Alessandro Scarlatti. The fact that Vivaldi's cantatas are overshadowed by his concertos is not surprising. That was already the case in his own time. Unlike his concertos his cantatas were never published, and their circulation was limited. They were composed over a long period of time. Some were written before 1720 when Vivaldi was in Mantua, others date from the 1720's when Vivaldi was in Venice. A number of cantatas have been found in Dresden, where singers from Venice were staying from 1730 onwards.

In the first decades of the 18th century the chamber cantata got its formal pattern of a sequence of recitative - aria - recitative - aria. Sometimes composers dropped the first recitative. But in the cantatas recorded here Vivaldi sticks to the usual pattern. The subject matter is also in line with the convention of the time: they concentrate on - happy or unhappy - love and everything connected to that, mostly set in a mythical world with nymphs and shepherds.

The relationship between Vivaldi and the poets whose texts he used wasn't unproblematic. When Carlo Goldoni was asked by Vivaldi to adapt an aria from the drama Griselda by Apostolo Zeno, Goldoni wasn't happy with the result: "I then assassinated Zeno's drama as and how he wished." This suggests that Vivaldi didn't care very much about the quality of the texts he was going to set to music. He seems to have changed and abridged texts radically in order to adapt them to the music he had in mind. He was mainly looking for key words which he could use to create the appropriate affetti. He did so with great success. In the booklet Michael Talbot writes: "Where Vivaldi excels as a composer of cantatas is in his ability to depict moods and even individual words. No vocal roulade is just a roulade: careful listening, text in hand, reveals how skilfully and purposefully he worked to mirror words with musical notes." Unfortunately the record company seems not to consider it necessary to listen to these cantatas "with text in hand": the booklet doesn’t include the lyrics.

The liner notes refer to the assessment of Vivaldi's cantatas by the English journalist Charles Burney. In his opinion they were "very common and quiet, notwithstanding he [Vivaldi] was so riotous in composing for violins". Of course, he didn't know all of Vivaldi's cantatas, and it seems rather unlikely he knew some of the cantatas on this programme, which are anything but "common and quiet". The last arias of Lungi dal vago volto and Qual per ignoto calle are very virtuosic and technically demanding, and very expressive to boot.

I am not overjoyed by the way the cantatas are performed here. The accomplishments of the singers are widely varying. I found it very hard to listen to Mary Nelson, firstly because of her continuing too wide vibrato, secondly because of a lack of declamation in her singing, in particular in the recitatives, which are far too rigid and stiff. The playing of the violin in both arias is disappointing as well, with too much legato and no dynamic differentiation. The transverse flute in the last cantata, 'All'ombra di sospetto', is somewhat better in this respect. The main asset is that there is no shortage of ornamentation, even though there is too little variety in it.

The performances of Charles Humphries are a different matter altogether. He seems to identify much more strongly with the protagonists in whose mouths the text is put. His interpretation of the recitatives is admirable. The range of the alto parts in these cantatas is fairly wide, and sometimes he has notes to sing which are difficult to realise with a falsetto voice. In such cases he goes into his chest register, which gives these notes much more impact than otherwise would have been the case. The last aria of Qual per ignoto calle is very virtuosic, and Humphries can only just keep up with the speed of the aria. But he does so quite well: I compared his performance with one by an Italian female contralto. Even she had a hard time, and there the tempo was slightly slower.

I find it difficult to recommend a recording on the basis of only two cantatas which are really well performed. And I don't understand how the execution of two singers within one recording can be so different.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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