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"Baroque Consolation - Sacred Arias at the Imperial Viennese Court"

Sarah Van Mol, soprano
Dir: Wim Becu

rec: Nov 2016, Broechem (B), Onze Lieve Vrouwekerka; Feb 2018, Herentals (B), Sint-Catharina Begijnhofkerkb
Accent - ACC24349 ( 2019) (58'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Dies irae (Oro supplex)b; Laudate pueri Dominum (Gloria Patri)b; Morte e Sepoltura di Cristo, oratorio (Deh sciogliete, o mesti lumi)b; Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (1682-1732): Languet anima mea (Tu lumen mentis es)b; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Fantasia II in a minor (FbWV 202)a; Toccata X in F (FbWV 110)a; Johann Joseph FUX (1660-1741): Sonata 3b; JOSEPH I: Alme ingrateb; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Toccata Ia; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Fantasia in g minora; Marco Antonio ZIANI (c1653-1715): Il mistico Giobbe, sepolcro (Quel sembiante cosi bello)b; Il sacrifizio d'Isacco, sepolcro (Non giunta)b; Pietro Antonio ZIANI (1616-1684): Domine Dominus nosterb

Veronika Skuplik, Maria Carrasco, violin; Wim Becu, trombone; Bart Rodyns, organ (soloa)

The Habsburg dynasty was one of the most powerful in Europe from the early 13th to the early 19th century. It was also a major power in cultural matters. It attracted the best musicians and composers to serve at its courts. Their credentials reflected the power and splendour of the rulers. The imperial court in Vienna was one of the main musical centres, especially from 1640 to 1740, under the emperors Ferdinand III, Leopold I, Joseph I and Charles VI. All four were also active in music themselves, both as performers and as composers. Charles VI even conducted a performance of the opera Costanza e Fortezza, written by his Kapellmeister Johann Joseph Fux. Musical life at the court had a strong Italian flavour: most of the musicians in the service of the Habsburg emperors were from Italy.

A huge repertoire was written in Vienna in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. To date only a small part of it has been explored. Several discs have been devoted to extracts from vocal works, either sacred or secular, but only a few works have been recorded complete. The present disc does not change that, but - like previous recordings - it can serve to raise the interest in the repertoire from which the arias are taken.

Unfortunately the programme is not very satisfying. First, the subtitle promises "sacred arias at the imperial Viennese court", but more than a quarter of the programme is filled with organ music. Add to that a sonata by Fux, and as a result we get less than 35 minutes of the kind of music this disc is devoted to. Second, some arias are very short. If these are separate works, that is no problem, but most of them are taken from larger works. I am not in favour of isolating arias from their context, but in a recording like this that is inevitable. Deh sciogliete, o mesti lumi from the oratorio Morte e Sepoltura di Cristo by Antonio Caldara is a good example. However, isolating the Gloria Patri from his Psalm Laudate pueri Dominum makes little sense, let alone the Oro supplex from his Dies irae, which takes just 1'45". It would have made more sense to focus on arias from larger-scale works, in particular oratorios.

Turning to the music performed here, two features of music at the court in Vienna are notable. First: the musical taste was rather conservative, as the importance of counterpoint proves. Around 1700 even music for a consort of viols was played at the court, a form that had become obsolete everywhere else, even in England. Second, many arias include one or several obbligato instrumental parts, especially for the trombone. In the 16th century and the early decades of the 17th it played in ensemble, usually with cornetts. It also participated in performances of vocal polyphony, often playing colla voce. In the early 17th century some music for solo trombone was written, but gradually it had fallen out of grace. Around 1700 Vienna was one of the very few places where it was still in use. This tradition lasted until the end of the 18th century when Mozart worked in Vienna. The trombonists at the Viennese court were largely from just one family. Around the middle of the 17th century it had a brilliant player in its ranks: Johann Friedrich Hellweg. At the end of his life he handed over his art to Leopold Christian who was the first of a dynasty of trombonists which would dominate trombone-playing at the court for about a century. They were much admired and considered the greatest virtuosos of their time.

The programme includes music by some of the main composers who were in the service of the court in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The best known of them is Antonio Caldara, whose oeuvre is large and versatile, but to date hardly explored. Here he is represented with extracts from liturgical music and an aria from an oratorio. The latter was intended for performance during Passiontide. The Passion oratorio had its roots in the tradition of the so-called sepolcro. In New Grove, the sepolcro is defined as "a 17th-century genre of sacred dramatic music in Italian related to the oratorio and performed on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the Habsburg court chapels in Vienna". This disc includes arias from two sepolcri by Marco Antonio Ziani as well as an aria emperor Joseph I contributed to a sepolcro by an anonymous composer. The sepolcro is a genre which deserves to be researched and explored. Performances of sepolcri could result in a larger variety of music for Passiontide. To date hardly any sepolcri are available on disc.

Ziani is one of the lesser-known composers included here. He was from Venice and was appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1700. In 1712 he became Kapellmeister; when he died he was succeeded by Fux. He composed a large number of operas and various sepolcri and oratorios. His uncle Pietro Andrea worked only for a short period of time in Vienna, at the court of Dowager empress Eleonora in the mid-1660s. His motet Domine Deus noster is stylistically different from the other vocal items in the programme, much closer to the monodic style which was a feature of the first half of the 17th century. Lastly, Francesco Bartolomeo Conti: he was born in Florence, but spent the largest part of his life in Vienna, where he worked at the imperial court. In 1708 he was appointed first theorbo player, in 1713 he became also court composer. After these appointments he was one of the highest paid musicians in Vienna.

This disc's title promises more than it has to offer, as I have already stated. Fortunately, the music and the performances are much better, although not perfect. Sarah Van Mol has a lovely voice, and I really enjoyed her singing. It is nice when someone is willing to avoid the eccentricities which spoil so many recordings of vocal music, such as an incessant vibrato. That said, sometimes I found the interpretation a bit too bland; now and then I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts and a wider variety of colours. Pietro Antonio Ziani's Domine Dominus noster does not come off that well; the performance is not declamatory enough and lacks some of the features of the monodic style. Caldara's Deh sciogliete o mesti lumi is one of the best parts of this disc, and here Sarah Van Mol shows that she is able to explore the dramatic traits of a piece.

The playing of the instrumental ensemble leaves nothing to be desired. Especially Wim Becu impresses with his performance of the sometimes demanding trombone parts. For the organ solos Bart Rodyns turned to an organ built by Jean-Baptiste Forceville around 1720. He plays the organ pieces very well. However, returning to the selection of music, I find the mixture of pieces from different periods in the history of music at the Viennese court unsatisfying. This disc could have been better if it had entirely focused on music from the early decades of the 18th century. That would have created a stronger stylistic coherence.

That said, this disc is an interesting addition to the discography of music at the imperial court in Vienna. One has to hope that in the course of time complete works, such as liturgical music, oratorios and sepulcri, will be performed and recorded.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

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Sarah Van Mol

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