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Benedetto MARCELLO (1686 - 1739): Cassandra

Kai Wessel, altoa; David Blunden, harpsichord

rec: Sept 24 - 26, 2009, La Chaux-de-Fonds (CH), L'Heure bleue (Salle de musique)
Aeon - AECD1087 ( 2009) (66'44")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto in c minor (after Benedetto Marcello) (BWV 981); Benedetto MARCELLO: Cassandra, cantata for voice and bca

Benedetto Marcello belongs to those composers who have heardly benefitted from the emerging interest in the Italian music of the first half of the 18th century. The discs with music by Marcello in my collection is very limited, and over the years I haven't seen many discs which were completely devoted to his oeuvre. He was different from his peers in that he wasn't a professional composer. He was from an aristocratic family, and therefore wasn't able to make a career in music; he was what was called a dilettante. That didn't prevent him from being highly respected as a composer. In particular his Psalms on Italian texts brought him fame and were praised by the likes of Georg Philipp Telemann, Giovanni Bononcini and - later in the 18th century - Padre Martini.

Marcello was quite critical about the musical fashion of his time, in particular about what he considered 'tasteless' ornamentation. His goal of a more 'natural' way of setting texts to music was reflected in his oratorio Joaz which is seen as anticipating the reforms of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Marcello composed more than 400 cantatas, mostly for solo voice and bc. Most remarkable are the dramatic cantatas on subjects from antiquity, like Catone, Lucrezia, Arianna abbandonata and Cassandra. These are dramatic monologues which have few arias or even none at all.

In September 1727 Marcello finished the composition of his cantata Il Timoteo which was scored for two voices and bc, and whose text was written by the Venetian poet Antonio Conti. Because of the positive reception of this piece Marcello asked for more from Conti, and this time for solo voice. Cassandra is one of the results of this request. Conti combines extended excerpts from Homer's Iliad with passages from descriptions of the Trojan War by Lycophron and Euripides. In Greek mythology Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her beauty caused Apollo to grant her the gift of prophecy. However, when she did not return his love, Apollo placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. As a result of this she had to experience agonising visions of the downfall of her city and her family. Her warnings went unheeded, and Troy was destroyed.

The cantata also bears witness of Marcello's pursuit of naturalness. It consists mainly of recitatives and ariosos and that allows him to translate the unfolding of the events and the feelings of the protagonists in a very direct way. There are hardly any arias - and just one dacapo aria - which break up the story. Marcello also made some adaptations of the text for the sake of the expression of the affetti. With its 328 lines it is an extraordinary long work which lasts just under 50 minutes in this performance.

One interesting aspect is the voice for which is was scored. Almost all extant copies - 25 in total which attests to the work's popularity - give an alto as the voice type. But there is one aria - for Priam, the only male character - which is written in the bass clef. As the involvement of a second singer is hardly plausible it is assumed the cantata was written for a singer who was able to sing both in the bass and in the alto register. The cantata is vocally demanding anyway, as it requires a tessitura of more than three octaves. Kai Wessel meets those requirements impressively. He sings the bass aria in his bass range, and does so pretty well.

His whole interpretation is fully convincing. The strength of his chest register and the effortless change from his falsetto into his chest register allows the full exploration of the emotional depth of this cantata. Marcello follows the text very closely in his setting, and uses effects like sudden pauses or tremolos to depict the emotions of the characters. Wessel's performance is very evocative thanks to the clever use of his own vocal qualities, including a fine dynamic shading and differentiated colouring. David Blunden is his congenial partner at the harpsichord, adding his own accents to the performance.

The addition of a concerto by Marcello in Johann Sebastian Bach's arrangement for harpsichord makes sense. It is one of the lesser-known of Bach's arrangements, and the use of a two-manual harpsichord gives Blunden the opportunity to create a contrast between soli and tutti.

This disc is intriguing from a historical point of view and musically compelling. We definitely need more Marcello.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

Relevant links:

Kai Wessel


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