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"I Dilettanti"

Xavier Sabata, alto
Latinitas Nostra

rec: August 12 - 15, 2013, Avià, Atheneu
Aparté - AP093 (© 2014) (58'22")
Liner-notes: E/F/S; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Emanuele D'ASTORGA (1680-1757?): In queste amene selve; Vincenzo BENEDETTI (1683-?): La Gelosia; Diogenio BIGAGLIA (1676-1745): Più ch'io cerco del mio bene; Giacomo MACCARI (1700-1744): Non mi si dica più; Benedetto MARCELLO (1686-1739): Lucrezia; Giovanni Maria RUGGIERI (1665-1725): Armida abbandonata (Deh m'adita ò bella Dea; Vinto son della mia fede, arias arr for voice and bc)

In the baroque era music was very much part of everyday life. For rulers and aristocrats it was also a means of representation. They competed with each other to attract the best composers and musicians. They sometimes expressed their appreciation or even admiration for the musicians in their service. That doesn't imply they dealt with them on terms of equality, let alone friendship. Musicians were rather low on the social ladder and were expected to know their place. This explains why musically-gifted aristocrats were not expected to compose. If they did, they called themselves dilettanti. That has given this disc its name as it includes cantatas by composers from the higher echelons of society.

The programme opens with a cantata by Giacomo Maccari who seems not to fall into this category. He was a tenor in San Marco in Venice, but as a composer he was mostly active in the field of music for the theatre. Emanuele d'Astorga fits into this context better as he had the title of Baron. His family was of Spanish origin and had purchased land in Sicily which was connected to this title. Little is known about his musical education but at an early age he started travelling. He then stayed a while in Rome, went to other cities and ended his life in Spain. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of chamber cantatas.

Vincenzo Benedetti is another composer about whom we know very little; he has no entry in New Grove. For some time he lived in the Swiss canton of Basel and in the Kingdom of Valencia. He seems to have been active as an alto singer. His cantata La Gelosia comprises only a recitative and an aria. Giovanni Maria Ruggieri's career took place in Venice. In 1689 he published his op. 1 with sonate da camera, and on the title page called himself dilettante. The two arias in this programme are from a manuscript in the British Library and are arrangements for voice and basso continuo of arias from his opera Armida abbandonata. Diogenio Bigaglia made a career in the church, and the largest part of his output consists of sacred music. However, he also composed a number of chamber cantatas, such as Più ch'io cerco del mio bene, comprising two arias divided by a recitative.

The only really well-known composer in the programme is Benedetto Marcello. He was born in Venice as son of a nobleman and followed a career in public service as all men in his circles did. Not only was he active as a composer, he also married a woman from outside his own ranks. From that one may assume he was a rather individual character. That also comes to the fore in his compositions. As he never had an official position as composer or musician and didn't need to make a living from his activities in this field he could afford to be unconventional. The cantata Lucrezia is a striking example and is the most original piece in this programme. It is not a cantata as we probably expect: a sequence of recitatives and arias. In a way we are brought back to the first half of the 17th century when Monteverdi composed his Lamento d'Arianna. This cantata is a long recitative with some passages with an arioso character.

It can hardly come as a surprise: Marcello was known for being highly critical of the musical conventions of his time, especially in opera. He expressed his views in his treatise Il teatro alla moda. He was an advocate of naturalness in music, and what is more natural than a protagonist expressing his or her feelings in a speech-like manner? Exactly that was the ideal of composers from the early 17th century, such as Giulio Caccini, and was known as recitar cantando. That is the style of this cantata. It is not the only piece of this kind from his pen: Sabata's colleague Kai Wessel recorded the cantata Cassandra which lasts about 50 minutes. There is another remarkable feature of these two cantatas: they require a very wide range. In Cassandra a passage is notated in bass clef, and in Lucrezia the range is more than two octaves and includes also some very low notes. This means that the singer has to switch from head to chest voice.

Sabata manages to do that quite well, and this cantata is by far the best part of this disc. That is especially due to the fact that it mostly written in the form of recitative. Here and in the recitatives of the other cantatas he shows that he masters the art of recitar cantando. In the recitatives I am less bothered by a feature of his singing which I find otherwise hard to swallow: his incessant and sometimes pretty wide vibrato. That is the main reason that I found it not easy to listen to this disc and it is unlikely that I will return to it. It is historically untenable and I just find it utterly unattractive.

The main attraction of this disc is the repertoire, and especially the cantata by Marcello. There is much to enjoy here if you are not allergic to Sabata's incessant vibrato. The decision whether to purchase this disc or not is yours, but at least I have put you on notice.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Xavier Sabata
Latinitas Nostra

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