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Carlo Francesco CESARINI (1665 - 1741): "Cantatas"

Stéphanie Varnerin, soprano
Dir: Giorgio Tabacco

rec: May 18 - 19, 21 & 23 - 24, 2016, Paris, Eglise Bon Secours
Aparté - AP136 (© 2016) (69'19")
Liner-notes: E/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fetonte, e non ti basta; Filli, no'l niego, io dissi (La Gelosia)a; Già gl'augelli canori (L'Arianna); Oh dell'Adria reinaa; Penso di non mirarvi; V'è una bella tutta ingegno

Francesco D'Orazio, Lathika Vithanage, violina; Rebeca Ferri, cello; Pietro Prosser, theorbo; Giorgio Tabacco, harpsichord

During the last quarter of the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries numerous chamber cantatas were written. They were mostly intended for performances at gatherings of the Arcadian academies which had come into existence across Italy since the late 17th century. This explains why many of them are on texts about the Arcadian world, inhabited by shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs and hunters, and filled with meadows, brooks and groves. That doesn't result in music of an exclusively idyllic character. The life in Arcadia has its dark sides, as many cantatas show. Unhappy love or the fickleness of the beloved are the subjects of many cantatas.

Most music lovers will have heard cantatas of this kind from the pen of some of the most productive composers of such cantatas, such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel. The name of Carlo Francesco Cesarini may be new to them. That is not surprising: ArkivMusic lists the present disc as the only one with compositions by him. On the other hand, according to Giacomo Sciommeri in his liner-notes, he "can certainly be considered one of the most important composers of the late Baroque in Rome." From that we may conclude that the fact that up until now he seems to have been ignored, says more about the present music scene than about him. Therefore a disc like this is most welcome and much more important than the umpteenth recording of cantatas which are already available in several interpretations.

Cesarini was born in San Martino al Cimino, a small village in the province of Viterbo. For most of his career he was in the service of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, one of the most important patrons of his time, whom we know from the biographies of so many composers. He acted as Pamphili's maestro di cappella and worked in the same capacity in the church of Il Gesù. He was also a member of the Congregazione di S Cecilia. His works were performed in some of the most prestigious institutions in Rome. It seems that his reputation made him a wealthy man: in 1735 his daughters received large gifts. When he retired from Il Gesù the prefect asked him to leave the church a copy of each of his works because their excellence was "rarely matched by composers of the present day" (New Grove).

These facts attest to his reputation, as does the dissemination of his cantatas. They have been preserved in manuscripts which are held in libraries across Europe. Around 70 cantatas are extant; they consitute the main part of his oeuvre. He also composed a fair number of oratorios, but in the field of opera he only contributed single acts to a handful of operas by various composers and wrote little sacred music.

It was Alessandro Scarlatti who had laid down the basic form of the chamber cantata: two pairs of recitative and aria for a single voice - usually soprano or alto - and basso continuo. However, Scarlatti himself sometimes extended this model by adding an aria or another pair of recitative and aria. Sometimes he also added one or two treble instruments; in such cases the cantata was sometimes introduced by an instrumental sinfonia. The variety in texture of the chamber cantata is also present in Cesarini's oeuvre. Filli, no'l niego, io dissi, also known as La Gelosia, and Oh, dell'Adria reina are both scored for soprano, two violins and bc and open with two instrumental movements, called introduzione and canzona respectively. They are followed by three pairs of recitative and aria; that is also the texture of Già l'augelli canori or L'Arianna and of Fetonte, e non ti basta. These are for soprano and bc, and so are Penso di non mirarvi and V'è una bella tutta ingegno. However, the latter two come in five sections: they open with an aria which is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria.

You will have noticed that one of the cantatas has the title of L'Arianna. This is, of course, about the famous story of Arianna and Theseus which was a favourite subject of cantatas and operas. The first of the arias is a lament, the second a rage aria: "Terrible south winds, horrible storms, what are you waiting for? Drown the cheater!" This is the most dramatic aria on this disc. There are others which include some strong feelings as well. Like I said, life in Arcadia has its dark sides.

The listener to music like this is always tempted to look for something special, something which makes a piece stand out from the crowd. But that is not what composers of chamber cantatas intended. Such pieces were written for entertainment and little else. Their popularity depended on how well they were written and whether the listeners - the members of the Arcadian academies in the first place - enjoyed them. There can be little doubt that these cantatas by Cesarini are very well written. There are many beautiful melodies and the text is effectively expressed in the music. From that perspective this disc is a worthy addition to the discography.

Not only the name of Cesarini was new to me, I also had never heard of Stéphanie Varnerin. In 2014 she won first prize in the Compétition International de Chant Baroque in Froville as well as the public award. This disc is her first, and she makes a pretty good impression. I like her voice, and although she doesn't confine herself to baroque repertoire, it is well suited to it. She seems also to have a good sense of the style, as her ornamentation shows. There is no lack of text expression either, and she deals convincingly with the dramatic passages in these cantatas. However, I don't like the fact that she often uses too much vibrato. It is a bit strange: she almost completely avoids it on accentuated notes, especially when she sings them forte, but on unstressed notes the vibrato creeps in. I can't see any reason for that. It didn't spoil my enjoyment too much, which is a token of the quality of her singing and her interpretation, but it is something I would like her to avoid.

Even so, if you love this kind of repertoire I recommend to look out for this disc, because these cantatas are what they are supposed to be: good entertainment. I should add that L'Astrée is a fine ensemble, both the strings and the basso continuo section.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Stéphanie Varnerin

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