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Conti: "Cantate con istromenti"

Bernarda Fink (mezzosoprano)
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor
rec: July 9 - 12, 2001, Calci, Chiesa de Tre Colli
Arcana - A 309 (68'20")

Cantata I: Lontananza dell'amato (#); Cantata II: Ride il prato (%); Cantata III: Con pił lucidi candori ($); Cantata IV: Vaghi augelletti (*)

Michael Oman (recorder) (%), Christian Gurtner (flute) (#), Peter Rabl (chalumeau) (#$*), Gunar Letzbor, Ilia Korol (violin), Gaetano Nasillo (cello), Luciano Contini (archlute), Norbert Zeilberger (harpsichord, organ)

This is the second time within a year that I stumbled into the music of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti. Last April I heard a live performance of his tragicommedia Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena, which was composed for the Carnival season in 1719. Having heard that work I was surprised that his music isn't more often performed. After listening to the cantatas on this CD I am even more convinced that he is a composer who should be paid more attention to.
These cantatas are remarkable in several ways. They all contain parts for obbligato instruments. This was in line with the practice at the Vienna court for which they were composed. All are scored for two violins, with additional parts for other instruments, like the flute, recorder, chalumeau and lute. This indicates what is unusual about these cantatas. First of all, there are not that many composers who have paid so much attention to the chalumeau, an instrument which appeared on the music scene at the end of the 17th century, only to be replaced by the clarinet in the first half of the 18th century. But it seems that Conti has written parts for the chalumeau, because the emperor Joseph I played the instrument himself. Apart from that the prominent role of the lute is equally striking. This can be explained by the fact that Conti was a professional lute and theorbo player. Since no compositions of his for this instrument have been found, these cantatas are the only indication of his skills, which must have been highly advanced. The lute is here referred to as 'leuti francesi' - not a specific instrument, but a lute tuned in the French manner, which was common in France and Germany, whereas the Italians tuned the lute still in renaissance manner. The lute doubles the parts of both the obbligato instruments and the basso continuo. It is blending particularly well with the chalumeau, especially in the Cantata III.
The cantatas are mostly pastoral in character, and the music is mostly galant, with pleasing and fluent melodies for both voice and instruments. The instruments are illustrating the content of the arias, like the recorder in Cantata II, and - as I mentioned earlier - the chalumeau in Cantata III. The only more dramatic work is the Cantata I, about an unhappy love. It is there that the instruments play a more dramatic role, in particular in the first aria, and the lute plays a separate role.

The performance of the instrumentalists is excellent, without exception. The melancholic nature of the chalumeau parts is brilliantly realised by Peter Rabl, and Luciano Contini is equally convincing in the obbligato lute parts. It is the contribution of Bernarda Fink which I have problems with. I have never been a great admirer of her singing, and I don't like her frequent use of vibrato, but in this case that isn't my main concern. What one may think about her, she is a very dramatic singer, but here I believe she is out of place. With the exception of the first cantata, these works are not dramatic, and I feel that she is taking them too heavy and too dramatic. Singing forte almost all the time makes her performance tiring. I would like her to relax a little, and hear more differentiation in her interpretation. I also believe that she should have taken more rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, as you would expect from someone who is very experienced in baroque opera.
I would recommend this recording in particular because these compositions are remarkable in a number of respects, as I indicated before, and because of the great playing of the ensemble. The recording would have been a complete success, I think, if Bernarda Fink had been replaced by someone like Maria-Cristina Kiehr or Gloria Banditelli.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

Relevant links:
Bernarda Fink

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