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"El Maestro Farinelli"

Bejun Mehta, altoa
Concerto Köln
Dir: Pablo Heras-Casado

rec: July & August 2013, Cologne, Probenstudio Stolberger Straße; Jan 2014, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)a
Archiv - 479 2050 (© 2014) (68'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Symphony in e minor (Wq 178 / H 653); Nicola CONFORTO (1718-1793): Overture La festa cinese; Francesco CORRADINI (1690/92-1769): Baile de las máscaras (exc); Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Sinfonia in g minor, op. 5,6; Niccolň JOMMELLI (1714-1774): Periodical Overture; Juan MARCOLINI (fl 1760-1770): Overture La dicha en la desgracia y vida campestre; José DE NEBRA (1702-1768): Amar y ser amado y la divina Philotea, incidental music (seguidilla); Donde hay violencia no hay culpa (seguidillas) (attr); Para obsequioa la deydad, nunca es culto la crueldad, y Iphigeniaen Tracia (seguidilla); Vendado es amor, no es ciego, zarzuela (seguidilla; Tempestad grande, fandangoa); Viento es la dicha de amor (canción); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Overture Carlo il calvo; Polifemo (Alto Giove, aria)a; Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779): Overture Armida

If you look at the cover of this disc you may wonder what it is about. You probably know the name of Farinelli, one of the most famous castratos of the 18th century. This is certainly not the first disc devoted to him. But then you may ask why there is no name of a singer on the cover. If this is a recital of arias Farinelli has - or may have - sung, then who sings them? The answer is: Bejun Mehta sings arias - that is to say, he sings just one from Farinelli's repertoire. This disc is not so much about Farinelli the singer but rather about Farinelli the impresario, after he had settled in Spain in 1737. The programme includes pieces which in some way or another can be connected to Farinelli and his Spanish environment. However, the way the programme has been put together has resulted in a lack of consistency.

Farinelli was born as Carlo Broschi in 1705 in Andria. In 1711 the family moved to Naples and in 1717 he became a pupil of Nicolo Porpora who at that time was already famous as a singing teacher. He was just 15 when he made his debut as a soloist in Porpora's opera Angelica e Medoro, on a libretto by Metastasio. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Farinelli and the librettist, who referred to each other as 'dear twin'. In the next years Farinelli sang in various operas in Naples and Rome and then his career brought him to other Italian cities where he achieved great success. In Turin he met the English ambassador who played a crucial role in bringing him to London where he participated in performances of the Opera of the Nobility which the previous year had engaged his former teacher Porpora. Farinelli sang in operas by him and by Hasse.

In 1737 he left for Spain at the invitation of Queen Elisabeth in the hope that his singing would help cure the debilitating depression of Philip V. Every night he sang some arias for the King until the latter's death in 1746. In 1737 he had been appointed as 'royal servant', and in 1747 - under the reign of Philip's successor Ferdinand VI - he became artistic director of the theatres of the palace at Buen Retiro in Madrid and the palace of Aranjuez. He held this post until the King's death in 1759. He turned to Metastasio for the realization of many of his projects. Several of the latter's libretti were performed in settings by composers such as Nicola Conforto who opens the present disc with the overture to La festa cinese, an opera on a libretto by Metastasio and performed in Madrid in 1751.

He was from Naples and started to write operas in the late 1740s. In 1752 he received a commission to compose Metastasio's libretto Siroe for Ferdinand VI's name day and in 1754 he composed another opera for the King's birthday. His operas were so successful that he moved to Spain where he later was joined by his wife and sons. He would never return to Naples. The aria 'Alto Giove' from Porpora's opera Polifemo is one of those which Farinelli is known to have sung for Philip V. We also hear the overture to Carlo il calvo, an opera from 1738. The inclusion of pieces by José de Nebra can be justified by the fact that he was a contemporary of Farinelli and one of the leading composers of Spain. We hear vocal and instrumental extracts from several zarzuelas, a typical Spanish form of music for the theatre. Nebra was the most prolific composer of such pieces of his time. Another composer of zarzuelas was the Venetian-born Francesco Corradini who composed his first works for theatres in Naples and moved to Spain in 1725 or 1726. Las mascaras is a comedy from which we hear a baile (ballet).

The link between Farinelli and the other works of the programme is different, and sometimes very indirect. Johann Adolf Hasse was never in Spain, and the liner-notes don't mention any of his operas performed there, but he was one of Farinelli's favourite composers. He took part in the performance in 1725 of the serenata Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, the first work Hasse composed during his time in Naples. An opera overture would have been a more logical choice than the Sinfonia in g minor which may be originally intended as chamber music, to be played by two violins, viola and bc. There is no connection between Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Spain or Farinelli at all. The Symphony in e minor is played here immediately after the fandango from Vendado es amor, no es ciego by Nebra, and that is because of Bach's use of the fandango in this work. This symphony is given here the nickname Fandango, but as far as I know that is the first time; I have never encountered this symphony with this title.

The inclusion of the overtures by Jommelli and Traetta is also debatable. The former was one of the most influential composers of his time, but that is hardly a reason to include this piece here. In the case of Traetta there is a very indirect link in that he was also a pupil of Porpora. But as the latter had a wide circle of pupils other composers could have been included as well or instead of Traetta.

This disc suffers a little from a lack of discipline and logic in the choice of repertoire. But it has many virtues: no fewer than seven items are recorded here for the first time, and to that one can add all the pieces by Nebra. The quality of all the piece in the programme certainly justifies their inclusion. The performances are outstanding: the orchestral items receive vigorous interpretations, with some good expression in slow movements. Bejun Mehta is a fine and sensible singer with a good feeling for the style of the repertoire. He delivers a very engaging performance of the fandango by Nebra. However, I don't like him singing both parts - I think a recording should be as close as possible to the circumstances of the performance in the time of the composer. Modern technique should help, not distort. I enjoyed Mehta's account of Porpora's aria 'Alto Giove' which is much better than the horrible performance by Franco Fagioli.

This is a disc for curious minds. All composers represented here deserve more attention than most of them have received so far. They are served well by Bejun Mehta, Concerto Köln and Pablo Heras-Casada.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Bejun Mehta
Concerto Köln
Pablo Heras-Casado

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