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Giovanni Alberto RISTORI (1692 - 1753): "Cantatas for Soprano - Oboe Concerto"

María Savastano, sopranoa
Ensemble Diderot
Dir: Johannes Pramsohler

rec: August 22 - 24, 2016, Toblach, Gustav-Mahler-Saal
Audax Records - ADX13711 (© 2017) (68'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in E flatb; Didone abbandonataa; Lavinia a Turnoa; Nice a Tirsia

Jon Olaberria (solob), Priska Comploi, oboe; Johannes Pramsohler, Holly Harman, Izleh Henry, Roldán Bernabé, Maya Enokida, Veronika Egger, Céline Martel, violin; Katharina Egger, Samuel Hengebaert, viola; Gulrim Choï, Thibaut Reznicek, cello; Ludovic Coutineau, violone; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord

The chapel of the court in Dresden was probably the best in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. The label "an army of generals" that Charles Burney used for the Mannheim orchestra which earned so much admiration around the mid-18th century, could easily be granted to the Dresden chapel as well. Under the direction of Johann Georg Pisendel it developed into a highly disciplined ensemble. The booklet to the present disc states that it was said that "no part was played from unless it first went across his desk for checking".

The chapel was also strongly under the influence of the Italian style. Pisendel was a great admirer of the Italian composers of his time, and during a stay in Italy he met several of them personally, such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Both considered him a colleague and presented him with some of their sonatas. When he returned to Dresden he had a large number of compositions in his luggage. He continued to collect Italian music and thanks to him many pieces of music have come down to us which are not known from any other source.

But it was not only music imported from Italy which was performed at the court. Dresden also attracted composers who worked in the Italian style, either Italians by birth or Germans who adopted the Italian style. The most famous example of the latter was Johann Adolf Hasse, whereas the present disc is devoted to a specimen of the former category. Giovanni Alberto Ristori was born as the son of the director of a travelling company of Italian comedians. They were at the service of the Saxon elector Johann Georg III in Dresden shortly before Ristori was born. When he was in his early 20s and already married, he joined his father when the company settled again in Dresden. At that time Friedrich August I was elector and also King of Poland (as August II). Ristori had already made a name for himself with his opera Orlando which had been performed to great acclaim in Venice. His first opera in Dresden, Cleonice, performed in 1718, earned also much success. In the 1720s he composed two comic operas. However, because of the dominance of Hasse in the field of opera, he focused largely on the composition of sacred music.

One of his main activities at the Dresden court was that of music teacher of the princesses, one of them Maria Amalia. When she went to Naples, following her marriage to Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, in May 1738, Ristori accompanied her, and his stay in Naples was of great importance for his development as a composer. When he returned to Dresden he took music from Naples with him and this way he considerably contributed to the dissemination of Neapolitan music north of the Alps.

In 1747 Crown Prince Frederick Christian married his first cousin Maria Antonia, daughter of the Bavarian Elector Charles Albert of Bavaria (the later Emperor Charles VII). In Munich she had received music lessons from the reputed Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, and in Dresden she continued her studies with Hasse and Porpora. She not only played the keyboard and the lute, but was also an accomplished singer and poet. The fact that she was a member of the Arcadian Academy in Rome bears witness to her reputation in artistic matters. The three cantatas recorded here are all settings of texts from her pen. The text of Didone abbandonata received much praise from none other than the great Pietro Metastasio, the most famous librettist of the time.

The story of Dido and Aeneas was one of the most popular among composers of operas and cantatas. Whereas operas focused on the story itself, composers of cantatas - obviously less dramatic and not performed at the stage - treated the subject from the angle of Dido and her feelings. That is also the case here. The story is taken from Virgil's Aeneid, and this epic also includes the story of Lavinia a Turno, about King Latino giving his daughter Lavinia in marriage to Aeneis who kills Turno, to whom Lavinia was promised. Nice e Tirsi portrays the emotions of Nice upon the absence of the shepherd Tirsi. This cantata is situated in the imaginary world of Arcadia, which was the ideal of the European aristocracy and the Arcadian Academies.

One is inclined to think that we have to do with chamber cantatas here. Strictly speaking that is correct, but interestingly the scores and performance parts indicate that these cantatas could be performed in different ways. One option was a line-up for private performances, with two violins, viola and an un-figured bass part. The second was a larger-scale performance with strings and two oboes playing colla parte with the violins and emphasizing the harmony with two-part chords. The latter is the way the cantatas are performed here.

The larger line-up is especially effective in the recitatives which are all of the accompagnato type and are mostly quite long; in this recording some take more than three minutes. These also show strong differences in dynamics, tempi and metre. Both the recitatives and the arias include some text illustration, not only in the vocal parts, but also in the instrumental parts.

These cantatas are well written and their recording is most welcome. Ristori's oeuvre has received little attention, but is well worth being explored. It is interesting that Charles Burney once heard Maria Antonia sing a recitative. "She spoke the recitative, which was an accompanied one, very well in the way of great old singers of better times". María Savastano's performance of the recitatives is alright, but really speech-like it is not, and certainly not in the way suggested by Burney's description of Maria Antonia's singing. She does best in the most dramatic cantatas, which is not surprising considering that she sings opera frequently. She is not a specialist in early music, and that shows in her incessant and pretty wide vibrato. After a while it got on my nerves and I found it hard to continue listening. This is all very sad, especially as two of the three cantatas are world premiere recordings. Ristori's cantatas deserve much better. I'm afraid we have to wait a little longer for stylistically convincing interpretations.

The best part of this disc comes at the end, when Jon Olaberria delivers a fine performance of the Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in E flat, again recorded for the first time. It was most likely written for the oboe virtuoso Antonio Besozzi, who entered the service of the court in 1739. It has been preserved in two versions. The original version, in three movements, seems to have been written for a performance in the intimacy of the chamber. The second version is an adaptation by Pisendel for a performance in church; he added a slow introduction and this version is for up to 16 players, including two oboes and bassoons in one of the ripieno sections. The present recording is a little inconsistent, in that the version of Pisendel is used, but without oboes and bassoon. I am a great admirer of the Ensemble Diderot, and it does not disappoint in this recording. Especially in the accompanied recitatives it shows a very good feeling for the dramatic aspects of Ristori's cantatas. It is just a shame that Johannes Pramsohler has not been critical enough in his choice of the soloist in the cantatas.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

María Savastano
Ensemble Diderot

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