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Johann Christian BACH & Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: "Concert Arias"

Hiroko Koudaa, Hjördis Thébaultb, soprano; Gustáv Belácek, bass-baritonec; Eduard Wesley, oboed; Rudolf Linner, Viliam Vojcík, hornse; Milos Valent, violinf; Michal Stáhel, Michaela Cibová, cellog; David Sinclair, double bassh; Dafni Kokkoni, fortepianoi
Solamente Naturali
Dir: Didier Talpain

rec: August 2008, [n.p.]
Brilliant Classics - 94116 (© 2011) (64'56")

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Ebben si vada - Io ti lascio, recitative & aria for soprano, oboe, keyboard and orchestra (Warb LG 2)bdi; Sentimi, non partir - Al mio bene, recitative & aria for soprano, 2 cellos, keyboard and orchestra (Warb LG 4)bgi; Sventurata, in van mi legno, aria for soprano, 2 horns and orchestra (Warb G 35)ae; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1759-1791): Ah, lo previdi - Ah, t'invola agl'occhi mei, recitative & aria for soprano, oboe and orchestra (KV 272)ad; Ch'io mi scordi di te - Non temer, amato bene, recitative & aria for soprano, keyboard and orchestra (KV 505)bi; Non piů, Tutto ascoltai - Non temer, amato bene, recitative & aria for soprano, violin and orchestra (KV 490)af; Per questa bella mano, aria for bass, double bass and orchestra (KV 612)ch

The concert aria is a genre which was quite popular in the classical era. Such arias were mostly written for a specific singer, in such a way that the singer's skills and the characteristics of his or her voice came to the fore. This disc pays attention to a specific kind of concert aria, that in which the voice is accompanied by an orchestra with one or more obbligato instruments. The concert arias by Mozart are well-known and often performed, but those by Johann Christian Bach are hardly known. The inclusion of three concert arias by the 'London' Bach makes this recording especially worthwhile, even though two of them have already been recorded recently.

The great admiration of Mozart for the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach is well documented. When he heard about Johann Christian's death on 1 January 1782 he said: "Mr Bach is dead. What a terrible loss for music!" They had met twice. The first time was when Mozart made a concert tour through Europe in 1764/65 and visited London. They met again in Paris in 1778. Mozart was strongly influenced by Bach's instrumental music. Here we meet them together in vocal music, and there seems some influence here as well.

As the description of 'concert arias' suggests these pieces were not written for the stage, although they all have an operatic character. Most of them are preceded by an accompanied recitative. They are also, in large part, quite virtuosic, not only for the voice, but also for the obbligato instruments. That is the case with Sventurata, in van mi legno by Johann Christian Bach, which has no recitative, but begins with an instrumental introduction with virtuosic parts for two horns. This section ends with a cadenza for the two instruments. One of the horn parts was written for the famous Bohemian horn virtuoso Jan Vaclav Stich, also known as Giovanni Punto, one of the many internationally renowned stars who came over to participate in the Bach-Abel concerts where this aria was performed. The vocal part is for a high soprano and was sung by Cécilia Grassi, the composer's wife.

This aria is the only piece by Johann Christian Bach which has never been recorded before. The other two were also included in the album which Philippe Jaroussky devoted to arias by Bach. These were also performed in the Bach-Abel concerts, this time by the castrato Ferdinando Tenducci. Ebben, si vadda - Io ti lascio are a scene and aria which are in fact an arrangement of an aria from the opera Arsace by Michele Mortellari which Tenducci had sung at the opera's first performance in Padua in 1775. To the original string parts Bach added obbligato parts for oboe and fortepiano. The oboe part was to be played by Johann Christian Fischer, another virtuoso of European fame, and Johann Christian played the fortepiano. The keyboard part exploits only the middle and bass range of the fortepiano. The opening phrase of the aria announces itself after the first section of the recitative and is repeated after the first line of the second section. Bach follows the same procedure in the third aria, Sentimi, non partir - a scena in form of a rondeau Here the fortepiano's role is limited to 19 bars; the two cellos play the main obbligato parts. It was a typical showpiece for Tenducci whose voice was so much admired by the author Tobias Smollett that he thought himself "in paradise" when he heard him sing.

Composers of the classical period often composed arias which were to be inserted in operas by other composers. Mozart did so as well. This disc includes one such aria, Non piů, tutto ascoltai (KV 490). It was not witten for someone else's opera but for a private performance of his own Idomeneo in 1786. There is some confusion in regard to the scoring of the recitative which suggests the part of Idamante should be sung by a tenor, whereas his aria is scored for soprano. In this performance this part is sung by a soprano. Could the demanding obbligato part for the violin have been played by Mozart himself?

The obbligato keyboard part in Ch'io mi scordi di te was certainly played by Mozart. He composed this aria for Nancy Storace, who had sung the part of Susanna in the first performance of Le nozze di Figaro, and who left for London in December 1786. This aria was Mozart's way of saying farewell to a singer he greatly admired. The most remarkable obbligato part appears in Per questa bella mano (KV 612), a concert aria for bass with a part for double bass; both are technically demanding. Lastly Ah, lo previdi (KV 272): here it is not virtuosity but expression that's the name of the game. Mozart wrote to Aloysia Weber for whom he had written the piece: "Above all, I want expression. Make sure you think about the words". Aloysia Weber was the elder sister of Mozart's wife Constanze. He composed no less than seven concert arias for her. According to Mozart's father Leopold Aloysia's voice was not very powerful but highly expressive, and that feature is certainly explored in this concert aria, with a beautiful obbligato part for the oboe.

Even though the arias by Mozart are well represented on disc it makes much sense to present the arias with obbligato instruments together with those by Johann Christian Bach. Two of the latter's arias may have been recorded by Jaroussky, but as the present disc appears on a budget label it could contribute to a wider interest in Johann Christian Bach's vocal output. All but one of the arias are sung by the two sopranos whose voices and way of singing are quite different. Hiroko Kouda has the higher voice, and obviously she takes the aria Bach composed for a high soprano. She has no problems with the technical requirements of her arias, but the expression in Ah, lo previdi is a bit under par. Her performances are also damaged by her wide vibrato. This is one of the reasons the text is often hard to follow. She should have paid more attention to the text anyway. Hjördis Thébault is much more convincing in this respect. Her text expression is excellent, and there is a considerable amount of dynamic differentiation. She isn't without vibrato, but it is narrower and less obtrusive. Because of that her voice blends better with the obbligato instruments. Gustáv Belácek sings well, but I would have preferred a more 'open' voice. His text expression is alright, but no more than that.

The obbligato parts are all very well executed. It is perhaps a bit unfair to single out some of the players, but the performances by the two horn players are particularly impressive, considering the virtuosic character of their parts. The natural horns make it even harder to play them well.

On balance this disc isn't an unqualified success. The performances by the singers are uneven, and that is a shame. The recording is not always perfect; in particular in the opening aria of Johann Christian Bach I heard some strange noises when the oboe and the fortepiano were playing. The booklet is better than usual with Brilliant Classics productions. The lack of translations of the lyrics is disappointing, though.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Hjördis Thébault
Gustáv Belácek
Solamente Naturali

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