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Agostino STEFFANI (1654 - 1728): "Lagrime dolorose - Secular cantatas"

Marta Mathéu, sopranoa; Aurelio Schiavoni, altob; Mauro Borgioni, bassc
Accademia Hermans
Dir: Fabio Ciofini

rec: August 6 - 8, 2012, Perugia, Teatro Cucinelli di Solomeo
Brilliant Classics - 94299 (© 2013) (58'15")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Fileno, idolo mio, cantata for soprano, two violins and bca; Guardati, o core, cantata for soprano, two violins and bca; Hai finito di lusingarmi, cantata for soprano, two oboes and bca; Il più felice e sfortunato amante, cantata for alto, two violins and bcb; Lagrime dolorose, cantata for bass, two recorders and bcc; Spezza amor l'arco e gli strali, cantata for soprano, oboe, dulcian and bca

Avia Gershoni, recorder, oboe; Elena Bianchi, recorder, dulcian; Fabio D'Onofrio, oboe; Enrico Gatti, Rossella Croce, violin; Alessandro Montani, cello; Gabriele Palomba, theorbo; Fabio Ciofini, harpsichord

Agostino Steffani is one of the most remarkable composers of the baroque period, especially because of his various simultaneous careers. He was not only active as a music director and composer but also in the diplomatic field and in the church. It wasn't always easy to keep his various activities apart. He enjoyed success but also experienced failure, and the latter made him virtually give up composing music after 1702. Towards the end of his life he composed some sacred works, among them his Stabat mater, one of his best-known compositions.

Steffani was born in Castelfranco near Venice and at an early age he sang as a choirboy in Padua. At the age of 11 he already made his appearance in an opera performance. In 1667 he was taken to Munich by Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria. He remained there for 21 years. During this period he went to Rome to study with Ercole Bernabei, maestro di cappella of St Peter's. He later travelled to Paris where he became acquainted with the operas of Lully. At the same time he was ordained a priest. He also made his first experiences in the diplomatic world, and in 1681 his first opera was performed in Munich. However, he never secured his main objective, to be appointed as court music director in Munich. This resulted in him accepting the position of music director at the court of Elector Ernst August in Hanover in 1688. Here he composed various operas for the newly built opera house, and in these he mixed the Italian and the French styles.

From this time onwards he became increasingly involved in diplomatic missions, some of which were related to the War of the Spanish Succession. It seems that his activities in this field were not that successful. For that reason he became distressed and confined himself to revising and copying his chamber duets, a genre of which he was especially fond. In 1703 he entered the service of the Elector Palatinate, Johann Wilhelm, in Düsseldorf. He mainly worked in the field of politics including as a privy councillor. He wrote hardly any music at the time, and if some operas were performed they were presented under the name of one of his copyists. This was likely motivated by his ambitions for a career in the church. Composing operas was not exactly a recommendation. In 1709 he was appointed Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany and returned to Hanover. In this capacity it was his duty to promote the sake of the Counter Reformation in a region which was dominated by Lutheranism. His work was constantly frustrated by lack of financial resources and the loss of several people who supported him. Towards the end of his life he came into financial problems which he tried to solve by selling some of his possessions. At the same time his health began to deteriorate and he died in 1728.

Steffani's oeuvre is pretty large and is dominated by vocal music. Chamber duets take a prominent place. This was a form he apparently greatly preferred, and his duets are still the most often performed part of his output. Considering the popularity of the chamber cantata it is remarkable that he composed so few of them. The set of six Scherzi Musicali which is the subject of the present disc is virtually his only contribution to this genre.

These six pieces have a character of their own and are in several ways different from what was common at the time. The first notable feature concerns the scoring. Most chamber cantatas were for soprano, fewer for alto and almost none for tenor or bass. Here one of the six is specifically scored for bass. The instrumental scoring is equally striking. Most cantatas were scored for solo voice and basso continuo. Sometimes parts for one or two instruments were added, mostly violins. At times a single flute, recorder or oboe was included. Here all cantatas have two parts for a melody instrument. Three cantatas are for two violins, two for two recorders and two oboes respectively, and one - most remarkable of all - for oboe and dulcian. This shows that Steffani was an original mind who wasn't afraid of following his own route.

That also comes to the fore in the form of these cantatas which is very different. Fileno, idolo mio and Il più felice begin with an introduction of the two melody instruments, but in Spezza amor l'arco the soprano and the basso continuo begin the proceedings, with the two instruments joining them later. The instruments sometimes play a ritornello, but they are mostly also involved in accompanying the voice. In some cases they imitate the voice, in others they have also some material of their own. It was common practice to write da capo arias, but here Steffani regularly breaks with this habit as he sometimes composes an aria in AB form, without any part being repeated. In the second aria from Spezza amor l'arco the oboe is involved in the A part and the dulcian in the B part. Various recitatives end with a cavata, a line in the style of an arioso. If that is not enough, Fileno, idolo mio and Guardati, o core end with a short aria of just two lines.

From this description one may conclude that although Steffani's contribution to the genre of the chamber cantata is quite small, it is substantial and very interesting. Musically these pieces also have much to offer. Steffani was a master in depicting text but also a skilled contrapuntalist. Both qualities are exposed in these six Scherzi. This is not the first recording of these cantatas; in 2003 Affetti Musicali recorded them for Hungaroton. I was not really impressed by the performances, and the fact that two of the soprano cantatas were given to a tenor also didn't speak in its favour. That is all very different here; I have greatly enjoyed these performances. The three soloists deliver stylish and engaging interpretations, and pay much attention to the communication of the affetti. They add ornamentation but don't exaggerate nor do they add virtuosic cadenzas which would be out of place in these cantatas. The contributions of the instrumentalists is technically assured and musically appealing.

In short, this is a very entertaining and musically rewarding disc.

The booklet includes concise but to-the-point liner-notes and all the lyrics with an English translation. It is a shame that in some cantatas there is no extra space between the sections. This makes it hard to see where a recitative or aria begins. The cantatas are allocated to just one track; I would have preferred single tracks for each recitative and aria.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Marta Mathéu
Accademia Hermans

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