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Agostino STEFFANI (1654 - 1728): "Vocal Chamber Duets"

Elena Bertuzzi, soprano; Alessio Tosi, tenor; Rebecca Ferri, cello; Michele Pasotti, theorbo; Francesco Baroni, harpsichord

rec: June 19 - 22, 2014, Pietole (Mantua), Chiesa di San Celestino
Brilliant Classics - 94969 (© 2015) (50'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Dolce è per voi soffrire; E così mi compatite?; Gelosia, che vuoi da me?; Lontananza crudel, tu mi tormenti; Pria ch'io faccia; Vorrei dire un non so che; Saldi marmi che coprite

Agostino Steffani was a remarkable composer, in particular because of the diversity of his activities. He was not only a professional composer, but was also heavily involved in politics, especially as a diplomat, and made a career in the Catholic Church. He was a precocious talent: as a boy - before his voice broke - he had already participated in opera performances. For 21 years he was in the service of Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria in Munich. He then moved to Hanover where he became music director at the court of Elector Ernst August. In the 1690s he became increasingly involved in diplomacy; some of his missions were connected to the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1703 he entered the service of another Elector, Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate in Düsseldorf. In 1709 he returned to Hanover and focused on his activities in the Church. It was his assignment to promote the Counter Reformation in a region dominated by Lutheranism. At this time he hardly composed any music.

Steffani's oeuvre is quite large and comprises almost exclusively vocal music. The genre of the duet was especially important to him and his duets were the main reason for his fame. In 1739 the German theorist and composer Johann Mattheson wrote: "The Italian style of the duet now lacks much of the good qualities of concentration and clarity, mentioned above, because of its fugal, artificial and interwoven nature. However, these duets demand a real man and are a special delight to musically-educated ears, in the chamber as well as in the church (and formerly, in Steffani's time, also in the theatre), provided that accomplished and reliable singers can be found for them; of these we now have fewer than of such works themselves. In this kind of duet the aforesaid Steffani incomparably surpassed all other composers known to me and deserves to be taken as a model to this day; for such things do not easily grow old".

Many of his duets circulated in manuscript across Europe and composers of later generations were strongly influenced by them. One could consider the duet the vocal counterpart of the trio sonata which was modelled by Arcangelo Corelli. Steffani composed more than 80 duets, for various combinations of voices. It is notable that a number of them are scored for a high voice and a tenor. Not that many secular vocal music was written for low male voices. Chamber cantatas - one of the most popular genres of vocal music - were almost exclusively scored for soprano or alto, and duets for soprano and tenor seem rather rare.

The seven duets recorded here are different in texture. Pria ch'io faccia and E così mi compatite are divided into four sections each of which is treated as a dacapo aria. Lontananza crudel, tu mi tormenti comprises just one 'aria'. The remaining four duets have the texture of a chamber cantata: they not only comprise dacapo 'arias' but also recitatives for either voice. Steffani's duets stand out for his treatment of counterpoint but also his sensitivity to the text. It is unfortunate that in the document with the lyrics which can be downloaded from the Brilliant Classics site the Italian original and the English translations are not printed side by side which makes it rather hard to follow exactly how Steffani has set the texts. One quality has not been mentioned yet: melodic fluency. That can be admired here, also due to the fine singing of Elena Bertuzzi and Alessio Tosi.

Although these duets have dramatic qualities, they are not dramatic in the operatic sense of the word. There are no dialogues between opposing characters. It is always a single character that speaks, mostly expressing his sadness about the tribulations of love. Even when both soprano and tenor have a recitative, it is still the same character whose voice we hear. Steffani uses the interplay of the two voices and the possibilities of counterpoint to express the text. It is therefore especially important that the two voices blend perfectly, and that is exactly what is the case here. The two singers are on the same wavelength and their cooperation is exemplary. The performances are expressive and prove that no incessant vibrato is needed to achieve that.

This disc has just one minus: the short playing time. Considering the quality of the music and the performances and the fact that Steffani's duets are not that well represented on disc this is regrettable. However, the price of Brilliant Classics discs is such that this can hardly be a reason not to purchase this CD.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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