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Tomaso ALBINONI (1671 - 1751): "12 Cantatas for Soprano and Contralto Op. 4"

Silvia Frigato, sopranoa; Elena Biscuola, contraltob
L'Arte dell'Arco

rec: Oct 24 - 27, 2016, Este (Padua), Abbazia di Santa Maria delle Carceri
Brilliant Classics - 95600 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.39'48")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Amor, Sorte, Destino, op. 4,1a; Dall'arco d'un bel ciglio, op. 4,2b; Del chiaro rio, op. 4,3a; Riedi a me, luce gradita, op. 4,4b; Lontananza crudel, op. 4,5a; Filli, chiedi al mio core, op. 4,6b; Ove rivolgo il piede, op. 4,7a; Mi dà pena quando spira, op. 4,8b; Parti mi lasci, op. 4,9a; Son qual Tantalo novello, op. 4,10b; Poichè al vago seren, op. 4,11a; Chi non sa quanto inumano, op. 4,12b

Francesco Galligioni, cello; Roberto Loreggian, harpsichord

This year the 350th birthday of Tomaso Albinoni is commemorated. Or rather not: I can't remember having heard of any event in which he and his music was given special attention. No disc has landed on my desk that was especially produced to celebrate the commemoration of his birth. That is surprising, considering that he was one of the main Italian composers of his time. When foreigners visited Italy, they often tried to meet the most revered composers of the time, and one of them was always Albinoni. When Johann Georg Pisendel visited Venice, he not only met Vivaldi, who offered him some of his violin sonatas, but also Albinoni, who did exactly the same. His concertos with parts for one and two oboes are by far his best-known works, not only because of their quality, but also because he was one of the first Italian composers who wrote music for an instrument that made a relatively late appearance at the Italian music scene. In addition, some of his violin sonatas have been recorded. In comparison, his vocal works have received far less attention. Ironically, the cantatas which are the subject of the production under review here, are the main exceptions, as they have been recorded before. Even so, a new recording is welcome as they are certainly not as well-known as many cantatas by the likes of Alessandro Scarlatti and Vivaldi.

Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni was born and died in Venice. Just like the Marcello brothers, he presented himself as a dilettante, meaning that he wasn't a professional composer and didn't compose for a living. His father was a stationer and manufacturer of playing cards who owned several shops in Venice. Tomaso, being the eldest son, was supposed to take part in his father's business, and so he did. But he also was able to study music; with whom is not known. When in 1709 his father died Tomaso left the business to his two younger brothers in order to spend all his time to music. From then on he called himself musico di violino. Since in 1721 one of his father's creditors took over the shop he must have earned a living from his musical activities.

In 1715 and 1722 respectively the two collections of twelve concertos each were published, both for strings and bc, with parts for one and two oboes (Opp. 7 & 9), which I have already referred to. These brought Albinoni quite some fame which resulted in his being invited to conduct one of his operas in Munich. The occasion was the marriage of Prince Karl Albrecht - to whose father, elector Maximilian II Emanuel, Albinoni had dedicated his Opus 9 - and Maria Amalia, daughter of the late Emperor Joseph I. A member of the audience sent a very enthusiastic report of the performance to the German theorist Johann Mattheson. Obviously he wasn't the only one who was impressed by Albinoni. The composer was mentioned in one breath with Corelli and Vivaldi by contemporaries. Johann Sebastian Bach used some of Albinoni's compositions as teaching material and also based four fugues on subjects from Albinoni's Opus 2.

His music was very popular in his time; his instrumental music was in great demand from amateurs across Europe. His output is sizable, but a substantial part has been lost, and a number of works are of doubtful authenticity. He wrote more than eighty operas and nearly 50 cantatas. He seems to have written hardly any sacred music, probably because he was not in a position which required the composition of church music. However, the lack of oratorios is remarkable, given the popularity of this genre.

The twelve cantatas Op. 4 were Albinoni's only contributions to this genre which were published during his lifetime, in 1702. They have come down to us in a single copy, which is kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It was discoevered in the early 1900s by Edward J. Dent. Before they had been overlooked as another edition of works by Albinoni had been preserved as his Op. 4: a set of six sonatas for violin and basso continuo, published by Estienne Roger in Amsterdam (probably without the approval of Albinoni) and later also in London. The frontispiece of the cantata collection is missing and there is also no dedicatory letter, assuming there was one. Even so, it has been possible to establish that they were dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Maria de' Medici. Albinoni had links with the court in Florence: in 1703 two of his operas were performed there.

The cantatas are alternately scored for soprano and alto; in the present production they have been split according to voice type in two discs. The fact that these cantatas were printed in 1702 explains why their form is various. Alessandro Scarlatti was the main composer of chamber cantatas at the time, and he was to establish the basic form, but that process was probably not finished yet. However, in Albinoni's Op. 4 the cantata is taking the shape that was to become the standard: two pairs of recitative and aria for a solo voice and basso continuo. Some cantatas derive from this mode, in that they open with an aria. Two cantatas, Son qual tantalo novello and Riedi a me, comprise just two arias embracing a recitative. Some cantatas end with a short recitative that turns into a kind of arioso, usually in the form of a fugue. Notable is Lontananza crudel: the opening recitative is followed by two arias; the first includes just one line: "Cruel separation, you rend my heart". This line is repeated later at the end of the last recitative, and works as a kind of refrain.

It is not known who the author(s) of the texts is/are; Michael Talbot, who is responsible for the modern edition, suggests Albinoni may have written the texts himself. They bring us into the Arcadian world which was the ideal of the higher echelons of society in the baroque era. They are about love, its trials and ttibulations, inconstancy and unrequited love.

Although chamber cantatas were not simply pocketsize operas, they sometimes included quite dramatic elements. The first cantata, Amor, sorte, destino?, opens in a dramatic fashion with a recitative, whose first lines say: "Love, Fate, Destiny! Now I discover you, all too fierce enemies!" Another dramatic aria, reminiscent of contemporary opera, is the last from Ove rivolgo il piede: "Thus cruel beauty who captures my love makes me languish". Harmony, including dissonances and chromaticism, are used now and then for expressive reasons, for instance in Parti mi lasci and in the opening recitative of Filli chiedi al mio core. In Del chiaro rio the opening aria uses the image of a brook and streams, and this is depicted especially in the basso continuo. The first recitative opens with a wild tremolo in the cello on the words "And you, my cruel Phyllis (...)".

It is regrettable that this production omits the lyrics. Even though chamber cantatas usually touch the same subjects, it is just the way a composer treats the texts which makes the difference between the many specimens of the genre. As the entire set has been recorded before and that release included the lyrics with English translations, I was able to follow what Albinoni did with them. I have copied the lyrics and translations and uploaded them to this site; you will find the link in the header of this review. A second issue regards the recording: there is mostly a little too much space between the sections of a cantata, and that compromises the dramatic flow and the contrasts between its various sections. As I wrote, several cantatas end with a recitative turning into a kind of arioso, and these are split into two tracks; especially here the space is damaging.

The dramatic and expressive features of these cantatas come off pretty well. Both singers have vast experience in this kind of repertoire as well as in baroque opera, and that shows. I also have nothing but praise for the drive of Francesco Galligioni and Roberto Loreggian, who substantially contribute to the impact of these cantatas. Stylistically I am more impressed by Silvia Frigato than with Elena Biscuola. The latter uses mostly too much vibrato. It is not very wide, and it did not really spoil my enjoyment of her performances, but I would have liked her to reduce it. That is what Silvia Frigato has done. Now and then she uses too much as well, but her performances are mostly pretty close to what in my view is the way this repertoire needs to be performed. I should add that I greatly appreciate the rhythmically free and really speechlike interpretation of the recitatives by both singers. That deserves unequivocal praise.

Despite some issues, I recommend this set, especially because Albinoni shows here that he was a very good composer for the voice. It is to be hoped that more cantatas will be recorded, as well as some of his operas.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Elena Biscuola

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