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Cristofaro CARESANA (c1640 - 1709): "Secular Chamber Cantatas

Ensemble Démesure

rec: Oct 29 - 31, 2016, Corcelle, Eglise réformée évangélique
Brilliant Classics - 95923 (© 2019) (53'23")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Il Narciso; La dove il bel Sebeto; La Rosa; Nella stagion novella; Tancredi sulla morte di Clorinda; Viver senza speranza; Volevo un dì combattere

Juliette de Banes Gardonne, mezzo-soprano; Alberto Guerrero, cello; Franco Pavan, theorbo; Paola Erdas, harpsichord

Towards the end of his life Antonio Vivaldi, who had dominated the music scene in Venice for several decades, felt the increasing influence of the galant idiom, coming from Naples. The disc under review sheds light on a composer, who marks the opposing movement: born in Venice, he made a career in Naples, and through him Neapolitan music was influenced by the Venetian style.

In Venice, Caresana had studied with Pietro Andrea Ziani (1616-1684) and settled in Naples in 1658, when he was around 18 years of age. He may have been associated with the Febi Armonici, a company of actors and musicians, which at the time was active in Rome, and had been invited to Naples by the Spanish viceroy Iñigo Vélez de Guevara. This way the Venetian style entered the Neapolitan music scene. Caresana was in contact with Francesco Cavalli, at the time the main opera composer in Venice and through him with the circle of Monteverdi. Cavalli's influence in Naples was due to Giovan Battista Balbi, choreographer, dancer, stage designer and impresario, who was affilliated with the Febi Armonici and staged several of Cavalli's operas in Naples.

In 1659 Caresana entered the service of the Royal Chapel, first as a tenor, and from 1667 as an organist. In the late 1680s he worked as a teacher at the Sant'Onofrio a Capuana Conservatoire. In 1699 he succeeded Francesco Provenzale as maestro di cappella at the Tesoro di San Gennaro. During his career he wrote music for several institutions; one of them was the Oratorio dei Padri Filippini, where most of his extant compositions are preserved, including the cantatas that are the subject of this disc.

This part of his oeuvre has never been recorded before. The cantatas are about love, as one may expect, and they have strong Arcadian features. Arcadia was the imaginary world of shepherds and nymphs that was the ideal of the aristocracy at the time. Chamber cantatas were part of private or public performances in the palaces and salons of the higher echelons of society. In the course of time, the chamber cantata developed into one of the most popular genres of secular music. Its basic form was laid down by Alessandro Scarlatti: two pairs of recitative and (dacapo) aria, mostly scored for solo voice and basso continuo. Composers now and then derived from this form, by extending the number of recitatives and arias, adding instruments and opening with a sinfonia. Caresana's cantatas date from before the time the process of standardization took place. They consist of recitatives and arias, but that does not tell the whole story, as he treats these forms with considerable freedom. The fact that three of the seven cantatas included here take less than five minutes already indicates that it is unlikely that the arias have a dacapo. Many of them have an AB structure, but the A part is often not repeated, and in some cases only the first line of the A part returns at the end of an aria.

Several recitatives include elements of arias, with lots of melismas and coloratura. There are quite some contrasts between the two sections of an aria. And where arias omit a dacapo, one gets the impression of a through-composed piece. Caresana's cantatas regularly reminded me of the arias and cantatas of Barbara Strozzi. Even in the department of harmony there are quite some similarities.

"Particularly interesting is the attention paid to the verse, which is expressively set to music that reflects the meaning of the words", Giulia Veneziano states in her liner-notes. Unfortunately, if one does not understand Italian, one has to take her word for it, as the lyrics in the booklet are not translated into English. However, the dramatic nature of several recitatives and arias seem to support her statement. Notable is that Caresana at several moments makes use of descending chromatic lines, for instance in the vocal part of the closing section of Viver senza speranza, marked largo, and in the second aria of La dove il bel Sebeto, which opens with a chromatic line in the basso continuo.

It is quite interesting to hear some early specimens of a genre that was not only popular around 1700, but also today. Over the years many discs with cantatas have landed on my desk and a number of them have been reviewed on this site. However, cantatas such as those by Caresana are not that often performed. The above-mentioned Barbara Strozzi is the exception among the composers of such works from the generation of Cavalli. Caresana is not an entirely unknown quantity: in particular Antonio Florio has recorded a number of sacred works, including oratorios. It is nice that the image of this composer is now extended with a collection of secular cantatas.

Even if one does not understand the text, these works are interesting, entertaining and musically convincing. That is also due to the performers. Recently I reviewed another recording of secular cantatas, sung by Juliette de Banes Gardonne. I appreciated her performances just as much as here: she has a very nice voice, and knows how to bring this kind of music to life. There is no lack of drama, when the music requires it, and there is also some lovely singing in lyrical episodes. The basso continuo is perfectly realised, and there are some beautiful lines from the cello.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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