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"Music for Francesco II d'Este, Prince of Music"

Sofia Pezzi, sopranoa; Ettore Agati, altob
Modena Barocca
Dir: Giovanni Paganelli

rec: Nov 18 - 20, 2019, Modena, Forum Monzani
Brilliant Classics - 96236 (© 2020) (53'02")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Il nume d'amore, duet for soprano, alto and bcab [4]; Giovanni Maria BONONCINI (1642-1678): Cleopatra moribonda, cantata for soprano and bca [2]; Giga La Camicella [1]; Sarabanda; Giuseppe COLOMBI (1635-1694): Ciaccona for cello and bc; Di Lidia al sen vezzoso, cantata for soprano and bca; Domenico GABRIELLI (1659-1690): Amor m'hai così avinto, cantata for soprano and bca [5]; Pietro Nicolò SOROSINA (c1645-1732): Gelosia invidiosa, duet for 2 sopranos and bcab; Giovanni Battista VITALI (1632-1692): Coronata d'applausi, cantata for soprano, 3 violins and bca; Prima Suonata à Violino solo [3]

Giovanni Maria Bononcini, [1] Arie, correnti, sarabande, gighe, e allemande a violino e violone, over spinetta, con alcune intavolate per diversi accordature, 1671; [2] Cantate per camera a voce sola, libro primo, op. 10, 1677 [3] Giovanni Battista Vitali, Artificii Musicali, op. 13, 1689; [4] Giovanni Bononcini, Duetti da camera, op. 8, 1691; [5] Domenico Gabrielli, Cantate a voce sola, 1691

Antonio De Sarlo, Beatrice Scaldini, Linda Priebbenow, violin; Marco Anginella, cello, bass violin; Giovanni Paganelli, harpsichord; Federico Lanzellotti, organ

Before the 19th century, music was a part of everyday life, from the highest to the lowest echelons of society. For rulers, music - and art in general - was a means of representation. By attracting composers of fame, they could show their power and wealth. However, there were also quite a number of them who were truly interested in music. That goes for the Habsburg emperors, who played instruments, were sometimes involved in public performances and were also active as composers. Another one was Francesco II d'Este, who ruled Modena from 1674 to 1694. He was educated at the violin by Giuseppe Colombi, who was vicemaestro at the court. During his short life - he died at the age of just 34 - his court developed into one of Italy's main centres of music. Under his rule, the size of the chapel expanded and in 1689 comprised 29 members. He also was in close contact with composers and musicians from elsewhere, for instance Arcangelo Corelli. Some composers who are still well-known, such as Giovanni Battista Vitali and Domenico Gabrielli, were part of his musical establishment, others spent some years in Modena and contributed to the court's fame in musical matters, such as Giovanni Maria Bononcini and his son Giovanni.

The repertoire performed at the court was varied, but the duke had a special interest in oratorios, for both musical and religious reasons. However, the disc under review here focuses on two of the main genres of chamber music of the time: pieces for a solo instrument and basso continuo, and chamber cantatas. The programme opens with a sonata for violin and basso continuo by Giovanni Battista Vitali. In 1674 he entered the service of Francesco as one of the vicemaestri di cappella, a position he held until his death. Vitali was born in Bologna, and was educated as a cellist. He was probably a pupil of Maurizio Cazzati, maestro di cappella of San Petronio. The largest part of Vitali's oeuvre consists of instrumental music. The sonata performed here is taken from his Op. 13 (1689), which is a more or less theoretical work about the art of counterpoint. Vitali also composed vocal music, such as six oratorios; four ot them are lost. The cantata Coronata d'applausi was written "for the academy on the birth of His Most Serene Highness", which means that it is a birthday cantata. It dates from before the time Alessandro Scarlatti laid down its standard form: the scoring is for soprano, three violins and basso continuo, and it comprises three pairs of recitative and aria, and closes with a recitative. Unfortunately, the booklet omits translations of the lyrics, which makes it virtually impossible for non-Italian speakers to know what the cantatas are about and how the performers deal with their content.

The name of Giuseppe Colombi was already mentioned. His oeuvre mainly consists of instrumental music, and most of it comprises dances, sometimes put together in the form of sonate da camera. Two collections of pieces in manuscript for violin - Colombi's own instrument - and violone were meant as pedagogical material. The Ciaccona performed here is for a string bass and basso continuo. Pieces based on a basso ostinato were highly popular at the time. Di Lidia al sen vezzoso is called a cantata, but is not more than a recitative and a short aria. It may originally have been part of a larger work.

Domenico Gabrielli's reputation is almost exclusively based on his role in the development of the cello. He was one of the pioneers of the instrument known today as the 'baroque cello'. He left a series of pieces for solo cello, which may have been intended as pedagogical material. However, he also composed vocal music: operas, oratorios and cantatas. Amore m'hai così avinto (Love, you have so enthralled me) is about a man of "irrational, pathological protectiveness" (booklet). In the closing recitative, he confesses that his heart and his eyes are jealous of each other.

The Bononcini family had close ties to Modena. Giovanni Maria was born in Montecorone, near Modena, and was a pupil of Marco Uccellini, the founder of the Modenese violin school. In 1671 he joined the instrumental ensemble of the Duke and two years later he was appointed maestro di cappella of the cathedral. He remained in Modena until his death. Among the works he dedicated to the Duke was the set of cantatas for soprano and/or bass Op. 10 of 1677. From this set Cleopatra moribonda (The dying Cleopatra) has been taken, a cantata which describes the suffering of Cleopatra. It includes a refrain: "I will die miserable yes: you won, oh fate". This cantata also ends with a recitative, the ultimate expression of the feelings of Cleopatra while dying.

The disc ends with two duets. The main composer of duets in the second half of the 17th century was Agostino Steffani, whose duets were considered models of their kind. However, other composers also wrote duets, for instance Benedetto Marcello and later Handel. Giovanni Bononcini dedicated a set of duets to emperor Leopold I of Habsburg, which was clearly intended as a way to recommend himself for a position at his court. Il nume d'amore (The god of love) is taken from this set and is scored for soprano and alto. In the arias Bononcini explores the scoring to apply harmony for expressive reasons. In particular the first aria includes some strong dissonances. The last piece in the programme is from then pen of the least-known composer: Pietro Nicolò Sorosina. He was never in the service of the Modenese court, but rather that of the Habsburgs. However, his duet Gelosia invidiosa has been found in the archive of Modena, as the track-list indicates. The text consists of the first verse of a longer poem by Giovanni Pietro Monesio, taken from a collection dedicated to Leopold I of Habsburg.

Although I dearly missed the English translations of the lyrics, I have thoroughly enjoyed this disc. First, the music is excellent. Francesco certainly knew a thing or two about quality and which composers he wanted to have at his court. Most of them made a great career and are still well-known. Second, the performances are as good as one would wish. Sofia Pezzi plays a key role and shows to be the perfect interpreter of the cantatas. She has a lovely voice, and I appreciate the way she uses it in the interest of expression. The emotions of Cleopatra in Giovanni Maria Bononcini's cantata come off very well. I like the way Pezzi sings the recitatives and her treatment of dynamics, including the use of the messa di voce. Ettore Agati is a perfect match in the duets. The members of Modena Barocca deliver substantial contributions to the success of this recording.

This is a nice disc to have, also because most of the music is recorded here for the first time.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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