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"The Habsburg Garden of Eden"

Ensemble Arava

rec: July 13 - 16, 2020, Hanover, Edelhof Kapelle
Brilliant Classics - 96564 (© 2022) (66'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata VI in c minor (C 143) [1]; Francesco Antonio BONPORTI (1672-1749): Aria cromatica, e variata No. 1 in A; Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Risoluto son già tiranno amore; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Un'alma innamorata (HWV 173); Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Sonata in D; Marc'Antonio ZIANI (c1653-1715): Alma mater redemptoris

Sources: [1] Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Sonatae, 1681

Einat Aronstein, soprano; Sophie Wedell, violin; Nora Matthies, cello; Avinoam Shalev, harpsichord

Sometimes one can be put on the wrong track by the title of a disc. At first sight the title of the disc under review is crystal clear. The Habsburg emperors were great music lovers, and their court in Vienna was one of the main centres of music in Europe. Some of the best performers and composers were connected to it. However, if one looks at the list of works put together by the Ensemble Arava, one wonders what they had in mind. George Frideric Handel, for instance, was never connected to the Habsburg dynasty. A closer look reveals that strictly speaking only two composers in the programme were in the service of the Habsburg emperors: Antonio Caldara and Marc'Antonio Ziani. Others worked in towns or regions which were part of the Holy Roman Empire. If that is what the title refers to, it is rather meaningless, as a large part of Europe - the countries we now know as Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary - were part of it. In the 18th century the Habsburgs also ruled the Southern Netherlands and Naples.

Given that most of the programme can hardly be connected to the Habsburg court, one wonders what the pieces included in it may have in common. If there is a thread in the programme, it is the important role of the violin. Three pieces are scored for violin and basso continuo and the two cantatas include an obbligato part for violin. Alessandro Scarlatti had laid down the basic form of the chamber cantata: two pairs of recitative and aria for a solo voice - mostly soprano or alto - and basso continuo. However, he himself and composers of next generations felt free to derive from this model.

Most of Caldara's cantatas seem to date from early in his career, when he worked in Rome. However, Risoluto son già tiranno amore was written in 1730, when Caldara worked in Vienna. He sticks to the basic form, as it comprises two arias, each preceded by a recitative. The notable feature of this work is the obbligato violin part. Caldara is mostly not associated with music for the violin; he himself had been educated at the cello, and in his vocal music he often included arias with an obbligato cello part. However, his oeuvre also includes some violin sonatas; recently the ensemble Scaramuccia recorded one of them. This sonata and the obbligato violin part in the cantata attest to his knowledge of the violin and its technique. The cantata is a pretty dramatic piece, in which the protagonist complains about the power of Love (Amor), which is called a tyrant ("tiranno amore"). The second recitative closes with the statement that, if one wants to eliminate Amor's weapons, it is better to be reckless than frightened. Einat Aronstein knows how to deal with the dramatic features of this cantata, which suggests that she must be a capable opera singer. I like the way she sings the recitatives: a natural speechlike performance which requires rhythmic freedom. She adds nice ornamentation, and avoids the eccentricities which one often encounters in performances of arias in cantatas and operas. However, I find her incessant vibrato hard to swallow. It is not required, and at odds with the aesthetic principles of the baroque era.

Handel's cantata Un'alma innamorata is one of his best-known pieces in this genre, and this is an example of a cantata which takes the model with considerable freedom. It comprises three pairs of recitative and aria. The first and second aria are longer than in many other cantatas (including the one by Caldara performed here), whereas the last is rather short. The cantata is about the conflicting feelings of the lover: on the one hand love is a pain in the neck (a soul in love is a prisoner, whose life is unhappy), on the other hand it is something to enjoy, as the second aria expresses. The last aria concludes that one should learn to deal with love. The first aria is the most dramatic, and that comes off well here. However, Einat Aronstein should have coloured some words, such as "sospira" and "adira". The relatively lighthearted second aria is done well.

The third vocal item is sacred: Alma mater redemptoris is one of the Marian antiphons, and has been set by numerous composers of the renaissance and baroque eras. The character of the text, reflecting the importance and the emotional nature of the veneration of Mary, was appealing to baroque composers, and often the settings of this text (and of the other Marian antiphons) does not fundamentally differ from secular cantatas. However, the lack of drama makes it even harder to accept the vibrato of Einat Aronstein. The composer, Marc'Antonio Ziani, who was from Venice, was appointed vice-Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1700, and promoted to Kapellmeister in 1711.

The three other composers were never formally connected to the court in Vienna. The earliest is Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, who worked for most of his life in Salzburg, where he was in the service of Archbishop Max Gandolf von Kuenburg. For him Biber composed his famous Mystery Sonatas. In that collection he made use of the technique, known as scordatura, which means that the standard tuning of the violin is changed. This technique is also applied in the set of sonatas from 1681. In the Sonata VI Biber asks the player to retune his instrument after the second movement, a passacaglia, in order to create a darker sound.

Georg Muffat was his colleague in Salzburg. He had been in France, where he had become acquainted with the French style, and especially the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, and had been in Rome, where he heard the concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli. Since then he was a strong advocate of the goûts réunis, the mixture of the French and Italian style (and the German contrapuntal tradition). His Sonata in D is his only work for violin and basso continuo, and is written in the Italian style.

The least-known composer in the programme (alongside Ziani) is Francesco Antonio Bonporti. Thanks to his social standing, he was not forced to earn a living as a professional composer. Formally he was a dilettante, and he rather focused on a career in the church. He studied in his hometown Trent, then in Innsbruck and lastly in Rome, where he came in contact with Corelli. After his return to Trent, being ordained as a priest, he obtained a minor office in the church in 1697. He applied for the post of Kapellmeister at the Vienna court chapel, but to no avail. In New Grove, Michael Talbot and Enrico Careri describe how he, through the dedication of his various collections of music, tried to further his career, but with little success. This was partially due to the rivalry between Italian and German speakers in the church hierarchy in Trent. "Embittered by this failure, Bonporti moved to Padua in 1740, lodging in the house of a fellow priest. A final appeal to Empress Maria Theresa in 1746, in which op. 12 was enlisted, proved fruitless. He died three years later and was buried in Padua." Almost all music from his pen is for violin(s) and basso continuo. It is notable that all the collections of music that he published comprise ten rather than the usual twelve pieces. The Aria cromatica, e variata in A included here attests to the quality of his oeuvre, which has not received the attention it deserves. This piece has been preserved in manuscript.

Looking at this disc I am in two minds. To start with the positive features: I admire the violin playing of Sophie Wedell - a new name to me, and someone I hope to hear more in the near future. She is a brilliant player who delivers excellent performances of the violin sonatas and the obbligato parts in the cantatas. Her performances are characterised by a good articulation, a differentiated use of dynamics and an effective exploration of the contrasts between the sections of a piece, in accordance with the requirements of the stylus phantasticus. I am less happy with the performances of Einat Aronstein: dramatically she is convincing, but stylistically her singing is out of step with what is required in baroque music. This is a big shame. I also think that the way the programme has been put together shows a lack of consistency and discipline. If one wants to highlight music life at the Habsburg court in Vienna - which the title of this disc suggests - one should stick to what was written by composers employed by the Habsburg emperors.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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Ensemble Arava

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