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Agostino STEFFANI (1654 - 1728): Duets

[I] "Duets of Love and Passion"
Amanda Forsythea, Emöke Baráthb, soprano; Colin Balzer, tenorc; Christian Immler, baritone
Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble
Dir: Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
rec: Feb 1 - 4, 2017, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
CPO - 555 135-2 (© 2017) (71'02")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

E perché non m'uccidetebc; Fulminate, saettatebd; Gelosiaac; Lilla miaad; Occhi belli, non piùac; Quanto care al corab; Su, ferisci, alato arcieroab; Tengo per infallibilead

Erin Headley, viola da gamba; Phoebe Carrai, cello; Maxine Eilander, harp; Paul O'Dette, theorbo; Stephen Stubbs, guitar; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord

[II] "O barbaro Amore"
Andréanne Brisson Paquin, sopranoa; Céline Ricci, mezzo-sopranob; José Lemos, altoc; Steven Soph, tenord; Mischa Bouvier, baritonee; Jennifer Morsches, cello; Deborah Fox, theorbo, guitar; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
rec: Feb 14 - 18, 2017, Boyce, VA, Sono Luminus Studios
Musica Omnia - mo0711 (© 2018) (66'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

È spento l'ardoreae; Il mio seno è un mar di penebd; Io voglio provarad; Labri belli, dite un pobe; Lontananza crudelab; Non so chi mi piagòac; Occhi, perché piangete?ac Placidissime catenebc; Quando ti stringo, o carabc; Saldi marmiab

[III] "A ton très-humble service - Duets for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover"
Andréanne Brisson Paquina, Sherezade Panthakib, soprano; Reginald Mobley, altoc; Scott Brunscheen, tenord; Mischa Bouvier, basse; Alexa Haynes-Pilon, cello; Deborah Fox, theorbo, guitar; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
rec: Oct 7 - 11, 2018, Boyce, VA, Sono Luminus Studios
Musica Omnia - mo0802 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.29'22")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ah! che l'ho sempre dettoad; Aure, voi che volatece; Cangia pensier, mio corab; Che volete, o crude penebc; Crudo Amor, morir mi sentoac; Inquieto mio cor, lasciami in paceac; Io mi parto, o cara vitabd; Non ve ne state a riderebd; Pria ch'io faccia altrui paleseab; Ravvediti, mio coreab; Sia maledetto Amorce


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. Colin Timms, who has written a book on Steffani, is the Honorary President of the Forum Agostino Steffani (Hanover) and who is the author of the liner-notes to the three recordings with duets under review here, points out that opera was the most important musical entertainment at the European courts, but operas were almost exclusively performed during the carnival season and opera productions were quite expensive. Opera arias and duets were, alongside instrumental chamber music, alternatives for performances at court during the rest of the year.

It is mostly not known when and for whom Steffani composed his duets. Most of them may have been written during his time in Hanover. It seems that two ladies at the court, one of them Princess Sophie Charlotte, were interested in music. The Princess was a quite remarkable person. A substantial part of her correspondence with Steffani has been preserved. Timms writes: "The letters of Steffani and Sophie Charlotte are surprisingly direct and personal in tone, and very revealing. True, he addressed her as 'Your Majesty' [in 1701 she became the first Queen of Prussia] and used courteousies typical of the period, but he also expressed strong feelings; she, in turn, responded spontaneously and with warmth. (...) Their relationship was was clearly based on his long acquaintance with her and her parents and on their mutual affection and respect. Since she was about fourteen years younger than him, she may have regarded him as a kind of uncle; she certainly addressed him more as a relative or a friend than as a servant". The title of the third production reviewed here refers to her, as it includes four duets that are known to have been specifically written for her: Crude Amor, a setting of a text by Sophie Charlotte, Che volete, Inquieto mio cor and Io mi parto. The second and third were sent to her from Brussels (where he had settled in 1696 as part of his diplomatic activities); a third was Placidissime catene (which is part of the second disc). The fourth was written for Sophie Charlotte's visit to Max Emanuel, the Bavarian elector and Steffani's former employer, who was an amateur tenor.

Sophie Charlotte sang soprano, but was also an amateur. As only a few of Steffani's duets are within the grasp of non-professional singers, one may wonder who may have sung the technically more challenging duets. The court in Hanover had no chapel, and Colin Timms suggests that the duets may have been performed by professional singers who visited the court during the opera seasons. The court in Munich, on the other hand, had its own chapel, and some of its members may have sung the duets with a part for a lower voice. Timms states that here again visiting singers may have performed Steffani's duets. He does not mention wether the chapel had any castratos in its ranks. These duets are tailor-made for such singers.

Steffani's output of duets comprises 75 duets, for various combinations of voices. It should be noted that there is a clear difference between the duet and the cantata à 2. The latter was usually a dialogue between two different characters. The duet, on the other hand, was a setting of a text put into the mouth of a single person. The scoring for two voices offered the opportunity to use harmony for expressive reasons. The duets by Steffani bear witness to that. Only one duet is a real dialogue between two characters: in Io mi parto, o cara vita, the two central sections are for tenor and soprano respectively, whereas the lines in the opening and closing sections are divided among them, as indicated in the score. This duet also attests to the less than common combinations of voices in some of the duets. Whereas opera duets and cantate à 2 were mostly for two sopranos or soprano and alto, Steffani also composed duets for less common combinations of voices. In 69 of the 75 duets, one of the parts is for soprano, which is joined by either a second soprano, an alto, a tenor or a bass. Six are for alto with either a tenor or a bass. All the duets are for solo voices and basso continuo. It is known that Steffani composed some duets with additional instruments, but these have been lost.

The duets are very different in structure. Some are through-composed, others are strophic. In some the two voices sing together from start to finish, whereas other duets are divided into several sections, each of them allocated to one of the voices. A number of duets include recitatives and dacapo arias. Some duets have a line which is repeated, as a refrain. And then the various forms can also be combined within a single duet. This, and the scoring of some duets for less common combinations, attest to the unique nature of Steffani's duets, and explain their special place in the history of music. However, they were also admired for purely musical reasons. Colin Timms, in his liner-notes to the CPO production, explains their main features. "Steffani was a master of invertible counterpoint. One of his standard procedures is to take two interrelated lines or phrases of text, set each to an appropriate musical 'point,' announce each point in turn, and then combine them, like the subject and countersubject of a fugue. Having done so, he usually repeats the procedure, interchanging the voices and inverting the texture, and having done this, he often introduces the subject in both voices in stretto (i.e., with less time between the entries), followed by the countersubject in both voices, also in stretto; there may even be a second stretto in which the time-lag is further reduced. A stretto serves the rhetorical purpose of intensifying the expression of the words, which may sum up the sentiment of the text as a whole." There is also quite some text illustration, and Steffani now and then also uses harmonic means for the expression of the text.

Among the first recordings of duets - and the first time I became acquainted with them - was a recording on the Archiv label, under the direction of Alan Curtis, released in 1982, with some of the leading singers in the field of early music, such as Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Esswood and John Elwes. However, although several recordings have been released in later years, it would be an exaggeration to state that they are part of the standard repertoire of singers of our time. That is rather odd: these duets are of outstanding quality, and most of them are technically of such a standard that they are perfectly suited for opera singers to show their skills. It is remarkable that in the last five years three productions have appeared, and it is a matter of good luck that there are no duplications. This means that with them the number of duets available on disc has been substantially increased. That cannot be appreciated enough. I wonder whether Jory Vinikour will continue his exploration of Steffani's duets. May he even have planned a complete recording? In that case I hope that future recordings will be as good as his second; the first is largely disappointing.

In both recordings the singers are doing a good job as far as the exploration of the expressive features is concerned. They treat the text in such a way that its content is effectively communicated. The recitativic episodes come off well too. One could argue that the voices of the sopranos are not that different in timbre. However, as these duets are no dialogues, that is probably an asset rather than a problem.

Stylistically the two recordings under the direction of Vinikour are rather different. In the first the incessant and sometimes pretty wide vibrato is annoying and hard to swallow. Céline Ricci and Steven Soph are relatively modest in this department, but in particular Andréanne Brisson Paquin and José Lemos very seldom reduce their vibrato. That is particularly problematic in episodes for two voices, as there the voices need to blend perfectly. I just wonder whether Vinikour himself was not very happy with the result after all, as the second recording is considerably better. Adréanne Brisson Paquin makes a much better impression here. Only now and then she produces a clearly noticeable vibrato, but overall she keeps it nicely in check. Sherezade Panthaki is her excellent companion, who has a lovely voice. That also goes for Reginald Mobley, whom I can't remember having heard before. I hope to hear more from him, because I have really enjoyed his contributions here. Scott Brunscheen's singing is not without vibrato, but it is modest and not really disturbing. He has a most pleasant voice. That also goes for Mischa Bouvier, whose voice is strong, but not overpowering, which would be disastrous in this vocal chamber music.

There is one issue though: in the duets for soprano and a lower voice, the former is mostly a bit too dominant. The balance between the two voices could have been better. In that department, the CPO production is more satisfying. Here the lower voices are not overshadowed by the soprano. Stylistically, these performances are more or less in the middle between the two Musica Omnia productions. Amanda Forsythe, Amöke Baráth and Colin Balzer use a bit too much vibrato; Christian Immler makes the best impression here. That said, this standard issue is not that dominant here and did not really spoil my enjoyment. The expressive features of these duets come off pretty well.

On balance, one can only be happy about the release of these discs which testify to the qualities of Steffani's duets and explain their status in music history.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Emöke Baráth
Mischa Bouvier
Andréanne Brisson Paquin
Scott Brunscheen
Amanda Forsythe
Christian Immler
José Lemos
Reginald Mobley
Sherezade Panthaki
Steven Soph
Alexa Haynes-Pilon
Jennifer Morsches
Jory Vinikour

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