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"Christmas Concertos and Cantatas"

Susan Grittona, Helen Grovesb, soprano; Caroline Trevor, contraltoc; James Oxley, tenord; Simon Birchall, basse
Collegium Musicum 90
Dir.: Simon Standage
rec: May 11 - 13, 1998, East Finchley, London, All Saints' Church
Chandos - CHAN 0754 X (© 2008) (62'10")

Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Concerto grosso in g minor, op. 6,8 "fatto per la notte di natale"; Francesco MANFREDINI (1684-1762): Concerto grosso in C, op. 3,12 'Pastorale per il Santissimo Natale'; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Cantata pastorale per la nascitŕ di Nostro Signore (O di Betlemme altera)a; Georg Philipp TELEMANN: In dulci jubilo, cantata for the 3rd Sunday of Christmas (TWV 1,939)bcde; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E 'Il riposo - per il Santissimo Natale' (RV 270)

I am a bit puzzled by this disc. The booklet says it was recorded in 1998, and therefore I assumed it was a reissue. But there is no reference to a previous release in the booklet or on the site of Chandos. I have also not been able to find a review in the online archive of The Gramophone, for instance. Therefore I must conclude that this recording has been on the shelf for about 10 years. I am also wondering about the concept behind this disc. The combination of Italian pieces which are connected to Christmas makes sense but what about Telemann? His cantata is the odd one out in this programme and stylistically completely different from the Italian items. And then the booklet: Nicholas Anderson has written notes on every composition on the programme but there is no cohesion in the programme notes. This probably reflects this project as a whole: it seems the items have been put together more or less at random.

As Christmas during the Middle Ages developed into the main feast in the church calendar it is not surprising that there is a large corpus of music related to the Christmas season - roughly from the first Sunday of the Advent to Epiphany. In particular in Italy much music for this time of the year has a strongly pastoral character, and the 12/8 time was frequently used. That is also the case in some pieces played here. The Concerto grosso in C, op. 3,12 by Manfredini starts with a movement in 12/8 time, which is followed by two other movements. This work is the last of a set of 12 concerti grossi, and is virtually the only composition by Manfredini which is well-known. It is a shame his small oeuvre is largely unexplored. At least his opus 3 has been recorded completely by Les Amis de Philippe, directed by Ludger Rémy (CPO), and I must say that their performance is much better than what we hear here, especially in regard to the use of dynamics and the exploration of the effects Manfredini has put into this piece.

Vivaldi's Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E - strangely enough the tracklist and the programme notes don't mention the solo part - is a remarkable piece: from beginning to end it is to be played with muted strings, and Vivaldi specifically asks not to use a harpsichord. The reason is, of course, to create the effect the title suggests, Il Riposo ("rest"). This concerto was not written as a Christmas concerto, but Vivaldi later used it to this end, probably for a performance in Rome. It is not played badly, but it is too bland, and performances by Italian ensembles are doing much more justice to this concerto. Especially the many long slurred phrases are better realised by Italian ensembles, for instance the Academia Montis Regalis with Enrico Onofri as the soloist (Naive).

The disc ends with the most popular Christmas concerto of the baroque era, Corelli's Concerto grosso in g minor op. 6,8. There is no need to tell anything about it. It is available in numerous recordings, many of which are much more engaging and sparkling than what the Collegium Musicum 90 is delivering.

Alessandro Scarlatti has written many chamber cantatas, mostly with secular texts, usually scored for voice and basso continuo, sometimes with an additional treble instrument. The Cantata pastorale per la nascitŕ di Nostro Signore belongs to this genre, but is different in two ways: it is scored for voice, four-part strings and bc, and its text is sacred. In the introductory sinfonia and the closing aria bagpipes and shawms are imitated - instruments traditionally associated with shepherds. Although the chamber cantata is close to the opera, its character is much more intimate and asks for a different approach. In this case there is an additional reason: this cantata was to be performed on Christmas Eve. But this seems to be lost on Ms Gritton whose operatic style of singing shows a misjudgement of the character of this cantata. Her rather strong vibrato is out of place here too. In comparison Nancy Argenta, in her recording with the Chandos Baroque Players, shows a much better understanding of this work. Although not without vibrato - a bit too much in my opinion - she gives a much subtler account of the content, and in addition her ornamentation is far better. The performance with one instrument per part is also more in line with the practice in chamber cantatas than the use of a full body of strings on this disc.

Lastly, the cantata In dulci jubilo by Telemann. I can't remember having heard this before. On the internet I found an older recording on Carus, directed by Günter Graulich, which is likely performed on modern instruments, but I have never heard it. Even so, as far as repertoire is concerned this recording is most welcome. In comparison to the other items on this disc this is performed rather well. It is based on 'In dulci jubilo', one of the most popular Christmas hymns in Germany. It is used in the opening section and returns in the third section, after a recitativo accompagnato for the tenor. The fourth section is the highlight of this cantata, a da capo aria for bass. The A part is expressing a nightly atmosphere through a kind of halo figures in the strings. The B part brings a strong contrast as the oboes and horns are entering. Simon Birchall gives a nice performance, and James Oxley sings the only other and much simpler aria equally well. In between the arias there is a secco recitative for alto, which Caroline Trevor sings nicely, although rhythmically too strict. In the closing chorus Telemann shows his contrapuntal skills. Some lines are sung by solo voices, and unfortunately Helen Groves spoils the sound of the ensemble with her wide vibrato. The cantata was written in Frankfurt, where Telemann worked from 1712 to 1721, and it is very likely cantatas like this were performed with one voice per part. From that perspective the use of a choir (4/3/3/3) is superfluous; its sound is acceptable, but lacks clarity.

I don't think I need to sum up my impressions. Sometimes one wonders why a recording has collected dust on the record company's shelves. But in this case I wish they had left it there. All pieces, with the exception of Telemann's cantata, are available in far better recordings. If you really want to buy a nice disc for the Christmas season, look elsewhere.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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