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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Cantatas & Chamber Music"

Clara Rottsolk, sopranoa
Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players

rec: Nov 19 - 21, 2009, Malvern, Pa., St Peter's Church in the Green Valley
Chandos - CHAN 0768 (© 2010) (67'41")

Bella, s'io t'amoa; Bella dama di nome Santaa, arr. Richard Stone; Cantata pastorale (Non so qual pił m'ingombra)a; Concerto IX in a minor; Quella pace graditaa

Gwyn Roberts, recorder; Emlyn Ngai, Karina Fox, violin; Eve Miller, cello; Richard Stone, archlute, theorbo

The genre of the chamber cantata is one of the most important of the Italian baroque. It was this kind of composition which was used to entertain aristocrats in their private chambers or during their social gatherings. Rome was an especially fruitful environment for the composition of such cantatas, as there were many aristocrats who organised weekly 'academies' in their palaces. Some even had their own chapel to perform music on a regular basis. Most of Alessandro Scarlatti's cantatas have been written for performances in the palaces of the likes of the Cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili and Prince Ruspoli.

Scarlatti composed a large amount of such cantatas; the estimated number varies from around 600 to over 800. Most were scored for solo voice and basso continuo. The vocal part was mostly for soprano, some for alto; the singers were usually castratos. Scarlatti's cantatas were considered a model and it was he who established the form of the chamber cantata as a sequence of two recitatives, each followed by an aria. But Scarlatti also composed a number of cantatas with additional instruments, usually two violins. In some cases he also used a recorder. This disc also features a cantata, Quella pace gradita, whose instrumental scoring is rather unusual: recorder, violin, cello and basso continuo. The cantata begins with an instrumental introduction in which the ensemble is split into two halves: recorder and bc versus violin and cello.

In his instrumental parts Scarlatti demonstrates his skills in counterpoint. This aspect of his compositional style as well as his treatment of harmony were admired, for instance by the German-born opera composer Johann Adolf Hasse, who called him "the greatest master of harmony of Italy, which is to say of the whole world". But it also brought him criticism: his style was considered too "learned" and too complicated. His compositions were not 'music for the millions', but rather for an exclusive audience with a more than average knowledge and taste. With time Scarlatti's music went more and more out of fashion, and in particular the more galant style which was practiced in Naples superseded his.

The cantatas which are featured on this disc are all fine specimens of Scarlatti's art. It is not just the way he has composed the instrumental parts, but also his treatment of the texts, and the expression of the affetti which is impressive. All cantatas belong to the Arcadian atmosphere. They are about love, but mostly the dark sides of it, like jealousy, unfaithfulness and rejection. In particular in the recitatives Scarlatti goes a long way to express the emotions in the text. The torment, the suffering, the sadness and anger are all evocatively laid out, with the help of sudden shifts in harmony and melody as well as chromaticism. But there are also moments of great lyricism, like in the last aria of Bella, s'io t'amo. Lyricism is also a feature of the last cantata of this disc, the Cantata pastorale, written for performance on Christmas Eve. The first recitative and aria seem to be completely secular, but in the second recitative the shepherd who is the protagonist of the cantata reveals that Jesus is born, and the cantata closes with an aria in a characteristic siciliano rhythm.

The performances are quite impressive. I am especially pleased by the way Clara Rottsolk treats the text. She sings the recitatives in a truly declamatory manner, with the rhythmic freedom which composers expected performers to take. She is also not afraid to use the full dynamic range of her voice, and in several instances she practices the messa di voce which was an important tool of singers at the time. In the arias her singing is also differentiated in that she expresses all nuances in the text. The players do a great job as well, and the cooperation with Ms Rottsolk is immaculate. Only now and then they are probably a bit too restrained. Noticeable is the fact that no harpsichord is used in the basso continuo, only cello and archlute or theorbo. It creates a kind of intimacy this repertoire needs.

In between the cantatas one of Alessandro Scarlatti's sonatas for recorder, two violins and bc is performed. It is one of Scarlatti's best instrumental pieces, and therefore it is well represented on disc. I would have preferred that another piece would have been chosen. That said, it is beautifully performed here. But this disc's main interest is the four cantatas which are given excellent performances. The booklet contains programme notes by Gwyn Roberts as well as the lyrics with an English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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