musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Alla virtù della Sig. Maria Pignatelli - Unpublished italian baroque cantatas"

Juliette de Banes Gardonne, mezzo-soprano; Bruno Cocset, cello; Emanuele Forni, theorbo; Paolo Corsi, harpsichord

rec: Sept 2019, Vézelay, Cité de la Voix
Claves - 50-3001 (© 2020) (63'18")
Liner-notes: E/F; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

Francesco GASPARINI (1661-1727): E che più far poss'io; Francesco MANCINI (1661-1737): Non voglio più catene, aria; Va sospirando il core; Carlo Antonio MONZA (1685-1739): Poiché più dell amore; Giuseppe PORSILE (1680-1750): Arianna infelice; Ch'io t'adori o mia Clori; Necessità di fato; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Ch'io da te mi divida; Lontananza non risana

The disc under review here is devoted to a collection of cantatas which is preserved in the Antoniana Library in Padua. It is called Cantate alla virtù delle Signora Maria Pignatelli and includes 48 cantatas by Italian composers from the early 18th century. Such an anthology is in line with the time: the chamber cantata was one of the most beloved genres of musical entertainment. Cantatas were often performed during the gatherings of the academies which existed across Italy. Several composers were members of such academies, which offered them the opportunity to perform their cantatas and stimulated them to compose such works. The most productive composer of cantatas was Alessandro Scarlatti, who wrote more than 600. He is also represented in the collection from Padua, with five cantatas.

Scarlatti is a household name, but who was Maria Pignatelli? She was a member of one of the most illustrious families in Italy, originating from Naples. The research which was part of the project resulting in this recording, revealed that Maria Anna Pignatelli was born in Alcudia and lived from 1689 to 1755. She has become known for a love affair with the poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio. After her marriage to Count Johann Michael Althann in 1709 she moved to Vienna, where it was thanks to her - and her good connections with Archduke Charles V - that Metastasio could make a career as the most prominent and sought-after librettist of his time. As after her marriage she was known as Countess of Althann, the manuscript of the cantatas has to be dated before 1709, when she was still known under her own name.

The fact that the Pignatelli family was from Naples may well explain the prominent place of Neapolitan composers in the collection, with 18 out of 48 cantatas. Obviously one of them is Alessandro Scarlatti; his son Domenico is also represented, with three cantatas. No fewer than eight cantatas are from the pen of Giuseppe Porsile, whose career developed more or less parallel to the life of Maria Anna Pignatelli. He started his career as vicemaestro of the royal chapel in Naples, and then moved to Barcelona, where he entered the service of King Charles II, and then of Charles III, the Austrian contender to the Spanish throne. When the latter was crowned Holy Roman Emperor - as Charles VI - Porsile moved to Vienna with him, and there he gave singing lessons to the dowager Empress Wilhelmina Christina. In 1720 he was appointed court composer.

The fourth Neapolitan in the collection is Francesco Mancini, represented with two cantatas. He was born and died in Naples, and hardly ever left the city, except for an occasional trip to Rome. He was educated as an organist and it is in this capacity that he worked from 1704 to 1708 in the royal chapel. In the latter year he became a deputy of the maestro di cappella, Alessandro Scarlatti. When the latter died in 1725, Mancini succeeded him. In 1720 he had already been appointed director of the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. He composed many operas and oratorios, and also contributed to the various genres of sacred music. His compositions of the latter kind found a wide dissemination across Europe. He left more than 200 cantatas, but hardly any of them are available on disc. Here we get one of the two cantatas and one aria from the other. Given the playing time of this disc it is a bit of a mystery why not the entire cantata was recorded.

The remaining nine composers in the collection are connected to Bologna. The best-known among them are Giovanni Bononcini (who was active for some time as an opera composer in London), Francesco Gasparini (who worked as opera composer and keyboard teacher in Venice) and Giacomo Antonio Perti (for many years maestro di cappella at the Basilica San Petronio). The latter also wrote a considerable number of chamber cantatas, one of which is included here. The least-known composer in the programme is Carlo Antonio Monza, who was from Milan, but during a stage of his career worked in Naples, Messina, Rome and Bologna. As many arias from his pen are included in operas by Gasparini, it seems likely that they knew each other personally. Juliette de Banes Gardonne, in her liner-notes, rightly states that his vocal music is "extremely poorly known". That probably goes for his entire output, even though that - if we have to believe New Grove - is rather small. The fact that the cantata included here is not mentioned at all, only attests to the lack of attention he has been given.

The cantatas are all scored for solo voice and basso continuo, either soprano or alto. As many cantatas of that time don't require a very wide tessitura, a mezzo-soprano may be able to sing both. Alessandro Scarlatti's aria Ch'io da te mi divida is for alto. According to the liner-notes it is from a cantata, but New Grove does not list the cantata, only this aria, with the addition that it is of doubtful authenticity. In the manuscript it is attributed to a composer with the name of Fiorenza. Ms de Banes Gardonne states that the research as part of this project resulted in confirmation that it is indeed from Scarlatti's pen.

The structure of the cantatas is always the same: a sequence of recitatives and arias. Some cantatas open with a recitative, others with an aria. Some recitatives turn to an arioso at the end, which was very common at the time. Gasparini's E che più far poss'io opens with a short harpsichord solo. I don't know whether this is in the score or an improvisation by Paolo Corsi.

Unfortunately I can't tell anything about what these cantatas are about as the booklet omits the lyrics. I find that very disappointing, and that makes it impossible to analyze how the various composers treat the text. Monza's Poiché più dell'amore ends with an aria in a fast tempo and with marked accents. It has the traces of a rage aria, but whether it is indeed one is impossible to say. Porsile's Arianna infelice obviously deals with the fate of Ariadne, and this explains its dramatic character. Equally dramatic is the ensuing aria by Mancini.

The lack of lyrics also makes it not easy to assess to what extent Juliette de Banes Gardonne does justice to the text and the character of the cantatas. I can say, though, that she sings very well. I like her voice, and stylistically she is entirely convincing. She does well in the dramatic stuff, and there is also some lovely singing in the more lyrical arias. I particularly appreciates her rhythmic freedom and speechlike performance in the recitatives. The basso continuo group is first class and a real driving force.

As much as I regret the lack of lyrics, I strongly recommend this disc as we get here cantatas that very likely have never been recorded before. They are fine specimens of the genre, which is amply demonstrated by the artists.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

CD Reviews