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"Play me my songs"

Ensemble Il Falcone
Dir: Fabrizio Haim Cipriani

rec: Jan 2008, Genoa, Cappella Grimaldi
Dynamic - CDS 612 (© 2008) (64'49")

Charles AVISON (1709-1770): Concerto in F, op.9,10 [4]; Francesco BARSANTI (1690-1772): Ouverture in d minor, op. 4,2 [2]; Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Barbara Ninfa ingrata, cantata [1]; John ECCLES (c1668-1735): The Mad Lover, incidental music: instr suite; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Sonata III for 2 violins and bc (The last time I came over the moor) [3]; Song I: The Lass of Peaty's Mill [3]; Song II: The Night her silent sable wore [3]; Song III: When Phoebus bright [3]; Song IV: O Bessy Bell and Mary Gray [3]; George Frideric HANDEL: The Rapture (HWV 228,20); The Sailor's Complaint (HWV 228,6)

(Sources: [1] Giovanni Bononcini, Cantate e duetti, 1721; [2] Francesco Barsanti, Nove overture a quattro ..., op. 4, 1743; [3] Francesco Geminiani, A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, 1749; [4] Charles Avison, Twelve Concertos ..., op. 9, 1766 )

Eliza Franzetti, soprano; Francesca Odling, Mattia Laurella, transverse flute; Fabrizio Haim Cipriani, Davide Monti, violin; Guido De Vecchi, viola; Marcello Scandelli, cello; Maurizio Less, viola da gamba, violone; Michele Pasotti, theorbo, guitar; Paola Cialdella, harpsichord

In the first decades of the 18th century England, and especially London, developed into one of the main centres of music in Europe. Many composers from all over the continent travelled to London to try their luck as performers or composers. The most famous of them, of course, is George Frideric Handel, but there were many more. And the composers represented on this disc are only the top of the iceberg.

The key figure in this programme is Francesco Geminiani. He was an outstanding violinist and pupil of Arcangelo Corelli. He didn't fail to present himself as such, because Corelli was very famous in England and being his pupil would make it much easier for Geminiani to make a good career. It didn't take long before he was invited to play at the court, accompanied by Handel at the harpsichord. Geminiani wasn't just a famous composer, he was also a prolific writer on music. In his book A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick of 1749 he included the songs performed in this programme. He mainly used them to demonstrate the correct way of adding ornaments, the ultimate goal of which should be to represent the intentions of the composer.

According to the booklet the subject of this recording is the "relationships between Italy and England". From this perspective the first item on this disc, a suite of four instrumental pieces which John Eccles wrote for the play The Mad Lover is a bit odd. Music for the stage like this was very popular in England, and after the death of Purcell Eccles became the main contributor to this genre. Although later in his career he tried to incorporate elements of the Italian style into his music, that isn't discernible in this suite which dates from around 1701. Although it is played quite well by Il Falcone, it sounds a bit too Italian to me. In this case I had preferred some moderation in regard to dynamic accents.

The inclusion of Avison makes much more sense as he was a strong admirer of Geminiani. He also was a writer on music, and in one of his books he dared to state that Geminiani surpassed Handel as a composer, which caused a fiery debate. Recently the largest part of his orchestral music has been recorded, but here we get probably the most 'Italianate' performance. This is definitely not the way British ensembles play Avison. One could argue that this is going a bit too far, but on the other hand the influence of the Italian masters, especially Geminiani, is probably better exposed here than in previous recordings.

Another Italian who had settled in London was Giovanni Bononcini, one of the most celebrated composers of operas and oratorios in Europe around 1700. Between 1720 and 1732 he worked in England, although with frequent interruptions. Only the first two seasons as a composer for the Royal Academy of Music he was very successful, but soon his Catholicism became problematic and he met growing resistance. Here a cantata for solo voice, two violins and bc is performed. It is introduced by a sinfonia in three sections, the second of which is a largo with daring harmonic progressions. After that we get the usual sequence of two recitatives and two arias. It receives a very fine performance by the soprano Elisa Franzetti, a singer with a beautiful voice who sings with much expression and also takes rhythmic freedom in the recitatives. The performance is a little marred, though, by the too reverberant acoustics.

Another Italian in England was Francesco Barsanti. He was born in Lucca like Geminiani, whom he accompanied to London in 1714. He married a woman from Scotland and had much sympathy for and understanding of Scottish tunes some of which he arranged for instruments. Here we hear one of the Overtures from his opus 4 which also shows Scottish influences. In the last movement, paesana (allegro con spirito), the sound of the Scottish folk fiddle is imitated.

Handel hasn't written many solo songs; of the two presented here only the first is authentic, whereas the second is spurious. There is nothing wrong with the singing in these two songs or in the songs by Geminiani, but Elisa Franzetti audibly doesn't feel really at home in this repertoire. Her diction is pretty poor and her pronunciation often rather strange. Even while reading the lyrics in the booklet it is difficult to understand what she is singing. It isn't made easier by the often fast tempi the ensemble has chosen nor by the acoustical circumstances nor by the balance between the voice and the instruments which is less than ideal.

This leads me to the performances of the players. I admire their temperament and often I find their approach refreshing as they rightfully underline the theatrical character of the Italian repertoire. But they apply their principles of interpretation too indiscriminately, and as a result they sometimes overshoot the mark. Their playing is also a little unpolished and the intonation now and then a bit suspect.

But with a little tolerance in these matters there is a lot to enjoy here and there is no dull moment. The concept is original and the programme has been well put together. And in addition this disc contains much repertoire which is hardly known. Enough reasons for me to recommend this disc after all. The programme notes are informative, but the booklet doesn't give the English translation of Bononcini's cantata, and the second half of the first stanza of Handel's song The Rapture is missing.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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