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"The Century of the Portuguese"

Gemma Bertagnolli, sopranoa; Fernando Miguel Jaloto, harpsichordb
Divino Sospiro
Dir: Enrico Onofri

rec: Feb 12 - 17, 2010, Lisbon, Academia Militar (Capela de Bemposta)
Dynamic - CDS 709 (© 2011) (64'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

anon (?Carlos SEIXAS, 1704-1742): Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in g minorb; Pedro António AVONDANO (1714-1782): Ah, non sai bella Selene, aria for soprano and stringsa; Scena de Berenice for soprano and orchestraa; Pietro Giorgio AVONDANO (?-?): Sinfonia for strings and bc in D; Sinfonia for strings and bc in F; Francisco António DE ALMEIDA (c1702-1755?): A quel leggiadro volto, cantata for soprano, strings and bca

Portugal is a bit of a white spot on the early music map. Music by Portuguese composers is not often performed and recorded. Portugal experienced a kind of Golden Age in the first half of the 17th century, when it was in a political union with Spain. The music created in this period - for instance by De Magalhães, Cardoso and Lobo - is still performed by ensembles which concentrate on classical polyphony. Moreover, João IV, who was King of Portugal from 1640 until his death in 1656, was strongly interested in music and even composed some. He collected a large number of compositions by the best composers of his time and previous generations. This resulted in a huge library of musical manuscripts which was destroyed during the earthquake and fire of 1755. With it a large part of Portugal's musical heritage was simply wiped off the map.

In the first half of the 18th century Portugal experienced economic affluence due to the discovery of gold in its colony Brazil. King João V who ruled from 1707 to 1750 took the opportunity to give a boost to the country's musical life. The royal chapel was raised to a patriarchal status, a music school was founded and musicians from Italy were hired, among them Domenico Scarlatti. Portuguese musicians were sent to Italy to become acquainted with the newest trends in music. No wonder Portuguese music in the 18th century was strongly influenced by the Italian style. This disc sheds light on three composers who played a role in that music scene.

Pietro Antonio Avondano was from Genoa, and entered the royal chapel as a violinist. Little is known about him; in New Grove he is only mentioned in the article on his son Pedro António. At the time Pietro Antonio arrived in Lisbon he was just 19 years of age. The two sinfonias recorded here were formerly attributed to his son, but are now thought to have been written by the father. That seems plausible considering their baroque style. There are striking similarities with the concerti di ripieno by Antonio Vivaldi. They are both scored for strings and basso continuo. In the performance of Divino Sospiro the strings are joined by two oboes in the Sinfonia in F.

The music by his son Pedro António who was born in Lisbon is quite different and points in the direction of the classical style. That is certainly the case in the Scena de Berenice which consists of two accompanied recitatives of a very dramatic character and two arias. The orchestra plays a crucial role in depicting the emotions of the protagonist. The aria Ah, non sai bella Selene is an independent piece preserved in manuscript. In the liner-notes Cristina Fernandes suggests it could have been Avondano's contribution to the opera La Didone abbandonata which was performed in 1765 and comprised music by David Perez and "other excellent authors". It is written in a largely galant idiom and the aria retains a dacapo structure. Pedro António Avondano was not only an important composer. He also played a crucial role in the reorganization of musical life after the earthquake.

The third composer represented in the programme is a native Portuguese, Francisco António de Almeida. He was one of the Portuguese musicians who went to Rome to study. He stayed there from 1722 to 1726; during that time at least two oratorios from his pen were performed. After his return to Lisbon he became organist of the royal chapel. He also started to compose operas. His first was performed during Carnival 1733 at the royal palace; it was the very first opera in Italian ever to be performed in Portugal. It is assumed that De Almeida fell victim to the earthquake. His cantata A quel leggiadro volto is in the traditional style of the Italian chamber cantata, with two pairs of recitative and (dacapo) aria.

The programme also includes the Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in g minor which has been preserved anonymously. It is sometimes attributed to Carlos Seixas, the most important composer of keyboard music in Portugal in the 18th century. The reason is that it shows some similarities with a harpsichord concerto which is preserved as a piece by Seixas. But Cristina Fernandes warns not to jump to conclusions: "It ought to be remembered, however, that composers then conformed to the established style of the day, sharing, to some extent, language and forms, and did not seek originality for its own sake (...)". It is a rather irregular piece, in particular as far as the solo part is concerned. The middle movement has no solo part for the harpsichord, but rather a short solo for the violin. The virtuosic character of the harpsichord part indicates that the composer himself was a highly skilled player. Therefore Seixas remains a candidate for the authorship.

Fernando Miguel Jaloto leaves nothing to be desired in his interpretation of this demanding part. His effective use of agogical means creates considerable tension. The drama of the Scena di Berenice is not lost on Gemma Bertagnolli who is a seasoned performer of - in particular - Italian music, including opera. She gives a really theatrical performance, and the recitatives are especially impressive. The cantata and the aria are perfectly executed as well, with nice and tasteful ornamentation. In the aria she uses the full range of her voice, showing a remarkably strong low register. The orchestra give their all in the important instrumental part of the scene, with fine crescendi and diminuendi. They play with fire and passion in the purely orchestral works.

This is an important and illuminating disc which raises my curiosity about other Portuguese music. The record company deserves praise for releasing this disc of little-known repertoire. Unfortunately it hasn't done us the favour of printing the lyrics in the booklet.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Gemma Bertagnolli
Divino Sospiro

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