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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "Cantatas"

Nancy Argenta, soprano
Chandos Baroque Players

rec: Feb 1989, Cardiff, University (Concert Hall)
EMI - CDC 7 54176 2 (© 1991) (R) (69'44")
Texts and translations included

Aure leggiere, fermata il volo (Arietta No. 16); Cantata pastorale per la nativitą di Nostro Signore Gesł Cristo (O di Betlemme altera); Dove voli, o moi pensiero? (Arietta No. 15); Hor che di Febo; Lą dove a Mergellina; Pirro e Demetrio: Le violette; Quella pace gradita

Rachel Beckett, recorder; Maya Homburger, Rachel Isserlis, violin; Annette Isserlis, viola; Richard Tunnicliffe, cello; Malcolm Proud, harpsichord

At the time this recording was first released (1991) Alessandro Scarlatti was hardly more than a name, and first and foremost the father of the famous Domenico Scarlatti. Since then much has changed, as nowadays his music is regularly performed and recorded. This disc presents some examples of a genre for which he was particularly famous, the chamber cantata. From the mid-17th to the mid-18th century thousands of such cantatas have been written in Italy alone. The chamber cantata was one of the most popular sources of entertainment at courts and in the houses of the aristocracy.

The programme contains a nice variety of cantatas. The Cantata pastorale per la nativitą di Nostro Signore Gesł Cristo (O di Betlemme altera) is still one of Scarlatti's best-known works, and regularly performed during the Christmas period. It is for soprano with two violins, viola and bc. Especially the closing aria, 'Toccņ la prima sorte a voi, pastori' (You were destined to be the first, shepherds) is unmistakebly pastoral, as the violins imitate the sound of bagpipes.

All the other cantatas are about love, one of the favourite subjects of the time. Lą dove a Mergellina is scored for soprano and basso continuo only, the most common scoring of cantatas. In the recitatives Scarlatti writes some coloraturas on the words "laccio" (snare) and "core" (heart). This is something Scarlatti often does in order to underline elements in the text. This cantata is also remarkable for its use of chromatic alterations, in particular in the first half of the aria 'Ami chi t'ama', which is explained by the text: "Love the one who loves you, O fair Irene, for cruelty is not a virtue". The second half has a most unexpected melodic progression. This piece pays tribute to what was called bizarria, strangeness, which was highly regarded at that time.

Melodically Quella pace gradita may be more 'conventional', but its scoring definitely is not. Additional parts for one or two violins in chamber cantatas were not uncommon, but here we find the far less common scoring of soprano, recorder, violin, cello and bc. It is introduced by a sinfonia in binary form. The first two arias are followed by a ritornello for all instruments. Only in the third aria do they all play together with the voice.

This cantata is followed by three single arias. Two are from a 19th-century collection of ariette, but may well be originally from operas. Both are relatively simple settings of two stanzas on the same music. The third aria, Le violette, is certainly from an opera, another genre for which Alessandro Scarlatti was famous. In particular while working in Naples he composed a large number of them.

The last cantata, Hor che di Febo, is for soprano with two violins and bc. Here the instruments are used to illustrate the text, for instance by tremolandi depicting the "notte algente" (freezing night) in the third aria. The cantata has an original ending: after the soprano has sung "ch'io parto" (for I am leaving) all instruments fall silent, and then the soprano sings unaccompanied: "addio, addio!" (farewell, farewell).

Apart from the quality of Scarlatti's music the variety of forms and scorings makes this a very interesting and entertaining disc. Since it was released a lot has happened in the interpretation of Italian music, partly thanks to the growing infuence of Italian artists and ensembles. From this perspective the interpretations by Nancy Argenta and the Chandos Baroque Players may sound a little distant and pale. I certainly could imagine more colourful and more dramatic performances. In particular the recitatives should be treated with more rhythmic freedom. Having said that I am happy this recording is available again. At the time Nancy Argenta was one of the finest singers of early music, and especially in the arias she shows her great skills and the beauty of her voice. There are fine contributions from the instrumentalists, both as ensemble as individually.

Michael Talbot, the great expert in Italian music, has written informative programme notes. I think he should have been asked to update them, as right now it is hardly necessary to explain the difference between a recitative and an aria, as he did in 1991.

I have to add a note of warning: in my copy there were several short interruptions in track 27. So if you decide to buy this disc - which I recommend -, be careful and make sure your copy is alright.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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