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Alessandro & Benedetto MARCELLO: Cantatas

[I] Alessandro & Benedetto MARCELLO: "Arianna abbandonata & other Cantatas"
Lucia Cortese, soprano
Camerata Accademica
Dir: Paolo Faldi
rec: July 4 - 6, 2019, Padua, Auditorium Pollini
Elegia Classics - Elecla 19075 (© 2019) (70'49")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
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Alessandro MARCELLO (1684-1747): Irene sdegnata; Benedetto MARCELLO (1686-1739): Arianna abbandonata; Qual turbine; Quanto fu lieto

Luca Ranzato, Matteo Anderlini, Lucia dalla Libera, Giuseppe Corrente, Alessandra Scatola, Chiara Arzenton, violin; Giovanna Gordini, Eugenio Bernes, viola; Claudia Cecchinato, Filippo Lion, cello; Federico Salotto, double bass; Paola Ventrella, theorbo; Alberto Maron, harpsichord

[II] Benedetto MARCELLO (1686-1739): "Superbo del mio affanno - Cantate per Contralto"
Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, alto; Daniel Rosin, cello; Johannes Keller, harpsichord
rec: March 2 - 6, 2020, Therwil (CH), St. Stephan
Resonando - RN-10012 (© 2020) (68'51")
Liner-notes: E/ES; lyrics - translations: E/ES
Cover & track-list
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Ah, ch'io sento in lontananza (A8); Arresta, arresta il pič (A31); Cantan lieti ne' boschetti (A48); Cresci con pianto mio (A77); Qual mai fato inumano (A265); La Lucrezia (A229)

Score A Marcello
Scores B Marcello

Benedetto Marcello is one of those composers who have heardly benefitted from the emerging interest in the Italian music of the first half of the 18th century. The number of discs with music from his pen in my collection is very limited, and over the years I haven't seen many discs that were completely devoted to his oeuvre. He was different from his peers in that he wasn't a professional composer. He was from an aristocratic family, and therefore wasn't able to make a career in music; he was what was called a dilettante. That didn't prevent him from being highly respected as a composer. In particular his Psalms on Italian texts brought him fame and were praised by the likes of Georg Philipp Telemann, Giovanni Bononcini and - later in the 18th century - Padre Martini.

Marcello was quite critical about the musical fashion of his time, in particular about what he considered 'tasteless' ornamentation. His goal of a more 'natural' way of setting texts to music was reflected in his oratorio Joaz (1727), which is seen as anticipating the reforms of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Marcello composed more than 400 cantatas, mostly for solo voice and basso continuo. Among them are several about figures from antiquity, such as Cassandra and Lucrezia. The first disc to be reviewed here also treats the fate of such a figure: Arianna abbandonata.

The basic form of the cantata had been established by Alessandro Scarlatti. It consisted of two pairs of recitative and aria, mostly for a solo voice and basso continuo. The scoring could be extended with one or several instruments, mostly violin(s). However, composers often treated this basic form with considerable freedom. They could extend the number of recitatives and arias, for instance by opening with an aria, or added a sinfonia as a kind of overture. The latter is the case in the three cantatas by Benedetto Marcello that have been included here.

The programme starts with Arianna abbandonata, which begins with a remarkably long sinfonia in three sections (prestissimo, adagio assai, allegro), taking more than four minutes in total. It is followed by a dramatic accompanied recitative, in which Arianna expresses her anger about Theseus's leaving her. In the first aria she complains about his cruelty. In the next secco recitative and aria she not so much gives way to her anger but rather pleads for his return; her unbroken love gives her delight.

This cantata strongly contrasts with the next, Irene sdegnata, a work by Benedetto's elder brother Alessandro. The latter had many other interests, such as poetry and painting, and was also involved in politics in his home-town Venice. His fame is largely based on his oboe concerto whose popularity largely stems from the fact that it was (is?) often used in commercials. This cantata is about another woman, who has been left by her lover Fileno. The opening sinfonia sets the tone, as it includes some strong dissonances and ends abruptly, followed by an accompanied recitative, in which Irene wishes her unfaithful lover a confrontation with the elements: "May the abyss, the heavens, the earth and the ocean rage war against impious Fileno!" In the first aria she still restrains herself and complains about her fate. After a second accompanied recitative she vents her anger at full force: "May your foot encounter monsters, lightning bolts, and abysses, precipices and wide ravines".

The third cantata, by Benedetto again, is of a more lyrical nature. Quanto fu lieto is again about a separation from a loved one, but the protagonist is not filled with bitterness, but rather remembers the good old days and hopes that they will return. This cantata opens again with a sinfonia; the first recitative is accompanied. In Qual turbine heavy weather conditions at sea are used as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of love, which was very much a topos in the baroque era. The whirlwinds the opening recitative refers to, are illustrated by the sinfonia, which is followed attacca by an accompanied recitative. In the first aria the text - "The timid helmsman does not know how to escape the quivering whirlwinds and the moaning ocean, and he is doomed to shipwreck" - is depicted by unsettling harmonies. The ensuing secco recitativo reflects the content of the text, which says that the sky is peaceful and the sea is calm. However, it ends with the statement that "the tempests that a severe and aloof countenance moves in a lover cannot be cleared as fast". The real meaning of what has been described is then revealed in the last aria: "My heart that goes sailing through the sea of love feels a tempest that is no less fierce than this".

In comparison to the cantatas of the likes of Scarlatti, Handel or Vivaldi, those from the pen of Benedetto Marcello receive not that much interest. Those by his brother have fared even worse, although it needs to be said that it seems that the largest part of the latter's oeuvre has been lost. That has to be very much regretted, as the cantata included here is an excellent specimen of the important genre of the chamber cantata. Benedetto's cantatas are also very fine works, and given the large number that have come down to us, there is still some catching up to do. Although the chamber cantata was a specific genre, to be performed during gatherings of the academies which existed in many towns in Italy, some cantatas are close to opera. That goes certainly for Benedetto's Armida abbandonata, whose first aria is of operatic proportions, taking here more than 11 minutes. The ensemble comprises six violins, two violas and two cellos, which may be appropriate in this work. In the other pieces I probably would prefer a one-to-a-part line-up, as this seems to have been the standard for performances of chamber cantatas. That said, the playing is excellent, and where the tenor of a cantata is depicted in the ensemble, the effects the composers intended have been realized to full extent.

However, the star of the show obviously is Lucia Cortese, whom I did not know, but hope to hear again in the years to come. I am very impressed by her performances of these cantatas. Whether dramatic or more lyrical, she finds the right approach in each recitative and aria. She has a lovely voice, which suits the more intimate arias very well, but in Alessandro's cantata she shows that she is not devoid of dramatic skills either. The recitatives are performed with the right amount of rhythmic freedom, and the dynamic differentiation is just right.

It is just a shame that the English translation of the Italian liner-notes is rather poor. Fortunately the lyrics of the cantatas have received a much better translation.

If one needs evidence that Benedetto Marcello does not receive the interest he deserves, the second disc delivers it. Five of the six cantatas Flavio Ferri-Benedetti selected, are recorded for the first time. They are specimens of the cantata in its most basic form: recitatives and arias for a solo voice and basso continuo. Four cantatas follow the standard: two pairs of recitative and aria. As written above, composers derived from the standard if they felt the need. That can go into two directions. Either they added recitatives and arias or they reduced their number. Ah, chi sento in lontananza and Qual mai fato inumano are examples of the latter: they consist of two arias embracing a recitative. In Lucrezia, Marcello adds a recitative and an arioso to the two pairs of recitative and aria.

Most cantatas are about the trials and tribulations of love, which offers the protagonist the opportunity to express his or her feelings. Ah, chi sento in lontananza is an example of a cantata, in which the protagonist expresses her anger about being left by her lover, the shepherd Tirsi. He is one of the stock figures in baroque chamber cantatas - an inhabitant of that imaginary world that was the ideal of the aristocracy at the time, called 'Arcadia'. The first aria is an expression of sadness, the second of anger and revenge: "May the unfaithful man die". Marcello uses wide leaps to depict the protagonist's state of mind.

Arresta, arresta il pič is about another betrayed woman, and opens with a recitative which sets the tone: "Stop there, fugitive liar, stop, you cruel, evil man!" Again Marcello uses wide leaps, but also chromaticism in this recitative and in the ensuing aria. In the second aria the protagonist vows revenge: "[In] the kingdom of horror, I shall avenge my grief by killing the traitor". Here the basso continuo, even more than the vocal part, reflects the feelings of the protagonist, who is close to insanity.

Very different are the feelings of the woman who laments the lover who has left her in Cresci col pianto mio: "Grow with my tears, o clear, peaceful river (...) but please, do bring my tears to the one who shows no mercy to my sighs". She expresses her sorrow and her continuous love for the one who has departed. Chromaticism and melismas are among the instruments Marcello applies to illustrate the feelings of a sad woman. The two recitatives are unusually short (20 and 40 seconds respectively).

Rather carefree is Cantan lieti ne' boschetti, whose first aria uses a topos of the time: the singing of birds as a metaphore of happiness in love. Here it is a shepherd who is sitting on the river's shore and then enjoys the appearance of his lover, who he thinks is more beautiful than the sun. It is the most lyrical cantata in this recording. The two arias embrace a very short recitative (40").

Lyrical is also the first aria of the cantata Qual mai fato inumano, although the general tenor is again about an unhappy love. This time the protagonist is a man who says that he has to leave his love, Dorinda. He begs for mercy and expresses his pain in the first aria. In the second recitative and aria, again the images of a ship, a sea and stormy weather are used to illustrate the feelings of the protagonist: he hopes that his sighs would be able to cause a storm that made the ship sink. In the closing aria he says that he wants "the waters open to shipwreck me, desperate man". That thought is illustrated with extreme coloratura, which lends this aria a highly dramatic character.

Marcello often wrote the texts for his cantatas himself. That is not the case with La Lucrezia, whose text is identical with that which Handel set (HWV 145); the author was Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. In the opening recitative she urges the gods to listening to her, when she expresses her anger at the man who raped her. In the ensuing aria the words "Parca fatal" are repeated several times. It refers to one of the Fates, who she wants to punish "this awful monster". The second aria is rather short, but that is compensated, as it were, by the following long recitative in which Lucretia announces her death. The cantata closes with an arioso: "I shall take revenge in hell!" It ends on a long dominant note without resolving the cadence.

This recording of six cantatas confirms the impression of the previous disc that Benedetto Marcello was very much his own man, who followed his ideals in his cantatas, independent of what was the standard in his time. He emphasized the importance of expression, and that is amply demonstrated in these cantatas. These two discs are very important contributions to our knowledge of Marcello and of Italian Baroque in general. This second disc is different from the first, because of the scoring for one voice and basso continuo and for alto rather than soprano. Flavio Ferri-Benedetti has several recordings of Italian cantatas to his credit, and these were all very convincing. That is the case here as well. Notable is that at several moments he turns to his chest register for the lowest notes, and that is quite effective, for instance in passages about hell. His ornamentation is extensive and stylish, and the recitatives are sung in true declamatory style, as they should. There are just two issues. The first is that some of the cadenzas are a little exaggerated; I prefer a little more restraint here. The second is that I would have liked a more intimate acoustic. A church is not the most appropriate venue for chamber cantatas, which were mostly performed during gatherings of the academies.

However, these are relative minor issues of a recording which is very enjoyable and gives an excellent impression of the quality of a composer, who deserves much more interest.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Johannes Keller
Daniel Rosin
Camerata Accademica


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