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Attilio ARIOSTI (1666 - 1729): "London - Arias for alto"

Filippo Mineccia, alto
Ensemble Odyssee
Dir: Andrea Friggi

rec: Jan 2015, Diemen (NL), Schuilkerk De Hoop
Glossa - GCD 923506 (© 2016) (74'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Aquilio Consolo (1724) (Rinasce amor); Caio Marzio Coriolano (1723) (overture - presto; Io spero che in queiguardi; Perdonate, o cari amori; Spirate, o iniqui marmi - Voi d'un figlio tanto misero, rec & aria); Dario (1725) (Voi del ciel pietosi numi); I gloriosi presagi di Scipione Africano (1704) (Bella mia, lascia ch'io vada); La madre de' Maccabei (1704) (Benché l'ultimo al tormento; Quando il mondo fabbricò); La profezia d'Eliseo nell'assedio di Samaria (1705) (sinfonia); Tito Manlio (1717) (Aure care; Col nemico di mia pace; Venga pur quel sì terribile); Vespasiano (1724) (Premerà soglio di morte; Sorga pur l'oppressa Roma)

In the early decades of the 18th century London was under the spell of Italian opera. This explains why several composers from overseas settled there and became active in the opera scene. George Frideric Handel is the most famous example but there were others, such as Giovanni Bononcini and Nicola Antonio Porpora. A lesser-known figure was Attilio Ariosti who had already made a career before his arrival in London.

Ariosti was born in Bologna and probably received his first musical education at the basilica San Petronio. In 1688 he entered the monastic Order of the Servites and served as organist at their basilica in Bologna. In the early 1690s he composed two oratorios and some instrumental music. In 1696 he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua where he composed his first opera. He was then sent to the Berlin court of Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg. Quickly he became her favourite musician and she kept him at his court for six years. He then went to Vienna where he where emperor Joseph I took him into his service. Here he stayed seven years and especially during the second half of this period he acted as Austrian ambassador to the states of the Italian peninsula. After the death of Joseph he entered the service of the Duke of Anjou, the future King Louis XV of France. In 1716 he went to England where he made his first appearance as a soloist on the viola d'amore between the acts of Handel's opera Amadigi. The viola d'amore was one of the instruments he played - alongside keyboard and cello; he also was a professional singer - and he composed a number of lessons and sonatas for it.

In April 1717 his first opera in England was performed, Tito Manlio. This work is notable for the relatively many accompanied recitatives and duets. Also remarkable are the colourful scorings which are a feature of many vocal works from his pen. In his liner-notes to the present recording Andrea Friggi writes: "No autograph scores of the pieces recorded in this cd survive. Nonetheless, from the extant copies we acquire the impression that Ariosti meticulously indicated the orchestration he required in his music. Other contemporary composers rarely indicated the presence of wind instruments in the orchestra, and we are often forced to make an educated guess if the separate orchestral parts do not survive. However, this is not so with Ariosti’s compositions, since he commonly wrote down the exact instrumentation in his scores." He gives several examples, such as the oratorio La madre de' Maccabei which is scored for two single violins and two lower string parts labeled violoncello I and violoncello II which are exceptionally high. He suggests that these parts were performed in 1704 in Vienna by the two Bononcini brothers, Giovanni and Antonio Maria. That same year the serenata I gloriosi presagi di Scipione Africani was performed; the aria 'Bella mia, lascia ch'io vada' includes an obbligato part for theorbo which may have been played by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti.

Although the success of Tito Manlio resulted in his being commissioned to write further operas it was only in 1723 that his next opera was performed. Caio Marzio Coriolano became his most successful work for the stage. A key role in the performance was played by Francesca Cuzzoni who one month earlier had made her London debut in Handel's Ottone. The renowned castrato Senesino also participated. The present disc includes several arias from this work but also the accompanied recitative 'Spirate, o iniqui marmi'. In this piece in the unusual key of D flat major "the lead character - which role was sung by the famed Senesino - laments his misfortunes in prison, making use of the most extravagant enharmonic modulations. It creates an impressive scene that the public perceived as "wrought up to the highest degree of perfection that music is capable of" (Hawkins), and that, more then ten years later, Rameau mentions in his Génération harmonique (1737) as an example of extreme expressive harmony" (Friggi).

The programme also includes arias from two later operas, Vespasiano (1724) and Dario (1725) but these were not received well. Ariosti's fame was well beyond its peak. Charles Burney assessed a collection of 'favourite songs' from the former and another opera of 1724, Artaserse, rather negatively. Ariosti died, probably in 1728, in poverty.

This disc offers a cross section of Ariosti's large-scale vocal works. If this is a representative choice is impossible to say as none of his oratorios, operas or serenate have ever been recorded complete. I noted that most arias are of a more or less introverted nature. There is just one aria which one could describe as a rage aria: 'Col nemico di mia pace' from Tito Manlio: "With the enemy of my peace I want slaughters and not love." The performance is a bit too sweet; I missed some sharp edges but I wonder whether Filippo Mineccia is able to produce a more powerful performance. He has a very beautiful and agile voice and the other arias in the programme fit him perfectly.

In his liner-notes Friggi pays special attention to the scoring of the basso continuo section. He mentions that the orchestras in London comprised a relatively large number of first violins and bass instruments whereas the inner voices were "almost inaudible", according to a French diplomat. " In fact, we know from payment lists of those years that the continuo sections could number up to seven cellos, four bassoons, one double bass and a theorbo - in addition to the usual two harpsichords - whilst there were no more than ten violins and two violas." He decided to pursue this sound in this recording. But that is only partially realised as the number of bass instruments is not that large: two cellos, one violone, two bassoons, theorbo and two harpsichords. And eight violins - in some items six - against two violas is not uncommon in modern performances of baroque music. It would be interesting to further investigate this matter and apply the results in performances and recordings.

This disc makes clear that Ariosti's oeuvre needs a thorough investigation as well. The arias make one curious to hear the complete works from which they are taken.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Filippo Mineccia
Ensemble Odyssee


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