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"Amor hai vinto"

Concertino Amarilli
Dir: Ulli Nagy
rec: April 25 - 28, 2008, Schloss Damtschach (A) (church)
Gramola - 98856 (© 2009) (61'40")

Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Sinfonia for cello and bc in D; Francesco MANCINI: Quanto dolce č quell'ardore; Nicolo Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): D'amore il primo dardo; Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728): Spezza amor, l'arco e li strali [1]; Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Amor hai vinto (RV 651); Sonata for oboe and bc in c minor (RV 53)

Marelize Gerber, soprano; Andrea Mion, oboe; Paolo Tognon, bassoon; Marie Orsini-Rosenberg, cello; Stefano Rocco, theorbo, guitar; Ulli Nagy, harpsichord, organ

(Source: [1] Nuovamente composte opre di musica vocale, 1735)

The chamber cantata was one of the most popular genres in the late 17th and the first half of the 18th century. In particular Italian composers have written a large number of such works. The best-known composers of this kind of music are Alessandro Scarlatti who wrote about 600 of them, and Antonio Vivaldi whose output in this genre is much more limited. This disc includes no cantatas by Scarlatti and one by Vivaldi. The other composers are not unknown but their cantatas are not often performed.

Chamber cantates mostly deal with love, and that is not different here. But these cantatas have another thing in common. In all of them figures the shepherdess Clori, one of the mythological characters which frequently appear in cantatas, serenatas and other vocal genres. She has two lovers, Tirsi and Fileno, but can't decide between them. Her main feature is her fickleness, and this connects her with what is one of the most popular subjects of the Italian chamber cantata: constancy in love or the lack of it.

The cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti are mostly written for solo voice and bc; only now and then an obbligato part for a string or wind instrument is added. On this disc two of the cantatas contain obbligato parts: Mancini's cantata has an obbligato part for the oboe, and so does Steffani's. The latter also has a part for bassoon. The most common structure of the chamber cantata - two pairs of recitatives and arias - is followed here only by Vivaldi. Both Porpora and Mancini omit the opening recitative. In Steffani's cantata the first aria is followed immediately by a second one before the last recitative-aria pair.

The programme notes say that, with the exception of Mancini, all cantatas are related to Venice, but that is not correct: like Mancini Porpora was from Naples, and although he worked in Venice for some time, the cantata D'amore il primo dardo was written in London, where he worked from 1733 to 1737 and developed into Handel's main rival at the opera scene. This cantata is part of a collection which was printed in London in 1735 at the expense of his patron, Frederick, Prince of Wales. Another cantata from this collection has been recorded recently by Elena Cecchi Fedi and Auser Musici.

Agostino Steffani was educated as a singer and spent the largest part of his career in Munich, as a composer and as a diplomat. In the former capacity he has earned fame first and foremost with his secular duets. His cantatas are far less known, but Spezza amor, l'arco e li strali is a fine specimen of the genre. The first aria begins with an extended coloratura on the first word, "Spezza". In the B section we find some remarkable harmonic progressions. The last aria contains a virtuosic obbligato part for the bassoon.

Francesco Mancini is the least-known composer on this disc. As already said he was from Naples and here he entered the famous Conservatorio di S Maria della Pietą dei Turchini. Here he succeeded Alessandro Scarlatti as Director of Music after his death in 1725. He wrote a large amount of music for the stage, and his oratorios were popular throughout Europe. Ironically today he is mainly known for his sonatas for recorder and strings, although instrumental music is just a very small part of his oeuvre. He wrote more than 200 chamber cantatas, but I can't remember having ever heard one of them. Therefore the inclusion of Quanto dolce č quell'ardore is very welcome. Unfortunately there is no way I can assess his ability to translate text into music as the booklet doesn't contain translations of the lyrics. But musically the cantata is nice to listen to, also because of the beautiful obbligato part for the oboe.

The cantata Amor hai vinto by Vivaldi is one of two cantatas on this text he has composed. The other cantata, for alto, strings and bc, is the most popular of the two, but this version is well worth performing and recording.

In addition to the cantatas two instrumental works are performed. Vivaldi's Sonata for oboe and bc in c minor (RV 53) is a highly virtuosic work, which he without any doubt wrote for a girl from the Ospedale della Pietą, Pellegrina 'dall'Oboe'. It isn't just technically demanding, it also contains quite a lot of expression, for example through the use of chromaticism.
Antonio Caldara was mainly known as a composer of vocal works, both sacred and secular, and acquired a celebrity status while working at the imperial court in Vienna. But he called himself musico di violoncello, referring to his education as a cellist, probably as a pupil of the famous cello virtuoso Domenico Gabrielli. From later in his career dates a collection of 16 sonatas for cello and bc, but the Sonata in D is an early work which follows the Corellian sonata da chiesa model with its four movements.

This is a very attractive and interesting programme, in particular since it includes cantatas by composers whose works are not that often performed. But unfortunately I can't assess the performances very positively. First of all, as I already said it is made hard to fully appreciate the cantatas as no translations of the lyrics are given. It is therefore also difficult to judge whether Marelize Gerber really expresses the text. But just by hearing I think it is fair to say that her performances are superficial. She has a nice voice but her singing is flat and lacks drama. Chamber cantatas are close to opera but the performances are anything but operatic. The dynamic shades are very limited, the recitatives are rhythmically too strict and there is very little differentiation in the arias. Her ornamentation often lacks logic and is sometimes rather unnatural.
She doesn't get any help from the basso continuo which is not exactly a driving force. The obbligato parts are well played, and so are the solo parts in the sonatas. But as a whole this disc is rather boring and lacks excitement. This repertoire deserves better.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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