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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): Vocal music

[I] "Con eco d'amore - Arias from operas and cantatas"
Elizabeth Watts, soprano
The English Concert
Dir: Laurence Cummings
rec: Nov 2014, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807574 (© 2015) (72'08")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

A battaglia, pensieri, cantata (1699) (sinfonia - A battaglia, aria)a; Con voce festiva, ariaa; Correa nel seno amato, cantata (1690) (Ombre opache, aria); Endimione e Cintia, serenata (1705) (Se geloso è il mio core, aria)a; Eraclea, opera (1700) (A questo nuovo affanno); Erminia, serenata (1723) (Qui, dove al germogliar - Torbido, irato, e nero, rec & aria); Griselda, opera (1721) (Figlio! Tiranno!, aria); La Santissima Vergine del Rosario, oratorio (1707) (Mentr'io godo in dolce oblio); La Statira, opera (1690) (Io non son di quei campioni, aria); Mitridate Eupatore, opera (1706) (Dolce stimolo al tuo bel cor, aria; Esci omai, ariab; O vane speme - Cata tromba del mio diletto, rec & aria); Non so qual più m'ingombra, cantata (1716) (Nacque, col Gran Messia, aria); Scipione della Spagna, opera (1714) (Ergiti, Amor, su i vanni); Tigrane, opera (1715) (Sussurando il venticello); Venere, Amore e Ragione, serenata (1706) (D'amor l'accessa face, aria)

Mark Bennett, trumpet (soloa); Huw Daniel (solob), Sophie Barber, Graham Cracknell, Thérèse Timoney, Walter Reiter, Elizabeth MacCarthy, Iona Davies, Almut Schlicker, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, Louise Hogan, viola; Joseph Crouch, Piroska Baranyay, cello; Peter McCarthy, double bass; William Carter, theorbo; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord, organ; Robert Howes, percussion

[II] "Fascinazione Arcadia"
Anne Schmid, contralto
Die Freitagsakademie
rec: April 30 - May 2, 2014, Blumenstein (Bern), Ev-Ref. Kirche
Solo Musica - SM 212 (© 2014) (72'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/I; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

E perchè non seguite, o Pastorelleabc; I fiori; Lieti boschi, ombre amiche; Sonata I for cello and bc in d minor; Sonata a 4 for strings and bc No. 4 in d minorcd; Tra le pompe fiorite; Tra speranza e timoreb

Nadja Camichel, Ana Ioana Oltean, transverse flutea; Katharina Suske, oboeb; Anaïs Chen, Vitaly Shestakov, violinc; Christoph Riedo, violad; Bernhard Maurer, cello; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Jonathan Rubin, archlute, guitar; Claire Anne Piguet, harpsichord, organ

Alessandro Scarlatti was one of the most prolific and versatile composers of his time. He contributed to any genre but largely focused on vocal music. Instrumental music takes a relatively small place in his output. Ironically one of his instrumental works, the Sonata in a minor for recorder, two violins and bc is one of his best-known compositions. However, the largest part of his oeuvre is still unexplored. There is much to discover as in particular Elizabeth Watts' aria recital shows. It includes a number of jewels which prove that Scarlatti was an excellent composer for the voice. Every single work from which arias have been chosen is well worth being performed and recorded complete.

Con eco amore is an appropriate title as it refers to what is the main subject of vocal music of the time. It dominates not only opera but also the genres of cantata and serenata, and - in a different way - oratorio. These are the main genres of vocal music which are represented in the programme. It is remarkable how different Scarlatti deals with this subject. There are some very extroverted arias in which the protagonist vents his or her feelings. The aria 'Figlio! Tiranno!' from Griselda which opens the programme is a perfect example. Of a comparable character is 'Se geloso è il mio core' from the serenata Endimione e Cintia which Simon Heighes in his liner-notes rightly calls a 'showpiece'. That not only goes for the soprano part but also for the obbligato part for trumpet. This instrument plays a considerable role in Scarlatti's vocal music, for instance in 'A battaglia' from the cantata A battaglia, pensieri which closes the disc. In particular in these pieces Elizabeth Watts leaves mixed feelings. There is nothing wrong with her text expression, for instance in 'Figlio! Tiranno!', but her pretty wide incessant vibrato is hard to swallow. It also damages the aria 'Nacque, col Gran Messia' from the Christmas cantata No so qual più m'ingombra.

This is rather puzzling as elsewhere she shows that she can sing with hardly any vibrato. That is the case in the wonderful aria 'Mentr'io godo in dolce oblio' from the oratorio La Santissima Vergine del Rosario and the ensuing aria 'Ombre opache' from the cantata Correa nel seno amato. In the latter Scarlatti uses meandering figures to depict murmuring, breezing and the movement of the waves. The same happens in the aria 'Sussurrando il venticello' from the opera Tigrane: "The breeze, whispering, seems to say: it is right and beautiful to die for love". These are just some examples of Scarlatti's ability to illustrate a text with musical means, not only in the vocal parts but also in the instrumental voices.

The quality and variety of the music recorded here makes it all the more regrettable that this recording cannot be recommended without considerable reservation. That is not only due to Elizabeth Watts' vibrato in a number of issues and the fact that in her ornamentation she sometimes takes too much freedom and now and then goes beyond the range of her part, it is also because in some items the instrumental playing is rather bland. The obbligato trumpet parts are given outstanding performances by Mark Bennett and Huw Daniel plays the violin solo in 'Esci omai' from Mitridate Eupatore admirably.

All things said and done, anyone interested in Italian music should give this disc a try as it delivers a very nice portrait of a composer whose greatness is still not fully acknowledged.

The second disc sheds light on Scarlatti's contributions to the genre of the chamber cantata. It occupies a particularly important place in his oeuvre. He played also a crucial role in the development of the genre as he laid down its basic structure which was then the model for composers of next generations. His cantatas usually comprise two pairs of recitative and aria and are mostly scored for solo voice and bc. However, he himself regularly derived from this texture. Some cantatas open with a sinfonia, others with an aria and now and then he added a third pair of recitative and aria. As we have already seen in the programme of Elizabeth Watts' disc he sometimes also includes parts for a melody instrument in the arias. That is also the case in cantatas which Anne Schmid and Die Freitagsakademie have recorded. Tra speranza e timore has a part for oboe and E perchè non seguite, o Pastorelle is scored for an instrumental ensemble of two transverse flutes, two violins and bc. In the last aria the two violins are joined by an oboe playing colla parte.

The title of this disc refers to Arcadia and the Arcadian Academy which was founded in 1690 in Rome. The concept of Arcadia had its roots in Antiquity. One of the features of the renaissance was a revival of interest in Antiquity and Jacopo Sannazaro's pastoral novel Arcadia, published in 1502/04 bears witness to that. In this work he created an imaginary world which was the main source of inspiration for the Arcadian ideals of the centuries to come. The Arcadian Academy in Rome and similar academies which were founded across Italy in the next decades fit into this tradition.

In the booklet Cristina Urchueguía states: "The idealisation of Arcadia should not be confused with the enlightened or modern idea of "returning to nature". In the context of Arcadian poetry and music, nature is a secret code while Arcadia is the fictitious place used by intellectual critics in Baroque times to exchange encrypted messages which, when communicated from the mouths of herdsmen and nymphs, were not picked up by those in power." One could probably see these academies as a kind of 'parallel society' where things could be said and done which were not acceptable in the real world. Another important feature is that here people from different social strata discussed on equal footing.

The cantatas which the performers have selected are all about love but not only happy love. They don't avoid the trials and tribulations of love. The very first cantata of the programme, Lieti boschi, ombre amiche, refers to a "tortured heart": "The laurel's and fir-tree's balmy shade won’t suffice to soothe my pain; beech, myrtle and ash won't lighten my thoughts." In Tra le pompe fiorite Amor is called a "tyrant". The title of Tra speranza e timore - Between Hope and Fear - is telling: "I love you, and long to tell you, dear Chloris, but I always draw back. A rejection of my words would be too great a torment". Chloris also figures in I fiori; in the second aria the protagonist says: "What desire, what joy could be Chloris' in seeing me die?" And she pops up again in the last cantata, E perché non seguite ò Pastorelle. It ends with a moral: "Cuts and wounds that torment are the trophies of beauty. Two lovely eyes inflict on the soul a suffering that brings death."

In these cantatas we find other specimens of Scarlatti's skills in text illustration, for instance in the use of the meandering figures already mentioned, here in the aria 'Fiumicel, tu lento' from the latter cantata: "Little stream, you slowly with silvery clear waves wander about and join the sea. So I, with heavy eyes, will make of my bitter tears a river that might find my love." Quite effective is the abrupt way the aria 'Alla tua vermiglia bocca' (Tra speranza e timore) ends with a strong chord of voice, oboe and bc: "It is for your crimson lips, beautiful Chloris, to give me a yes or a no."

Except the first all cantatas recorded here derive from the standard texture established by Scarlatti himself. Tra le pompe fiorite comprises three pairs of recitative and aria, and so does E perché non seguite ò Pastorelle. The latter and Tra speranza e timore open with a sinfonia. These cantatas are about the emotions of the protagonist but are not dramatic: there are no direct confrontations between a lover and the subject of his love. That is just as well because I am not sure whether Anne Schmid would have the voice and the temperament for really dramatic stuff. She has a very beautiful voice which is perfectly suited for these cantatas. She sings them with great sensitivity and adds stylish ornamentation; fortunately she avoids vibrato and her delivery leaves nothing to be desired. She receives the appropriate support from the ensemble which contributes two of Scarlatti's rare instrumental pieces.

The cantatas are separated by poems inspired by the same Arcadian ideal as Scarlatti's cantatas. They are in Italian but the booklet includes texts and translations. I can imagine that some may like to skip those poems, certainly if they listen to this disc another time. As they are allocated to separate tracks that should be no problem. Two tracks end with a short instrumental improvisation on oboe and theorbo respectively which seem to serve as an introduction to the next piece. The oboe improvisation is in modern style which is rather odd considering the style of Scarlatti's music.

The booklet doesn't say so but I assume that these cantatas - or at least some of them - have been recorded here for the first time. These are just five specimens from the many hundreds Scarlatti has left us, and very beautiful ones to boot. This is a fine disc which only confirms the quality of Scarlatti as a composer of vocal music.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Anne Schmid
Elizabeth Watts
The English Concert
Die Freitagsakademie

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