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"Scarlatti, Hasse: Salve Regina - Cantatas & Motets"

Deborah York, sopranoa; James Bowman, altob; Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpetc
The King's Consort
Dir: Robert King

rec: Feb 7 - 9, 1996, [no place]
Hyperion/Helios - CDH55354 (R) (© 1996/2011) (77'04")
Texts and translations included

Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Salve Reginab; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Infirmata vulneratab; O di Betlemme alteraa; Su le sponde del Tebroac; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Salve Reginab

This disc brings together two of the main genres of vocal music in baroque Italy: the cantata and the motet. All the pieces are scored for solo voice, and although the content is different - secular and sacred respectively -, stylistically it is hard to tell them apart. In both genres the singer is given plenty of opportunities to shine.

The programme contains two settings of the Salve Regina, a text which has inspired many composers from Italy to some of their best music. It is interesting here to compare the settings of Domenico Scarlatti and Johann Adolf Hasse. Domenico is mainly known for his keyboard sonatas, but these were written when he had left Italy and settled in Spain. While still in Rome he composed a number of sacred pieces. As the ecclesiastical authorities preferred the stile antico in sacred music there wasn't much room for experiment, let alone for incorporating elements from opera. And so we have here a setting which concentrates on text expression, like the short pauses within "suspiramus" (sigh) and the dissonants on "lacrimarum valle" (vale of tears). Hasse, on the other hand, was every inch an opera composer and that shows in his setting. It is one of 13 from his pen. This particular version is in A and dates from 1744. It is a sequence of four arias with a strongly operatic character. He was famous for the elegance of his writing, and that comes to the fore in particular in the last aria. The first and second arias end with a cadenza. Whereas other composers often used sighing figures - called suspiratio in rhetorics - Hasse sets a word like "flentes" to operatic coloraturas. He does the same on "salve" in the last aria which I find hard to swallow. But from a vocal point of view it is a fine piece, and James Bowman sings it beautifully. Here he shows his virtuosity, whereas in Domenico Scarlatti he gives a demonstration of his ability to express a text.

The three cantatas are all by Domenico's father Alessandro, who was the main composer in this genre around 1700. The three items on this disc are special in that they are all scored for voice and instruments, and not - as most cantatas by Scarlatti - with basso continuo alone. The most remarkable piece is Su le sponde del Tebro, because of the obbligato part for trumpet. The subject matter is traditional, about Aminta and Chloris, the mythological characters which turn up in so many cantatas of the baroque era. The text doesn't give any clue as to why Scarlatti has given the trumpet such an important role, unless the reference to "warriors" (sorrow and anxiety) in the first aria could be considered as such. In his liner-notes Robert King suggests that at the time it was composed a specifically gifted trumpet player was at hand. Maybe that was reason enough. The cantata begins with a sinfonia for trumpet, strings and bc, which is followed by three pairs of recitatives and arias. The trumpet is involved in the first and last aria. Crispian Steele-Perkins plays his part excellently, but Deborah York is too bland in her interpretation of the cantata. The recitatives are rhythmically too strict, and she doesn't do enough with the text. The expression in the arias is also too restrained.

The last item of the programme, the Cantata pastorale per la nativitą di Nostro Signore Gesł Cristo (O di Betlemme altera) is written for Christmas eve, and is one of Alessandro Scarlatti's most famous cantatas. The soprano is accompanied by strings and bc, and several sections have a strongly pastoral character. Here Deborah York feels more at home, but I still feel something is missing. I was more touched by Nancy Argenta's performance with the Chandos Baroque Players (reviewed here). In all the cantatas the basso continuo part is played with an organ. In this cantata that could be justified, but in Su le sponde del Tebro there seems no justification for that at all. The same is the case with the remaining cantata, Infirmata vulnerata, which Scarlatti scored for alto, two violins and bc. It is an odd piece in that it has a Latin text which suggests a sacred subject. But although it is in some way a bit ambiguous - one could discern some reminiscences of the Song of Songs here -, it is hard to see this as anything but a cantata about love, as the last recitative expresses: "Love, the victory is yours, my heart yields to you". So why the text is set in Latin is a bit of a mystery which Robert King doesn't mention in his liner-notes. It is a very fine piece with some exquisite text expression. The second aria 'Vulnerata percute' is particularly emotional, and one can leave it to James Bowman to explore its character to the full. His ability to colour his voice and his fine dynamic gradation are particularly helpful here.

This reissue is most welcome as it brings together five specimens of music for solo voice and instruments of fine quality. As far as the performances are concerned, James Bowman's are the main attraction of this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

James Bowman
Deborah York
The King's Consort

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