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Niccolň JOMMELLI (1714 - 1774): "Kantaten" (Cantatas)

Bárbara Kusa, soprano; Lenka Torgersen, Cecilie Valter, violin; Andreas Torgersen, viola; Ilse Grudule, cello; Alena Hönigová, harpsichord

rec: Feb 2012, Nuglar-St. Pantaleon (CH), St. Pantaleon
Koramant Records - KR 14002 (© 2014) (66'06")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Didone abbandonata; E quando sarŕ mai che alle mie pene; La Gelosia; Partir conviene, addio!

Niccolň Jommelli is one of those composers who suffers from having lived in a time which was dominated by some of the greats of music history: the young Mozart and his older colleague Haydn. If that is not bad enough, one of the main developments in music history - the 'invention' of the crescendo, or, to be more historically correct, the 'ensemble' or orchestral crescendo - has been attributed to the Mannheim school and to Johann Stamitz as its main representative whereas it is very likely that Jommelli was the first to use it. His contemporary Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote: "It was said that when Jommelli first used this effect in Rome the listeners involuntarily rose from their chairs and they realised that they had stopped to breathe only when the music began to mute again". Rome was the city where Jommelli occupied the post of maestro di cappella at San Pietro. In this position he composed a large amount of sacred music.

However, his main interest was music for the stage. He had started his career as a composer with writing operas: his first contributions to the genre were two comical operas performed in Naples in 1737 and 1738. He was strongly influenced by Johann Adolf Hasse and Carl Heinrich Graun. In 1753 he returned to a life dominated by opera when he was appointed Ober-Kapellmeister at the court of the Duke of Württemberg in Stuttgart. The Duke spent a lot of money on music, and especially opera. As Alena Hönigová states in her liner-notes: "Jommelli had virtually unlimited economic means at his disposal: no sum was too extravagant for employing outstanding soloists, for expensive costumes and stage decorations". In addition to opere serie French comedies and ballets were performed, and later also opere buffe.

The fact that a large part of Jommelli's oeuvre consists of operas is another factor which works to his disadvantage. Operas from the period between the baroque and classical periods receive not that much attention, and here Gluck and Rameau are most frequently performed. The work-list in New Grove includes a long list of operas but only a handful are available on disc. Many opera composers were also active in the genre of the chamber cantata which in texture and character was rather close to opera. Various composers have left a large corpus of chamber cantatas, such as Alessandro Scarlatti and George Frideric Handel. It takes a rather small place in Jommelli's oeuvre. It is telling that the same four cantatas which are recorded here were released only recently on a Pan Classics disc in performances by Yetzabel Arias Fernández and the ensemble Stile Galante, directed by Stefano Aresi. There is not much more that he has left in this department.

The above-mentioned Alessandro Scarlatti had laid down the basic form of the chamber cantata: a sequence of recitatives and arias (mostly in two pairs) for one solo voice (usually soprano or alto) and basso continuo. However, now and then he derived from this texture and extended the number of recitatives and/or arias or started with a sinfonia. The latter was only the case when melody instruments were included in the score, for instance one or two violins, a recorder or an oboe. In such cases one or more recitatives could be accompanied (recitativo accompagnato). Jommelli opts for an accompaniment with the instruments which were part of the standard string orchestra: two violins and viola, plus basso continuo. Since such cantatas were intended for domestic performance or in the gatherings of arcadian academies a line-up of solo instruments is certainly the most obvious.

These four cantatas have different textures: La Gelosia and E quando sarŕ mai che alle mie pene follow Scarlatti's basic model. Didone abbandonata has two arias embracing a recitative whereas Partir conviene, addio! has three arias and two recitatives. From a dramatic point of view these cantatas are also different. Didone abbandonata is the most dramatic; the text is by an unknown author and not the famous one written by Pietro Metastasio - the renown librettist who was a close friend of Jommelli. He is the author of the text of La Gelosia, the only cantata whose author is known. Probably nor surprisingly it is again a dramatic work, and that goes especially for the recitativo accompagnato which precedes the most virtuosic aria on the programme. The coloratura is demanding and includes a staccato passage which was a feature of opera in the second half of the 18th century. Those who want to know a little more about these cantatas should turn to the review of the Pan Classics disc.

It is a little unfortunate that two recordings are devoted to exactly the same repertoire. However, if that results in a stronger interest in Jommelli's music there is every reason to welcome this new disc. I have enjoyed both and don't want to choose between them. The recitatives in the present recording are largely a little faster than in Stile Galante's performance; in the case of the arias it is different: sometimes the present performance is faster, in other instances Stile Galante. In the end it is not really decisive. The singing and playing on both discs is excellent. I probably would rate Yetzabel Arias Fernández's performances a little higher for dramatic reasons. She does just a little more with the text. Bárbara Kusa has a very nice voice and avoids incessant vibrato which is a reason to celebrate. The ornamentation is very stylish and never exaggerated with the exception of the cadenzas where she sometimes exceeds the tessitura of her part. There is little to choose between the two ensembles; Stile Galante probably has a little sharper attack but that is a minor issue.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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Alena Hönigová

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