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"Mi palpita il cor - Baroque Passions"

Dominique Labelle, sopranoa
Musica Pacifica

rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2015a & Oct 4 - 6, 2015, Belvedere, CA, St Stephen's Episcopal Church
Navona Records - NV6056 (© 2016) (76'13")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Mi palpita il cor (HWV 132b); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Orphée (RCT 27)a; Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Sonata in b minor, op. 1,6 [2]; Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728): Guardati o corea [1]; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Quatuor in G (TWV 43,G4) [3]

[1] Agostino Steffani, Scherzi Musicali, [n.d.] [2] Giuseppe Sammartini, VI Sonate a tre. Due Flauti col Basso, 1736; [3] Georg Philipp Telemann, Nouveaux quatuors en six suites, 1738

Judith Linsenberg, recorder; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; Josh Lee, viola da gamba; John Lenti, theorbo, guitar; Charles Sherman, harpsichord

For most of the 17th and 18th centuries only three countries in Europe were ruled from a centre: England, France and Spain. Italy was divided into many political unities and although the German-speaking lands were all part of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by a Habsburg emperor in Vienna, Electors, Counts and towns enjoyed a large amount of independence. Because of that it is a little problematic to talk about 'national styles'. It is common practice to refer to the 'Italian style', but there was certainly some difference between, for instance, Venice, Rome and Naples. Things became even more confusing after 1700 when the French gradually gave up their resistance to what came from Italy and in England the baroque style which had only established itself after the Restoration of 1660 was strongly under Italian influence, although the French style also made itself felt. As a result music in most parts of Europe was a mixture of various styles, knows as goûts réunis.

There were two ways in which the various styles were disseminated. One of them was that performing musicians and composers travelled across Europe in search for employment. Three of the composers who are represented on the present disc of Musica Pacifica are good examples.

Agostino Steffani was a precocious talent: as a boy - before his voice broke - he had already participated in opera performances. For 21 years he was in the service of Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria in Munich. He then moved to Hanover where he became music director at the court of Elector Ernst August. In the 1690s he became increasingly involved in diplomacy; some of his missions were connected to the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1703 he entered the service of another Elector, Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate in Düsseldorf. In 1709 he returned to Hanover and focused on his activities in the Church. At this time he hardly composed any music. Steffani's oeuvre is quite large and comprises almost exclusively vocal music. The genre of the duet was especially important to him and his duets were the main reason for his fame. One of the main genres of secular vocal music in his time was the chamber cantata, but he composed very few such works. His main contribution is a set of Scherzi Musicali for solo voice, one or two instruments and bc. Guardati o core is one of them. Chamber cantatas are mostly about love, and in particular the trials and tribulations of it. In this case we probably shouldn't take that too seriously. The A part of the opening aria seems a bit tongue in cheek, also due to the dotted rhythm, and that is how Dominique Labelle sings it. The closing aria is more in the traditional vein.

The second composer who left his home country was George Frideric Handel. From an early age he seems to have been fascinated by Italian music, and particularly opera. He travelled to Italy and stayed in various other cities, such as Rome, Naples and Venice, and soon started to compose his own music in the Italian style. His oeuvre includes a large number of chamber cantatas. The first date from his years in Italy but he continued to write cantatas after he had settled in England. Mi palpita il cor is from the latter period and exists in four versions. The track-list doesn't give the number in the catalogue of Handel's works, but I assume that it is the second version (HWV 132b) which is for soprano, oboe and bc; the oboe part is played here at the tenor recorder. This is much more in line with most chamber cantatas as far as its content is concerned. Dominique Labelle effectively brings out the pain expressed in the recitatives and in the first aria. She deals impressively with the virtuosic coloratura. The cantata ends on a much happier note and Labelle makes the most of it.

The third composer who made a living in another country was Giuseppe Sammartini. Contemporaries sometimes referred to him as "(San) Martini" which is derived from his father's name: Alexis Saint-Martin. He was of French birth and emigrated to Italy. Here Giuseppe was born, probably in Milan. Like his father he became an oboist, and together with his brother he played in the orchestra of the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan in the 1720s. The German flautist Johann Joachim Quantz heard him play and ranked him among the best of his time, of the same level on the oboe as Vivaldi on the violin. In the late 1720s he moved to Brussels and then to London, where he would remain until his death. It was here that he made a career as a virtuoso on the oboe and as a composer. The music historian John Hawkins stated: "As a performer on the hautboy, Martini was undoubtedly the greatest that the world had ever known." He performed with the best musicians of his time, such as Bononcini, Porpora and Handel. Many virtuosic obbligato parts in Handel's operas were performed by Sammartini. The largest part of his compositional output comprises orchestral and chamber music. He was one of those composers who mixed elements of the French and the Italian style. Some of his instrumental works open with a movement in the style of a French ouverture as is the case in the Sonata in b minor, op. 1,6. It is scored for two recorders, but here one of the parts is played at the violin.

Travelling was not the only way to get to know other styles or how they disseminated. Music circulated in manuscript - sometimes carried by travelling performers in their baggage - and music printers like John Walsh in London and Estienne Roger in Amsterdam - after his death succeeded by his daughter Jeanne - produced many editions of music by composers across Europe. That is how the two remaining two composers became acquainted with styles from other regions.

Georg Philipp Telemann only once crossed the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, when he stayed for some months in Paris in 1737/38. That was no coincidence: from early in his career he had a strong preference for the French style and was reluctant - unlike his colleague Bach - to use Vivaldi's concerto form in his own solo concertos. In contrast he composed a large number of orchestral overtures, inspired by the suites of dances from operas as they were performed in France. His 'Paris quartets' are among his most beloved works and they were already popular in his own time. They are scored for transverse flute, violin, viola da gamba and bc. We even know with whom Telemann played them during his sojourn in Paris. The use of a recorder - in this case a voice flute - in the present recording is a little less convincing than in Sammartini or Handel. At the time Telemann composed these quartets the recorder had largely fallen out of grace in most countries, except England, and is not the most suitable instrument for the galant idiom of these quartets. On the other hand, this way this recording offers a real alternative to the many performances of these pieces which are available. The playing is very fine. The fourth movement (vite) is particularly nice, with poignant dynamic accents. The ensuing modéré is a polonaise which refers to the folkloristic sounds which Telemann became acquainted with in his formative years and which had such a strong influence on him. Fortunately the players don't exaggerate the effects in this movement; that would certainly be out of step with the overall character of these quartets.

Jean-Philippe Rameau never left France. He has become best known for his operas which he started to compose when he was 50. Before that he had already written chamber cantatas, a genre which became popular in France in the early decades of the 18th century, a token of the growing influence of the Italian style. Rameau considered the cantatas as a kind of finger exercise for opera. Orphée is about the mythological character which inspired so many composers in the course of history, partly because this story is an impressive demonstration of the power of music. Rameau created a quite dramatic piece, notably scored for soprano. This can be explained by the text: in some parts she describes the story of Orpheus in the role of reporter; only in some sections she puts herself into his shoes. French cantatas often require one or two melody instruments, usually called simphonie. Sometimes an instrument is specified, but that doesn't exclude the use of other instruments. Orphée requires a violin; it is joined here by the recorder playing colla parte. Although the use of two instruments playing colla parte was not unusual in French music, it seems superfluous here. The fact that Judith Linsenberg uses recorders of three different pitches (soprano, alto, tenor) indicates that this was not intended by the composer. Dominique Labelle delivers an excellent performance. It is theatrical, doing justice to the character of the subject, but not in a too 'operatic' way. Her treatment of the text is just right; it is regrettable, though, that she uses modern French pronunciation.

There is one aspect I have to mention, and that is a technical one. In several tracks of Rameau's cantata I noted a kind of echo in the recording, which gives the impression that the voice of Dominique Labelle has been doubled. It is not present in every section but most clearly in the closing recitative and aria (tracks 29 and 30), but also at the end of tracks 22 and 23 and in parts of tracks 26 and 27. This is quite annoying and I wonder what has gone wrong. It is up to you whether this is going to withhold you from purchasing this disc. At least from a musical point of view there is every reason to investigate it.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Dominique Labelle
Musica Pacifica

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