musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Pietro Antonio CESTI (1623 - 1669): "Pasticcio"

Judith Nelsona, soprano; René Jacobsb, alto; Mihoko Kimura, Dirk Verelst, violin; Wieland Kuijken, Marianne Müller, Nanneke Schaap, viola da gamba; Konrad Junghänel, theorbo; William Christie, harpsichord, organ
rec: 24 August 1980 (live), Innsbruck, Hofburg (Riesensaal)
ORF - CD-451 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (1.49'20")

L'Argia: [I] Disciolgetevi pure (lamento); [II] Vibrate pur, vibrate! (duet); La Dori: [I] Se perfido Amore (duet); L'Orontea: [I] Spunta in ciel l'alba novella (duet); [II] Addio, Corindo! (aria); S'Amor insolente (scene); Il Pomo d'Oro: [I] Ed'ecco quel zerbin - Che sciocche persone (rec & aria); O mia vita, o mio core! (duet); [II] Che nel porto - O me felice! (rec & duet); Non più pugne giocose (aria); O del mio ben (aria); O d'ogn'altra più fastosa (aria); Un huomo sì ardito (duet); [IV] O che pena - Sì, sì, figlia, sì, sì (rec & aria); Paride, Paride, e dove sei? (lamento); La Semirami: [I] Su, su, ch'al core vigore darà (duet); Il Tito: [I] Che mi consigli, Amor! (aria); [III] Berenice, dove sei? (lamento); Misero, che farò - Mio cor, che pensi tu? (rec & aria); Nume arcier, tiranno Dio (aria);

The Italian opera of the 17th century is a part of music history which is still hardly explored. Of course, Claudio Monteverdi's operas are regularly performed and recorded, and some of the stage works by his pupil Francesco Cavalli, the main composer of operas in Venice after Monteverdi's death has been given attention to, but many other works written in Italy in the 17th century are still to be rediscovered. One of the composers of that time whose works are hardly explored is Pietro Antonio Cesti. From the tracklist one may conclude that he was a prolific composer of operas. René Jacobs has been an avid advocate of Cesti's oeuvre, and in 1982 he made a recording of L'Orontea, arias from which he also performed at the concert in 1980 recorded and only recently released by ORF. He also gave performances of L'Argia, but so far that hasn't been recorded on disc.

Cesti was born in Arezzo, where he started his musical activities as a choirboy in the cathedral. He joined the Franciscan order at Volterra in 1637. In 1634 he became organist at the cathedral of Volterra and soon after also maestro di cappella. At some moment he came under the patronage of the Medici family in Florence. He had strong ties with several people and circles in that city. Despite his appointments as a church musician the core of his activities was in the field of opera. As a tenor he sang in several opera productions, among them in the Florentine premiere of Cavalli's opera Giasone. Cesti's first opera, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso, was performed in Venice in 1651. The next year he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Archduke Ferdinand Karl at Innsbruck, where he stayed for five years. There his opera L'Argia, already mentioned before, was performed in 1655 at the honour of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had abdicated after her conversion to Catholicism, who visited Innsbruck on her way to Rome. According to witness accounts that performance lasted more than 6 hours. Other operas followed, among them L'Orontea (1656). After staying in Rome and Florence from 1658 to 1662 he returned to Innsbruck, and in 1666 he became deputy Kapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna. In 1667 he composed another long opera, Il pomo d'oro, at the occasion of the wedding of Leopold I and Infanta Marguerita of Spain. That or the following year he left Vienna and returned to Florence, where he died in 1669.

This recording presents a cross section of Cesti's operas. René Jacobs has chosen arias and duets from six operas. Both discs start with the spoken introduction by René Jacobs. It is in German, which means that those who don't understand German can skip the first track of both discs. But these introductions are summarized in English and printed in the booklet. The programme has been put together as a kind of pasticcio, but - as Jacobs writes in the booklet - "I have given preference to musical rather than dramatic continuity". This, of course, is in opposition to what a pasticcio in the 17th century was like, which was a kind of dramatic unity. Some pieces are transposed as they were originally set for other voices than those of Jacobs. As he himself writes, this was common practice in those days.

Cesti was especially famous for his setting of comical scenes and portrayal of comical characters, but during this concert several lamentos were performed which are very expressive. These two discs give a very good impression of the nature and quality of Cesti's operas and can only make one all the more regret that just one opera is available on disc. Considering the growing interest in operas by Cavalli there is no reason why Cesti's dramatic works should be neglected.

It is a peculiar experience to listen to performances which date from more than 25 years back. On the one hand one has to say that today singers are more deeply exploring the affetti music like this contains. On the other hand we hear two singers who were among the very best in the late 1970's and the 1980's, and I personally regret both are not regularly performing and recording as singers anymore. And with many male altos around I still believe none of them is able to create an theatrical atmosphere with his singing as René Jacobs. Very seldom I hear someone that sings with so much expression as he does.
There is another reason for listening to this recording with a kind of nostalgia. It was the time where music like this was sung by specialists, who were aware of the specific features of historical singing technique and style. I comparison today many recordings of vocal music of the 17th and 18th century are made by singers who also sing music of a later date and take part in performances which are anything but based on the historical performance practice. Mostly the result is very unsatisfying and those performances hardly ever give an accurate idea of what the composer had in mind. From a dramatic point of view present performances may be better than those of about 20 or 30 years ago, but stylistically many recordings show regress rather than progress. From that perspective this recording is balm to the soul.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

CD Reviews