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Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (1682 - 1732): "Sventurata Didone"

Ulrike Hofbauer, sopranoa
Neue Hofkapelle München
Dir: Christoph Hammer
rec: 5 January 2006 (live), Munich, Residenz (Kaisersaal)
ORF - CD 456 (© 2006) (57'26")

Fra cetre, e fra trombe, Cantata Servicio di Tavola à Voce solaa; Overture Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena; Overture Teseo in Creta; Sinfonia in A; Sventurata Didone, Cantata à Voce solaa

Francesco Bartolomeo Conti is first and foremost known as a composer of vocal music, in particular operas. But by profession he was a player of the theorbo, and a famous one at that. He also played the mandolin and composed one of the earliest sonatas for that instrument in musical history. No solo pieces for theorbo by Conti are known, though, and the only traces of his skills can be found in the obbligato parts for theorbo in his operas, oratorios and cantatas.
Conti was born in Venice, and it seems he was already famous as a theorbo player in several cities in Italy around 1700, which suggests he was a real prodigy. In 1701 he went to Vienna, where he was appointed as theorbist at the imperial court. In 1708 he was promoted to principal theorbist, a position he held until 1726 when he had to retire due to poor health. In 1711 he had also been appointed as court composer, which made him the highest paid musician in Vienna.

This and other facts show that Conti was held in high esteem. He wrote operas to be performed during carnival season, which were the highlights of the year. He also was expected to compose music for birthdays and name days of members of the imperial family. Colleagues were full of praise for Conti, like Johann Joachim Quantz, who called him "an inventive and fiery, occasionally somewhat bizarre composer". In his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1723 Johann Gottfried Walther described him as "an excellent master". Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have appreciated him as well, as Conti's cantata Languet anima mea has been found in Bach's library. And Johann Mattheson, in Der Vollkommene Capellmeister of 1739, called him "the great musician" and "an excellent scholar".

Conti's music is firmly rooted in the Italian style, but there are also French influences in his oeuvre, as this disc shows with the overtures to his comic opera Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena, which is an "entrée alla francese", whereas the overture to Teseo is purely Italian. That he wasn't a conventional composer is demonstrated in his Sinfonia in A, where he abandons the polyphonic style still in vogue in his days.

The dramatic cantata Sventurata Didone gives some idea of Conti as a composer of music for the theatre. This cantata was probably sung by his third wife Maria Anna Lorenzani during Easter of 1726. It takes on the story of Dido after Aeneas has left her. The opening recitative starts with an instrumental introduction which leads to the soloist dropping in, suggesting a recitativo accompagnato, but after the first line the soprano is accompanied by the basso continuo only. The recitative ends like a recitativo accompagnato again. Next comes an aria, a very expressive lamento dominated by suspiratio figures. Next is a secco recitative which ends with the words: "Love who is strong, cease your lamenting; rather spill blood and end your pain in death's embrace". This prepares for the closing aria, whose affetto is determined by the thought that "complaint and greatest grief ... may only rest within the tomb".

The last piece on this disc is very different. The cantata Fra cetre, e fra trombe was written for the wedding of the Saxon crown prince Friedrich August with Maria Josepha, the daughter of the Habsburg emperor, in 1719. As one would expect this is a cantata which reflects the pomp and circumstance of such an occasion, with the obligatory use of a pair of trumpets.

The only thing to criticise here is the acoustics of the venue where the concert was taking place. The large reverberation is no problem in the wedding cantata, but in the other cantata and the orchestral works it is anything but ideal. As far as the interpretation goes I dare to say that this is the way this kind of repertoire has to be performed. I am very impressed by the singing of Ulrike Hofbauer: not only does she have a very beautiful voice, which is a great pleasure to listen to, but she also has the guts to explore the affetti which Conti uses to express the feelings of Dido in the first cantata. She adds appropriate ornamentation and her use of the messa di voce is very effective. The orchestra is in fine form as well, playing with verve and panache.

This is a very convincing introduction to the oeuvre of a composer who is unjustly neglected and whose work will hopefully be explored more extensively in the future.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

Relevant links:

Neue Hofkapelle München

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