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Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714 - 1774): "Tirsi - Soprano Cantatas"

Yetzabel Arias Fernández, soprano
Stile Galante
Dir: Stefano Aresi

rec: Oct 2013, Brignano Gera d'Adda, Palazzo Visconti
Pan Classics - PC 10308 (© 2014) (74'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco DURANTE (1684-1755): Sonata VI in B flata [1]; Niccolò JOMMELLI: Didone abbandonata; E quando sarà mai che alle mie pene; La Gelosia; Partir conviene, addio!

Source: [1] Francesco Durante, 6 Sonate per cembalo divisi in studii e divertimenti, 1747-49

Eva Saladin, Rossella Borsoni, violin; David Alonso Molina, viola; Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Andrea Friggi, harpsichord (soloa)

Niccolò Jommelli takes a prominent place in music history even if this is hardly reflected by the attention given to his compositional output. Some of the stylistic innovations which took place in the mid-18th century are credited to representatives of the Mannheim School but should in fact be attributed to him - for instance the orchestral crescendo. He was especially famous for his operas; the list of his compositions for the theatre is very long, and in this department he is comparable with Johann Adolf Hasse. At the pinnacle of his fame he went to Stuttgart and entered the service of the Duke of Württemberg. In 1769 he returned to Italy and settled in Naples where he again composed operas, but these didn't go down all that well. Many opera lovers found his style too complicated, and Jommelli unsuccesfully tried to adapt his way of composing to the Neapolitan taste.

The present disc includes four chamber cantatas. This genre takes a very small place in his oeuvre. The form of the chamber cantata had been established by Alessandro Scarlatti: a sequence of recitatives and arias - mostly two arias embracing a recitative, and sometimes opening with another recitative - for soprano and basso continuo. Although this was the dominant texture of chamber cantatas by composers of later generations, they sometimes took the freedom to depart from it, and that is certainly the case with Jommelli. All of his cantatas, which probably date from before his time in Stuttgart, are for soprano, strings and bc. The use of strings was not uncommon, but in Jommelli's cantatas they play a more important role than was usual at the time. They not only participate in arias but also in recitatives. A remarkably large number of recitatives in Jommelli's chamber cantatas are accompanied, and he uses them especially when the protagonists vent their strongest emotions. It is also notable that the scores include a part for the viola which was rather uncommon at the time. The violins mostly play unisono.

The chamber cantata can be considered a kind of pocket-size operas in terms of dramatic character and treatment of subjects which were also used for operas, around characters such as Armida and Dido. In his liner-notes Stefano Aresi states that this should not be misunderstood. The cantatas were not performed like operas: there was no staging and no gesturing, and the singers didn't wear costumes. Even so, a cantata like Didone abbandonata has all the traits of an opera, but here the story - or at least part of it - is told by a single protagonist who also puts herself in Dido's shoes. It opens with an aria in which Dido asks the gods to have mercy on her and defend her. The ensuing recitative opens with the phrase: "Thus spoke the abandoned Dido (...)". The narrator then tells how she is approached by Jarba, King of the Moors. When she reports Dido weeping about Aeneas and watching her city Carthage being destroyed the secco recitative turns into a recitativo accompagnato. She is then quoted as expressing her continued love for Aeneas. At the end the recitative turns secco again: "For a few moments, Dido fell silent. And then she spoke these words:" after which the singer takes the role of Dido again in the closing aria.

E quando sarà mai che alle mie pene opens with a recitative which is followed by the common sequence of aria - recitative - aria. This is an interesting piece especially because of the first aria. It is an expression of strong feelings about an unrequited love: "In view of my true sorrows (...) a monster, a venomous snake, a rock would be less cruel". Even so, the music is elegant and hardly a reflection of the text. Aresi points out that this could have a special meaning. "One possibility is that Jommelli employed a dramatic tool first systematically established by Porpora and Vince: the composition of a musical text contradicting the poetic content as an indication that the singer is currently lying". This means that this cantata and the feelings of the protagonist it expresses should be taken with a grain of salt.

Partir conviene, addio! is another cantata in which the traditional form is extended. It has no fewer than three arias and two recitatives, the first of which is accompanied. The opening aria turns into a kind of accompanied recitative at the end, creating a fluent transition to the following recitative. La Gelosia is the only cantata whose author is known: Pietro Metastasio, the most famous librettist of the time. It comprises two pairs of recitative and aria; the second recitative is again accompanied. The closing aria is the most virtuosic piece of this disc. It requires a wide tessitura and includes some large intervals. The coloratura is demanding and includes a staccato passage which was a feature of opera in the second half of the 18th century. In particular in this aria one notices the parallels between the genres of chamber cantata and opera.

Yetzabel Arias Fernández sings it brilliantly and with impressive ease. She feels equally at home at the less demanding cantatas, and although she fully explores the emotions expressed by the protagonists she doesn't forget that she is not in the theatre. These performances are certainly dramatic when the music requires it but also have a certain amount of intimacy. Pieces of this kind were often performed in the academies which existed in many Italian cities. Jommelli's music is hardly known and that certainly applies to this part of his oeuvre. This makes this disc particularly welcome and the performances make a strong case for his music.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Yetzabel Arias Fernández
Stile Galante

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