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Antonio CALDARA (1670/71 - 1736): "Brutus - Cantatas for Bass"

Sergio Foresti, baritone
Stile Galante
Dir: Stefano Aresi

rec: April 18 - 19 & July 3 - 4, Diemen (NL), Schuilkerk 'De Hoop'
Pan Classics - PC 10389 ( 2018) (66'22")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Spotify

A destar l'alba col canto; Bruto a' Romani; Il Dario; Il Polifemo; Il Sansone; Partenza amorosa

Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Gabriele Palomba, theorbo; Andrea Friggi, harpsichord

It is not entirely clear when Antonio Caldara was born. Often 1670 is mentioned as the year of his birth, as in the booklet to the disc under review here, but 1671 may also be a possibility. Whatever is the case, it is to be expected that it will be reason for the release of recordings of his music. That said, one should not expect anything like the commemoration of composers as Bach, Handel or Vivaldi, let alone Beethoven. Caldara may have been one of the main composers of his time, but today he is still a largely unknown quantity, and his name seldom appears in concert programmes. Considering that he has left a sizeable oeuvre, we only know a very small portion of his output.

The present disc includes Caldara's contributions to what in his time was one of the most popular genres, the (secular) chamber cantata. It was Alessandro Scarlatti who laid down its basic structure: a sequence of recitatives and arias, usually for one voice and basso continuo, sometimes with one or two additional instruments. In contrast to his cantatas, Caldara's compositions in this genre are hardly known and did not find a wide dissemination in his own time. Andrea Zedler, in the liner-notes to this production, comes up with an explanation: "Caldara's [cantatas] disappeared into the family or house archives of the Ruspoli, Ottoboni and Habsburgs after their first (and usually only) performance." These names refer to his main employers in the course of his career. It is estimated that Caldara left around 3,400 pieces, and about 350 fall into the category of the chamber cantata.

The cantatas included here are remarkable for two reasons. The first is the scoring for bass. Chamber cantatas were usually scored for a high voice - soprano or alto - as this was the type of voice also featured in operas. The roles of heroes were always given to high voices, mostly castratos. Zedler states that Caldara's last employer, Emperor Charles VI, had a preference for low voices. This suggests that these cantatas date from Caldara's time in Vienna (1716-1736). However, only in the case of Il Dario it is known for sure that it was written at that time, more specifically around 1727.

The second reason is the subject matter of four of the six cantatas included here. Cantatas usually referred to the Arcadian world of shepherds, shepherdesses and nymphs, and among the names frequently turning up in such pieces are Cloris, Thyrsis and Phillis, and, of course, Cupid. Two of the cantatas are of this kind, but the other four are about characters from history or mythology.

The disc opens with Bruto a' Romani, about Brutus, the semi-legendary founder of the Roman republic, who expelled his uncle Tarquinius Superbus, King of Rome. That is also what this cantata is about. It is, as the title suggests, structured as a political speech. In the opening recitative he says: "Let Tarquin die, let him die!" This returns at the end of the cantata, which closes with a recitative. In between are two arias, embracing another recitative.

Il Dario is about Darius III, the last Persian king, who was defeated by Alexander the Great in the 330s BC during the latter's invasion, starting in 334 BC. This cantata is not that different from conventional cantatas, as it is about love: Darius laments at the loss of his wife Stateira, and in the recitative in the centre, he expresses his wish to die: "Take my sorrow away, and with a terrible fate, kill my heart, give me death!". The form is different from the other cantatas: two arias embrace a single recitative.

The disc ends with Il Sansone, which is about Samson, one of the Judges of Israel, whose actions are described in the Old Testament book of that name. The cantata brings us to the last stage of his life: the Philistines have taken away his long hair - the source of his power - and his eyesight, and brought him into their temple to be entertained by him. He takes revenge in bringing down the temple, killing many more when he died than when he lived. In the first recitative and aria pair, he expresses his wish to take revenge: "I am so accustomed to victory that even in my fall I expect to make my glory eternal". In the next recitative, he expresses his anger about the Philistines, and he confirms his decision to kill them, and to die with them in his final aria.

With Il Polifemo we are in the realm of mythology. The well-known story about the blind Polyphemus and his unhappy love for Galathea was a popular subject for compositions, the most famous of them undoubtedly Handel's Acis and Galatea. The cantata, comprising three recitatives and two arias, opens with Polyphemus expressing his anger about the escape of Ulysses. He then continues by lamenting over his unfulfilled love for Galathea which is even more painful than his blindness. In the closing recitative, he expresses his decision to throw himself into the sea.

The cantatas on this disc show that composers did not bother to derive from Scarlatti's basic form. A destar l'alba col canto is a good example: whereas two of the cantatas we just discussed, open and close with a recitative, this cantata opens with an aria, which is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria. It is one of the two cantatas of the 'Arcadian' type, although in this particular piece no mythological character figures, apart from Cupid. Another traditional element is birdsong, so often associated with love. Cupid is called here "that fickle breacher of all peace", which the protagonist is hoping to deceive.

Partenza amorosa is different from all the others as well: it comprises three pairs of recitative and aria. Here we meet a common character in Arcadian cantatas: Amaryllis. In the first aria, her lover, Lidius, expresses his sorrow for having to leave her. The second aria opens with the line "Waves, mumbling, bathed my tears", which is illustrated by a figure in the basso continuo, depicting the beating of the waves. Notable is that the last aria omits a dacapo.

It is regrettable that so few of Caldara's cantatas have been recorded to date. Some features of the six included here need to be mentioned, proving that these are worthy additions of the repertoire. I already noted the variety of forms in the number and arrangement of recitatives and arias. Some of the recitatives take the character of ariosos, which is especially used to increase the expression of strong emotions. Also notable is Caldara's frequent use of dissonances for expressive reasons, especially in his recitatives. One of the most striking examples is Il Dario. Caldara also shows his command of setting a text to music in such a way that its meaning is clearly illustrated. To that end he makes use of several rhetorical devices, but also coloratura on key words. Lastly, several cantatas include some wide leaps, especially in the recitatives, which suggest that they must have been written for a singer of considerable skills.

Furio Zanasi is a regular in the world of early music. Personally, his voice is not an instrument which I find very attractive per se, but he uses it to good effect. In Bruto a' Romani, his performance has the weight and the pomposity one expects from a political speech. In the ensuing cantata, A destar l'alba col canto, his approach is very different. Overall, I find his performances entirely convincing. In the recitatives he takes just enough freedom, and the text is always clearly in the centre. The basso continuo group delivers fine and effective support.

This disc is a nice and valuable contribution to the commemoration of a composer, who deserves to receive much more attention.

Johan van Veen ( 2021)

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