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Giovanni BONONCINI (1670 - 1747): "Barbara ninfa ingrata - Cantatas"

Cyril Auvity, tenora

rec: Sept 2009, Xaintrailles, Église
Ramée - RAM 1006 (© 2010) (64'55")

Alle sue pene intornoa; Barbara ninfa ingrataa; Ecce Dorinda il giornoa; Quando parlia; Sinfonia IX, op. 4,9 [1]; Sinfonia XII, op. 4,12 [1]

(Sources: [1] Sinfonie, op. 4)

Léonor de Recondo, Birgit Goris, violin; Elisa Joglar, cello; André Henrich, archlute; Isabelle Sauveur, harpsichord

Giovanni Bononcini was one of the most celebrated composers of his time. He was particularly active as a composer of operas and oratorios, and he also composed a large number of chamber cantatas.

Bononcini was born in Modena, and moved to Bologna after the death of his father when he was just eight years of age. Here he studied counterpoint with Giovanni Paolo Colonna. His first three collections of music were printed when he was 15, and shortly before his 16th birthday he was accepted as a member of the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica. In the next years more collections of music were published, he participated in the chapel of San Petronio as singer and cellist and wrote some oratorios.

In 1691 he moved to Rome, and here he composed operas, serenades and one oratorio. In 1697 he entered the service of emperor Leopold I in Vienna, to whom he had already dedicated his Duetti da camera opus 8 of 1691. He earned a remarkably high salary, which reflects the high esteem of the emperor. In the next decade he was also working for some time at the court of Sophie Charlotte in Berlin, and after the death of Joseph I he moved to Rome. In the 1720s he was active in London, and in the 1730s he worked in Paris.

Bononcini's compositions were well-known throughout Europe. His cantatas were particularly famous, which according to a French contemporary were models of grace. It is a reference to a feature of his music which is particularly noteworthy. "Bononcini's genius is considered to lie in the expression of tender and pathetic sentiments. Plaintive melodies, characteristically rich and gentle, are his personal trademark, and the defining feature of his dramatic works", Luciane Beduschi writes in her programme notes. Bononcini's colleague Francesco Gasparini wrote: "One notices in his works not only originality, but also beauty, harmony, ingenious devices and inventive imagination". Bononcini is considered one of the founders of the galant style.

Bononcini's cantatas follow the traditional pattern of a sequence of recitatives and arias. But he doesn't follow it slavishly. Quando parli begins with an aria, which is followed by a recitative, another aria and closes with a recitative, which turns into an arioso. Barbara ninfa ingrata and Ecce Dorinda il giorno open with a preludio, a multi-sectional sinfonia. The latter cantata has three recitatives and three arias. These two cantatas are for solo voice, two violins and bc, Alle sue pene intorno for voice, one violin and bc. Only Quando parli is for solo voice and basso continuo, as most chamber cantatas of the time.

The two arias are mostly different in character, the first usually being more lyrical, the second somewhat more dramatic. The lyrics are largely of an arcadian nature, in which mythological characters like Clori, Tirsi and Dorinda turn up. In his cantatas Bononcini regularly makes use of dissonants and chromaticism. That is also the case in his instrumental pieces, like the two Sinfonias from his opus 4 on this disc. They are for two violins and bc; the Sinfonia XII contains one movement with a solo for the cello.

The oeuvre of Giovanni Bononcini is not particularly well represented on disc. That makes this recording welcome, even though the performances leave something to be desired. All cantatas are for a high voice, and although no voice type is indicated, there can be no doubt that they were intended for soprano. This was the type of voice which was absolutely dominating in operas and vocal chamber music, and usually cantatas like those on this disc were sung by castratos. From that perspective the performance with a tenor is rather odd.

Some passages with high notes don't come off that well, which is surprising considering that Cyril Auvity is also singing as an haute-contre in French music. In several arias he sings cadenzas which are rather exaggerated and out of place in cantatas like these. In general his singing reminded me of the traditional 19th-century opera, which is surprising as he has a vast experience in early music. But his performance is more concentrated on sound production than on communicating the text. The dramatic episodes are often one-dimensional in that Auvity too much concentrates on singing as loudly as possible. The recitatives are not speech-like enough, and Auvity doesn't take enough rhythmic freedom.

The playing of the strings is too restrained, with little dynamic gradation. And the acoustic doesn't make things any better. Especially in the louder passages there is too much reverberation. The whole atmosphere doesn't reflect the intimacy of the chamber or salon where pieces like these were usually performed.

All in all, I am disappointed by this recording which could have been an important addition to the discography of a composer who is still largely ignored.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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