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"Serenissima - A Musical Portrait of Venice around 1726"

The 1750 Project
Dir: Benoît Laurent

rec: May 30 - June 2, 2019, Marilles (B), Église Saint-Martin
Ramée - RAM 1902 (© 2020) (76'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Arianna e Teseo, opera (Pietoso ciel difendimi, aria for soprano, oboe, strings and bc); Questo è il platano frondoso, cantata for sopramo and bc; Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Sonata for oboe and bc in C (GSM 1323b); Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata for harpsichord in E (K 162); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): All'ombra di sospetto, cantata for soprano, transverse flute and bc (RV 687); Che giova il sospirar, povero core, cantata for soprano, strings and bc (RV 679); Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in d minor (RV 454); Sonata for violin and bc in A (RV 758)

Perrinen Devillers, soprano; Jan Van den Borre, transverse flute; Benoît Laurent, oboe; Jacek Kurzydlo, Salomé Rateau, violin; Nadine Henrichs, viola; Mathilde Wolfs, cello; Korneel Bernolet, harpsichord

The 1750 Project - that is rather odd name for an ensemble. However, its name is its programme. "The 1750 Project proproses a journey from 1720 to 1750, each stage of which will allow us to discover the richness and specificity of a city's musical life at a key juncture in its history", the ensemble's director, Benoît Laurent, states in the liner-notes. "For the first episode of the 1750 Project, we would like to present the musical impressions that a traveller might have received on visiting Venice around 1726".

Venice was indeed a favourite of travellers, for instance young aristocrats on their Grand Tour. They visited the many churches, had the chance to attend an opera performance in one of the seven opera houses and could listen to the girls showing their great skills at performances in the several ospedali, such as the Ospedale della Pietà, which had for many years Antonio Vivaldi among its teachers.

He is one of the composers who had to be represented in the programme. The other three may cause some surprise, as Porpora, Giuseppe Sammartini and Domenico Scarlatti are not especially associated with Venice. That brings us to the year mentioned in the title. The choice of 1726 is not arbitrary. "Why 1726 in particular? Because a visitor arriving in the city of the Doges at that time would have witnessed a particular turning point in the history of music: a meeting of two different styles." The latter was due to the arrival of Nicola Porpora, the famous music teacher and opera composer from Naples. He introduced a style that would conquer Europe and was to be labelled 'galant'. The quickly growing popularity of this style was about to bring Vivaldi's dominance to an end, even though he attempted to adapt his style to the new fashion. But, as Laurent observes with regard to Vivaldi's cantatas, he "employs a galanterie that is possibly more superficial in style (...)".

The four composers included in the programme are represented with what was their speciality: Vivaldi (voice, violin), Porpora (voice), Sammartini (oboe) and Scarlatti (harpsichord). In a way, the latter is the odd man out. He had been in Venice for a while, being the pupil of Francesco Gasparini. However, in 1726 that was history: he arrived in Lisbon in 1719. In that respect one should not take the year too literally. It is most relevant in the case of Porpora and Sammartini. The former had been appointed teacher at the Ospedale degl'Incurabili. In 1727 his opera Arianna e Teseo was performed at the San Giovanni Grisostomo theatre. One of the musicians who participated in the performance was the oboist Giuseppe Sammartini, who was from Naples, and was to become one of the leading musicians in London. The aria 'Pietoso ciel difendimi' is a superb dialogue between soprano and oboe. Porpora undoubtedly explored the great skills of Sammartini, and in the vocal part we find the long melismas which are a feature of the Neapolitan style. It is followed by one of Porpora's chamber cantatas, for soprano and basso continuo, in which two arias embrace a recitative.

Sammartini is represented here with the Sonata in C; it is called an oboe sonata in the liner-notes, but the track-list mentions that it was included in a collection of flute sonatas (published in Amsterdam). The possible explanation for this is that the oboe was almost exclusively played by professionals, who were not the market for printed editions. At the time of publication, the flute was the most popular instrument among amateurs, and therefore it was more profitable to publish sonatas that could be played on several instruments.

Vivaldi's two cantatas include some specimens of the vocal virtuosity he employed in his operas. That goes in particular for the closing aria from All'ombra di sospetto, with its repeated notes and coloratura on "d'amante", and the first aria from Che giova il sospirar, especially the long melismas on "langue" and "l'anima". Virtuosity in his writing for the violin does not confine itself to his concertos. The Sonata in A is modelled after the sonata da camera. The opening preludio is followed by two correntes embracing an andante, which is dominated by double stopping, a technique Vivaldi did not employ that often. He was also one of the first Italian composers who wrote music for the oboe. This instrument had been developed in France; Sammartini's first teacher was his father, who was of French birth (Saint Martin). It had been introduced in the last decade of the 17th century in Italy. The Concerto in d minor is one of 21 oboe concertos, some of which may have been written for the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà, for instance a certain Pellegrina, nicknamed dall'Oboe.

The composers on this disc are quite familiar, but the pieces performed here are probably not, perhaps with the exception of Vivaldi's cantata All'ombre di sospetto. In any case, this programme gives a most interesting idea of what was going on in Venice around 1726. This seems to be the first disc of this ensemble, and it is a very good one. Perrine Devillers has made a name for herself as a soloist, but also participates in some of France's main ensembles of early music, such as Pygmalion. She has a very fine voice, and delivers stylish interpretations of the cantatas and aria. In the recitatives, she takes just the right amount of rhythmic freedom. I like her use of the messa di voce on the words "ahi! lasso!" in the recitative from Porpora's cantata, especially as this was an important, but today rather underestimated tool of singers. Her interpretations are driven by the text, and she adds some nice embellishments. The instrumental parts are excellently played. Oboist Benoît Laurent produces a nice tone, and his ornamentation is stylish and technically impeccable. There are good contributions of Jacek Kurzydlo (Vivaldi's violin sonata), Jan Van den Borre, who plays the flute part in Vivaldi's All'ombre di sospetto, and Korneel Bernolet, a rising star in the Belgian music scene, who delivers an engaging performance of Domenico Scarlatti's sonata.

In short, this is a delightful and highly entertaining disc, and I am looking forward to the next instalments of this interesting project.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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