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"D'Astorga & Lalli - Cantatas, Sonatas"

Les Abbagliati

rec: July 2 - 5, 2019, Basse-Bodeux (B), Notre-Dame de l'Assomption
Ramée - RAM 1907 (© 2020) (58'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Sento dentro del petto; Emanuele D'ASTORGA (1680-c1757): Che ti giova Amore crudele; Non è sol la lontananza; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto a 4 in d minor (HWV deest) (attr); Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in d minor (HWV 386b); Sonata for violin and bc in g minor (HWV 364a) (larghetto; allegro); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Sonata for cello and bc in d minor (largo); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sonata for cello and bc in B flat (RV 46) (largo); Sonata for cello and bc in B flat (RV 47) ([allegro])

Soetkin Elbers, soprano; Sien Huybrechts, transverse flute; Annelies Decock, violin; Ronan Kernoa, cello; Dimos De Beun, harpsichord

The two names on the frontispiece of this disc may not ring a bell with many music lovers. Domenico Lalli was a poet and librettist, Emanuele d'Astorga a composer, who today is almost exclusively known for his Stabat mater. When in Rome, he met Lalli, they became good friends and decided to leave Rome for Genoa. Lalli is probably also the author of one of the cantatas by d'Astorga included here. Their friendship is the starting point of this disc, which seems to be the debut of the ensemble Les Abbagliati. Although the ensemble seems to exist for about ten years, I had never heard of it. That has made me all the more curious about what it has to offer.

Unfortunately, this disc has left me rather unsatisfied. To begin with, the programme raises quite some questions. D'Astorga and Lalli may have been friends, but from the liner-notes I get the impression that they have been together only for a rather short period of time. That is hardly a reason to use their connections as the basis of a recording. One also may ask what the reasons may have been for the inclusion of pieces by Handel and Bononcini. According to the liner-notes, Lalli collaborated with several composers, including Handel. However, if I have to believe New Grove, none of Handel's operas is based on one of his librettos. Only in the case of Radamisto, we read that the libretto is adapted from a libretto by Lalli. That is not what one would call collaboration; it is unlikely Lalli had anything to do with that. In the article on the Bononcinis, his name appears just once as the author of an opera libretto, but in that case the composer is Antonio Maria Bononcini. From that angle, the selection of pieces for this programme seems rather arbitrary.

Part of the programme is what is called a 'pasticcio sonata'. The first two movements are from the pen of Antonio Vivaldi, the remaining two are by Handel. Basically there is no objection against such a construction; the liner-notes mention an example of such a sonata of movements by different composers preserved in the State Library in Dresden. However, in such sonatas the scoring is usually the same, for instance for flute or for violin. Here the effect of putting together movements by different composers is that the first two are for cello, and the other two for violin. I find this rather odd and musically unsatisfying. The last cantata by D' Astorga is preceded by the movement from a cello sonata by Alessandro Scarlatti. I can't see any reason for that. The cantata opens with an aria rather than a recitative, as was the custom at the time. However, it was certainly not the rule: many composers - including Alessandro Scarlatti, who laid down the basic form of the chamber cantata - derived from this model, if they had reasons for that. The movement is then connected with the opening aria of the cantata by a harpsichord improvisation. Such an introduction was quite common at the time, and that would have sufficed.

The three cantatas may be first recordings, but the Concerto a 4 and the Sonata in d minor by Handel are not. They belong among his best-known works. There is some doubt about the authorship of the Concerto, which is also attributed to Telemann. Whatever is the case, it is a very nice work, but I have heard better performances. The playing in both pieces is dynamically rather flat. I would have liked more contrasts, both in dynamics and in tempo.

Bononcini is one of those composers who does not receive the attention he deserves. Some of his chamber music and a few cantatas are rather well-known as are two of his operas: Il trionfo di Camilla and Polifemo. The cantata included here is a nice piece, although probably not his most interesting cantata. It has the usual form of two pairs of recitative and aria. Soetkin Elbers has a nice voice, but does not explore the qualities of this piece. She does not take enough rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, and at the end of the dacapo of the last aria, she crosses the range of her part in her ornamentation, which in general is undesirable.

She does better in the two cantatas y D'Astorga, which are melodically and harmonically more interesting. That goes in particular for the first of the cantatas, Che ti giova Amor crudele, another example of a cantata which derives from the basic model: it comprises three arias, separated by two recitatives. Here Soetkin Elbers takes more freedom in the recitatives, and there is also more dynamic shading. The second recitative and aria are quite dramatic and that comes off quite well here. However, to my ears her Italian pronunciation does not seem very natural, but as I am not an Italian speaker, I leave that to those who are.

The last cantata is special in that here the voice is not only accompanied by the basso continuo, but also the transverse flute. Whether the addition of a melody instrument is common in his oeuvre is impossible to say: New Grove lists a large number of cantatas, but seldom mentions a scoring. For modern performers, this certainly makes such a piece all the more attractive, and it is certainly a nice cantata. The two pieces included here suggest that his oeuvre deserves to be thoroughly researched and explored. As far as I am concerned, these two cantatas are the selling point of this disc.

On balance, I would have wished to be more positive about this disc, especially as it is the ensemble's first. However, I feel that the artists have not been very lucky with their choice of repertoire. It also seems to me that here the full potential of neither the music nor the artists has been fully exploited.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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