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Giovanni Felice SANCES (c1600 - 1679): Secular works

[I] "Dialoghi amorosi"
Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicolas Achten
rec: Feb 23 - 26, 2017, Sint-Truiden (B), Provinciaal Museum Begijnhofkerk
Ricercar - RIC 385 (© 2017) (74'53')
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Salomone ROSSI (1570-c1630): Sonata sopra l'aria di Ruggiero [1]; Giovanni Felice SANCES: Chi nel regno almo d'Amore [3]; Dove n'andrò che non mi segua Amor? [3]; Filli mirando il Cielo [2]; L'infortunio d'Angelica [4]; Lagrime tutte amare [3]; Lilla bell'e crudele [2]; Misera, hor sì ch'il pianto [2]; Occhi, sfere vivaci [2]; Pietosi, allontanatevi [3]; Presso l'onde tranquille [2]; Quando non ti risolvi Lilla bell'e crudele [2]; Tirsi morir volea [2]; Viver trà pianti [3]; Girolamo VIVIANI (17th C): Passacaglia

Hanna Al-Bendera, Deborah Cachetb, soprano; Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenorc; Nicolas Achten, baritoned, harp, chitarrone, harpsichord; Lucas Peres, viola da gamba, chitarrino; Eriko Semba, viola da gamba, lirone; Solmund Nystabakk, archlute, guitar; Paul Kieffer, chitarrone, guitar; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord, spinetta, organ

[1] Salomone Rossi, Il terzo libro de varie sonate ... op. 12, 1623; Giovanni Felice Sances, [2] Cantade ..., libro secondo, 1633; [3] Il quarto libro delle cantate, et arie, 1636; [4] Capricci poetici, 1649

[II] Capricci Poetici, 1649
Irene Morelli, sopranoa; Beatrice Mercuri, mezzo-sopranob; Diego Cantalupi, archlute; Giuseppe Schinaia, harpsichord
rec: Nov 2013, Lazio, Castello Caetani Trevi
Tactus - TC 601903 (© 2016) (56'20")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Aria I: Che nel Regno almo d'Amorea; Aria II: Vibrate pur vibrate dalle pupilleb; Aria III: Ho il cor ferito e moriròa; Aria IV: Del qual virtude Filli si chiudeb; Aria V: Amo e sento nel pettoa; Aria VI: Perché vecchia gli dissi un dì per giocob; Cantata I: Chi non sa cosa sia Amor io gliel diròa; Cantata II: Or che chiarissime da l'alto cielb; Cantata III: Son amante e son fedelea; Canzonetta a due soprani: Che sperasti o mio cor

Giovanni Felice Sances was one of the main representatives of the post-Monteverdi generation. He spent most of his career at the imperial court in Vienna, which in the early 17th century came under the spell of the Italian style. There he mostly composed sacred music.

Sances was born in Rome and entered the Collegio Germanico as a soprano in 1609. In 1614 he was expelled because of his unauthorized participation in the performance of an opera. The next 20 years he worked in Padua and Venice, where he established connections with rich members of the local nobility. In Venice he also published his first collections of music. Four books with secular pieces were published, but only the second and the fourth are extant, printed in 1633 and 1636 respectively. Also in 1636 his first opera, Ermiona, was performed in Padua; this work has been lost. In 1638 he published two books with motets, again in Venice.

At that time he was already in Vienna; he was appoined musico, which meant both performer and composer. At that time the Kapellmeister was Antonio Bertali. When the latter died in 1669, Sances was appointed his successor; he held this position until his death in 1679. He spent most of his time writing sacred music, both for the regular services and for special occasions, such as sepolcri, to be performed during Holy Week. Most of his sacred output has been preserved in manuscript, but some collections were printed, all of them in Venice, between 1640 and 1648. Apparently he didn't compose much secular music during his time in Vienna: only two collections are known, the Capricci Poetici of 1649 and the Trattenimenti musicali per camera, libro primo of 1657.

Sances takes an important place in the activities of Scherzi Musicali. In 2009 it recorded a programme of sacred music (Dulcis amor Jesu; Ricercar, 2009), and this time it sheds light on the secular part of his output. The pieces are taken from all four collections; the booklet does not indicate, which piece comes from which volume (I have added that information in the header). The scoring varies from one to three voices with basso continuo. The title of this disc is not very accurate: the programme includes only a few dialogues - albeit one of them takes about twenty minutes - and not all the pieces for two voices are dialogues. The programme opens with Occhi, sfere vivaci, which is a duet for two voices, but not a dialogue between two different characters. The use of a polyphonic form, like the duet, was to be used by later composers as well, for instance Agostino Steffani, the most famous composers of duets from around 1700.

The next items are solos, Dove n'andrò, Presso l'onde tranquille, Misera, hor sì ch'il pianto and Pietosi, allontanatevi. These are specimens of what Sances called cantade or cantate. He was one of the first composers to use this term, but they have nothing in common with the chamber cantatas, which were composed at the end of the 17th and in the 18th century. There are no recitatatives and arias; most pieces are strophic and there are no dacapos. Another polyphonic duet is Chi nel regno almo d'Amore. In his liner-notes Nicolas Achten states, that in some cases it was decided to omit some of the stanzas. He does not specify, which pieces are incomplete, but this could be one of them. Sances set the text again - for solo voice - in his Capricci Poetici, and that setting has five stanzas; here only two are performed.

After a sonata by Salomone Rossi we hear the first 'amorous dialogue': L'infortunio d'Angelica. The text is taken from Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso and is about the Saracen knight Ruggiero, saving Angelica from the rock to which she had been chained by a sea monster, who intended to make her his prey. When Angelica realises that Ruggiero intends to claim her favours as his reward, she uses her magic ring to make herself disappear; Ruggiero is deeply hurt by such ingratitude. There are two roles in this piece: Angelica (soprano) and a Testo (baritone); there are also some episodes for a chorus, which is scored for three voices.

Next are a solo (Lagrime tutte amare) and a polyphonic duet, Quando non ti risolvi. The latter is about the "fair and cruel Lilla", who returns in the next piece, a dialogue between Lilla (soprano) and Fileno (tenor): Lilla bell' e crudele. Filli mirando il Cielo is a piece for solo voice, but is divided here between the tenor - who acts as a kind of testo - and the soprano, who sings the words of Phyllis. I wonder what is the reason for that. In the 18th century it was quite common, that one singer took different 'roles' in chamber cantatas, and I don't think this was any different in Sances' time. Viver trà pianti is another polyphonic duet, and the programme ends with the third 'amorous dialogue', Tirsi morir volea: "Thyrsis wished to die as she gazed into the eyes of his beloved". The text is from the pen of Giambattista Guarini and is allocated to three characters: Phyllis (tenor), Thyrsis (soprano) and Festauro (baritone); the latter takes the role of narrator (Testo).

This disc is a valuable addition to the catalogue as it sheds light on an aspect of Sances's oeuvre, that is little known. Sances is certainly a household name, but he is almost exclusively known for his Stabat mater, which has been recorded several times. Scherzi Musicali is a very good ensemble, which has come up with several nice recordings over the years. I heard them with a Sances programme - probably largely identical - some years ago during the Festival Early Music in Utrecht. I was not entirely satisfied, partly because some of the singers were too restrained. This disc is definitely better, but here I also felt that sometimes the performances were less dramatic than they should be. That is the case, for instance, with Misera, hor sì ch'il pianto. Deborah Cachet's performance, which here and there is also marred by a little too much vibrato, is dynamically too flat and not speech-like enough. Sometimes the performances could have been more declamatory. Reinoud Van Mechelen makes the best impression here. Nicolas Achten has a nice voice, but I don't like his slight tremolo very much. The rhythms of many of Sances's pieces are infectious, and that is emphasized by the excellent performances of the basso continuo parts with a wide variety of strung, plucked and keyboard instruments.

I already mentioned the Tactus disc, which is devoted to the Capricci Poetici of 1649. This collection was dedicated to Nicolò Sagredo, who had been his patron and was at the time Venetian ambassador to the Habsburg court. It comprises two volumes: the first - recorded here - includes six arias and three cantatas for solo voice and one canzonetta for two voices, all with basso continuo. The second consists of two dramatic madrigals; one of them is L'infortunio d'Angelica, recorded by Scherzi Musicali.

There is little dramatic in the arias and cantatas, and - despite the different indications - there is not much difference between the two genres. They are all strophic and deal with (unhappy) love. Only in some pieces we find some declamatory passages, such as in Vibrate pur vibrate dalle pupille (Aria II) and Deh qual virtude Filli si chiude (Aria IV). The strophic form restricts the possibilities of text expression. However, there are some examples of it, such as the closing of the Cantata II, Or che chiarissime da l'altro ciel: "And I leave in full torment". Comparable texts are included in the Aria V, Amo e sento nel petto. The last two lines of the even stanzas express the same thoughts: "Alas, how great is my pain to be a lover and sigh for love". Here Sances uses marked modulations to express the text.

I am not sure that it was a very good idea to present these pieces on one disc. A mixture of the two parts of the Capricci Poetici, or a mixture with other pieces from Sances's pen - like in Scherzi Musicali's recording - would have been preferable. The scoring is the same, and as there seems to be no difference in tessitura one wonders, why two singers were engaged, especially as their voices are not very different. Unfortunately, Beatrice Mercuri, being a mezzo-soprano, has some problems with the top-notes which sometimes sound a bit stressed.

I must say that I find it not easy to assess the quality of Sances's secular music. I have heard some of his sacred music, which I greatly appreciated. As it seems unreasonable to assume that his secular music is not of the same quality, one probably has to conclude that these two recordings leave something to be desired. I found it hard to keep my concentration while listening to the Tactus disc. Irene Morelli and Beatrice Mercuri have nice voices and their performances are certainly stylish, but not very expressive. There is too little difference in colour and dynamics. Sometimes the performers just seem to miss the point. The Aria VI, for instance, includes some humorous elements: "Just because I called her old for fun now my love is angry and spits curses at me. Oh, betraying thoughts, I joked and hurt and spoke the truth for the future." Little of that comes off here. Scherzi Musicali is clearly better, but even there I feel that more could have been made of Sances's music.

However, considering the lack of recordings of this repertoire, I don't hesitate to recommend the latter. The Tactus disc seems to me only worth being investigated by those who have a special interest in Sances or the music of his time.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Beatrice Mercuri
Diego Cantalupi
Scherzi Musicali

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