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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725): "O penosa lontananza - Cantate da camera"

Scherzi Musicali
Dir: Nicolas Achten

rec: Jan 21 - 24, 2018, Sint-Truiden (B), Provinciaal Museum Begijnhofkerk
Ricercar - RIC 396 (© 2018) (70'01")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Fiero, acerbo destina; Imagini d'orrorebc; O penosa lontananzaab; Sotto l'ombra d'un faggiobc; Sovra carro stellatoac; Tu resti, o mio bel numebc

Deborah Cachet, sopranoa; Nicolas Achten, baritoneb, theorbo, harp, organ; Ortwin Lowyck, Patrizio Germone, violinc; Mathilde Wolfs, bass violin, cello; Paul Kieffer, Solmund Nystabakk, archlute, theorbo, guitar; Philippe Grisvard, harpsichord, organ; GanaŽl Schneider, organ

Alessandro Scarlatti is one of those composers who has taken profit from the revival of early music. His name was known, but only a few pieces of his hand were part of the repertoire, and, as Nicolas Achten rightly states in the liner-notes to the present disc, he was for a long time overshadowed by his son Domenico. The latter's sonatas can be easily performed on a variety of instruments (although only the harpsichord and in some cases another keyboard instrument, such as the organ or the fortepiano, can do them real justice), Scarlatti almost exclusively wrote vocal music, which for musicians from the pre-period instrument age was difficult to perform. Moreover, his favourite genres - opera, oratorio and chamber cantata - were hard to grasp in a time, when the spirit of the baroque era was not very well understood and judged with the criteria of later periods. Even today, Scarlatti's oeuvre is still not that well known, although it is probably a bit exaggerated to call him a "famous unknown", as Achten does.

Scarlatti not only laid down the basic form of the cantata, he was also the most prolific composer of such pieces. It is not exactly known how many he has written, partly because quite a number are wrongly attributed to him. That in itself tells us something about his reputation during his heydays. Those came to an end towards the end of his life, when the galant idiom gained ground and Scarlatti was increasingly considered rather old-fashioned, especially because of the important role of counterpoint in his oeuvre.

That manifests itself in those cantatas in which the singer is accompanied by one or several instruments, in addition to the basso continuo. Whereas the large majority of Scarlatti's cantatas is scored for voice and basso continuo, four of the six cantatas recorded by Scherzi Musicali include parts for two violins. It is one of the features where Scarlatti derives from the standard he had developed himself. There is another notable feature here: whereas chamber cantatas were usually scored for a high voice (soprano, alto), three of the cantatas recorded here are for a low voice. In addition, O penosa lontananza, the cantata which gave this disc its title, is for two voices: soprano and bass. Lastly, the number of movements varies. Usually cantatas comprised two pairs of recitative and aria. Three of the cantatas in the programme follow that model. Imagini d'orrore has two arias, embracing a recitative. Sovra carro stellato has three recitative-aria pairs, and opens with a sinfonia. Obviously, O penosa lontananza is different because of its scoring. It opens with a duet, which is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria, one for each of the singers, and the cantata closes with two duets.

The content of chamber cantatas of the time was stereotypical. They are about love and its tribulations, and reflect the world of Arcadia, which was the ideal of the higher echelons of society. The protagonists are not always known by name, but when names are mentioned, these are the kind of characters that we know from numerous cantatas and other secular vocal works, such as Phyllis (Sovra carro stellato), Thyrsis (Sotto l'ombra d'un faggio) or Chloris (O penosa lontananza, Imagini d'orrore).

I have already mentioned several features which make this disc stand out from the crowd. It is not surprising that all of them are appearing on disc for the first time. There are also some aspects of performance practice which deserve attention, and which Nicolas Achten discusses at some length in his liner-notes. One of them concerns the rhythmic freedom an interpreter has to take in his performance of recitatives. As Achten rightly states, a "metronomic performance of the recitative (...) would be to the detriment of the natural prosody of the language". This seems quite obvious, but over the years I have often noticed a negligence of this basic principle of historical performance practice. More interesting is that the performers have avoided "the systematic use of a bowed instrument for the bass line of the recitative". The use of a cello in addition to the keyboard has more or less become the standard these days, but there seem to be good reasons to question that practice.

The most notable and probably also most controversial part of the interpretation by Scherzi Musicali is the way the basso continuo is performed. Achten refers to the treatise L'armonico pratico al cimbalo of 1708 by Francesco Gasparini. "Gasparini promulgates the concept of suonar pieno, providing examples of well-filled chords and arpeggios, with up to fourteen notes per chord - this thanks to several keys being depressed by the same finger. To increase the harpsichord's palette of colours, he particularly recommends adding dissonances unrelated to the harmony, somewhat in the manner of blue notes in jazz." One may wonder whether these principles can be translated to the performing of other instruments in their realisation of the basso continuo, especially as in this recording plucked instruments as well as organ and harp play a more important role in the basso continuo than the harpsichord. The fact that, according to Achten, the repertoire of the d-minor baroque lute and especially the guitar "is filled with examples of the above style" seems to confirm that. However, we probably need more research on this matter before this practice is more widely adopted.

The way the basso continuo is realised and the variety in its line-up according to the content of a recitative or aria certainly helps to explore the dramatic aspects of these cantatas, even though the use of quite some instruments at the same time and especially the use of a harp raise some questions. This disc is an interesting contribution to the ongoing discussion about performance practice. This cannot be appreciated enough: established habits need to be questioned.

The performances are very good. Although I am not a real fan of Achten's voice, especially because of its incessant slight tremolo, he certainly knows what to do with a text and to communicate the affetti of a piece. Deborah Cachet has a lovely voice, which is perfectly suited for this kind of repertoire. In her two solo cantatas she is in excellent form. The duet is also very well done. The instrumentalists do a fine job too.

As one can see, there are plenty of reasons to welcome this disc. Both from the angle of repertoire and some of the decisions with regard to interpretation, this is a substantial addition to the discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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