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"Avanti l'opera - An A-Z of Italian baroque overtures"

Charivari Agréable
Dir: Kah-Ming Ng

rec: Sept 10 - 12, 2013, Toddington (Gloucestershire), St Andrew's Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD383 (© 2014) (63'15")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751): Zenobia; Attilio ARIOSTI (1666-1729): Vespasiano; Giuseppe Antonio BERNABEI (c1649-1732): L'Ascanio; Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Cefalo; Il trionfo di Camilla; Turno Aricino; Antonio CALDARA (c1671-1736): L'Olimpiade; Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (1682-1732): Il trionfo della fama; Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690): Il Totila; Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Catone in Utica; Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710): L'Idalma; Carlo Francesco POLLAROLO (c1653-1723): Gl'inganni felici; La Proserpine; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): La cadutadi Decemviri; La Statira; Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728): La lotta d'Alcide con Acheloo; Pietro Andrea ZIANI (1616-1684): Il Talamo

Mark Baigent, Leo Duarte, oboe; Simon Desbruslais, Will Russell, trumpet; Michael Brain, bassoon; Stephen Pedder, George Clifford, Julia Kuhn, John Crockatt, Davina Clarke, Eleanor Harrison, violin; Joanne Miller, Rachel Stacy, viola; Jonathan Rees, cello; Elizabeth Harré, double bass; Richard MacKenzie, theorbo, guitar; Kah-Ming Ng, harpsichord, organ

Opera was one of the main occupations of the rich and famous and the not so rich and famous in baroque Italy. Large numbers of operas were composed during the 17th and 18th centuries. The list of theatrical works by composers such as Giovanni Bononcini and Antonio Caldara, or - from a later period - Johann Adolf Hasse is astonishing. Obviously many of them have been lost. But even from the still large number of operas which have been preserved, only a small fraction is performed and recorded now and then. Most of them are never heard by modern audiences, and because of that, neither are the overtures.

One may wonder how many of the opera audiences of the 17th and 18th centuries have heard them either. In the liner-notes to the present disc Kah-Ming Ng describes at length the many distractions and general disorder during opera performances at the time. He opens with a telling quotation from Molière: "Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive".

Operas were always preceeded by an instrumental introduction, usually called sinfonia. One of the best-known from the early stages in opera history is the toccata from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. There is mostly no thematical connection between an overture and the ensuing opera. However, if the score of an overture includes a part for trumpet, such as Zenobia by Tomaso Albinoni, one may expect the opera to include a battle scene or a heroic aria. In the overture to Il trionfo della fama by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti two trumpets play a quite prominent role. The scoring of some overtures include parts for oboes; those date from the first half of the 18th century when the oboe - originally developed in France - had disseminated across the continent. There is a clear difference between overtures from the second half of the 17th century and overtures from the 18th. The former are scored for strings only and were usually in five parts. That probably also goes for the overtures to Pietro Andrea Ziani's Il Talamo and Giovanni Legrenzi's Il Totila, but the liner-notes don't go into any detail about the individual pieces recorded here.

The Italian overture usually comprised two fast movements, embracing a slow movement. Sometimes the first movement was in a slow tempo, such as Il trionfo di Camilla by Bononcini and L'Idalma by Bernardo Pasquini. As I noted above there is no thematical connection between the overture and the opera; the overture itself is often not even especially dramatic at all. However, there are exceptions. The overtures to Ariosti's Vespasiano and to La Proserpine by Carlo Francesco Pollarolo are good examples. The dramatic element is mostly the transition from the first (fast) to the second (slow) movement. During the 18th century the opera overture would become increasingly independent and was often published separately. It was the foundation of what was to become the orchestral symphony in the classical era.

These overtures could whet the appetite for the operas. It would be nice if we wouldn't hear the same operas over and over again. There is certainly much to discover. That said, the overtures can be enjoyed without knowing anything about the operas. "[Our] recording is purely about the music. It is a sample of a rich, yet untapped, genre (...) unencumbered by posturing performers, and short-circuited to aural stimulation", Kah-Ming Ng writes at the close of his liner-notes. One could say that this disc is unpretentious. But it is very enjoyable, and the music is brilliantly played. Charivari Agréable, well known for its unconventional programming, has added another gem to its already impressive discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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