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Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (1682 - 1732): David, azione sacra per musica

Birgitte Christensen (Gionata), Simone Kermes (Micol), soprano; Marijana Mijanovic (David), Sonia Prina (Abner), contralto; Vito Priante (Falti), Furio Zanasi (Saul), baritone
Il Complesso Barocco
Dir: Alan Curtis

rec: October & November 2003, Montevarchi (Italy)
Virgin Classics - 3 78877 2 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (2.35'10")

It seems we are on the brink of a 'Conti renaissance' as his name has appeared on concert programmes and on disc a number of times since the beginning of this century. In 2002 I heard a performance of his tragicomedia Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena in my hometown of Utrecht (the Netherlands). Some years later René Jacobs performed the same work in Innsbruck. At least two recordings have been devoted to compositions by Conti: cantatas with Bernarda Fink and Ars Antiqua Austria (Arcana) and a recording of vocal and instrumental works with Ulrike Hofbauer and the Neue Hofkapelle München (on the label of the Austrian broadcasting company ORF). Considering the quality and specific features of Conti's music it is rather surprising that it has taken so long for being rediscovered.

There was no lack of appreciation of Conti as both a composer and a performer in his time. He was born in Florence, but spent the largest part of his life in Vienna, where he worked at the imperial court. In 1708 he was appointed first theorbo player, in 1713 he became also court composer. After these appointments he was one of the highest paid musicians in Vienna. As a result he was able to perform his own works with the best singers, since he could pay them well. After falling ill in 1726 he returned to Italy, but in 1732 he returned to Vienna to introduce some new works. It is an indication of his reputation that his successor as court composer, Antonio Caldara, had to step aside to make place for Conti. Shortly thereafter Conti died.

Colleagues were full of praise for Conti, like Johann Joachim Quantz, who called him "an inventive and fiery, occasionally somewhat bizarre composer". In his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1723 Johann Gottfried Walther described him as "an excellent master". Johann Sebastian Bach seems to have appreciated him as well, as Conti's cantata 'Languet anima mea' has been found in his library. And Johann Mattheson, in Der Vollkommene Capellmeister of 1739, called him "the great musician" and "an excellent scholar".

Although Conti is first and foremost known as a composer of vocal music, in particular operas, by profession he was a player of the theorbo, and a famous one at that. No solo pieces for theorbo by Conti are known, though, and the only traces of his skills can be found in the obbligato parts for theorbo in his operas, oratorios and cantatas.

That is also the case in the oratorio, or azione sacra per musica, as it is officially described by Conti, which is recorded here. It received its premiere in 1724. It wasn't the first time Conti wrote music on this subject. The year before he had written Il David perseguitato da Saul on a libretto by A. di Avanzo. In fact that oratorio was the first version of the oratorio performed here: Conti reworked the music whereas Apostolo Zeno, one of the most famous writers of opera and oratorio libretti before Metastasio, rewrote the libretto. As said Conti used the theorbo as an obbligato instrument in his vocal works. In this oratorio it represents the harp which David plays to calm down King Saul in one of his bursts of madness. It can be heard in the Preludio in the middle of the second part, which is followed by a recitativo accompagnato and an aria in which the entrance of the solo voice is preceded by a long instrumental introduction for the theorbo and the strings lasting almost two and a half minutes.

It could well be that Conti's recitatives are influenced by his own involvement in their performance. As Alan Curtis writes in his programme notes: "It seems to me that his having played the theorbo so well may explain why Conti took such care composing his recitatives, which are extremely original and often very moving, their harmony in general more varied and less predictable than in most recitative of the period". He gives some striking examples of this. But it isn't just the recitatives and in particular their harmony which are often surprising. The same can be said about the arias, which show a remarkable amount of melodic invention. They not only contain splendid music, they also give striking examples of Conti's ability to express the content of the text and the mood of the character in his music. Saul's aria 'Stringe Iddio l'ultrice spada' (part 1), for instance, is dominated by descending figures, which reflect its content: "God grasps the sword of vengeance. He raises his arm and seeks my fall". He has just found out that both his son Jonathan and daughter Michal take David's side and this aria perfectly expresses his mood. Another example is Abner's aria 'Al fianco anzi vorrei' (part 2), in which he complains about the influence of 'flatterers' like Saul's counselor Phalti, who was promised to marry Michal before she was given to David. The text, saying: "I would rather have by my side cruel, wicked enemies than a swarm of deceitful flatterers", is expressed in the obbligato violin part. Fierce chords of the strings illustrate the "giant steps" Saul takes to arrest David as he announces in his aria 'A passo di gigante' (part 2).

It is not known exactly how this oratorio was first performed, for example whether it was staged. But as far as its dramatic character is concerned there is no real difference with the opera of the time. It starts at the very beginning with the dialogue between David, Michal and Jonathan when it becomes increasingly clear that Saul wants to take action against David, because he is more popular with the people than he is. Another dramatic highlight is the heated debate between Saul, his children Michal and Jonathan and his general Abner towards the end of the first part. In the second it is the moment David is asked to play for Saul, when the king goes mad again and tries to kill David.

The taste at the court in Vienna was rather conservative, and there was a clear preference for polyphony. Conti doesn't fail to pay tribute to this in the choruses which close both the first and the second part. In particular the last chorus is full of strong dissonances, again proving Conti's sense for text expression as the choir sings: "A wicked man can prophesy and work miracles. But holy fire, you cannot reside with the wicked. Other gifts have an end, you have none". This follows immediately on an accompanied recitative, in which Saul acts like a prophet: "My throne. Who sits upon it? I recognise him: it is David. Here is the Tree that spreads and flowers for all eternity. O happy plant, that produces the Fruit that blesses the world." This, of course, is a clear reference to Christ - in line with the convention in Vienna to refer to his birth or his passion in an oratorio. Not uncommon is also the sudden entrance of a trombone in one single aria, here in the second part in David's aria 'Di al mio re'.

The choruses are sung here by a choir of 16 singers. One could argue that a performance by the soloists is more appropriate; in those days it certainly was the most common way of singing such choruses. But Alan Curtis feels a choir creates a stronger contrast with the soloists. Whatever one may think about this, the choir gives excellent performances of the three choruses (the third opens the second part and is more homophonic than the other two).

Alan Curtis has done a great job, not just by recording this work, but also with his casting of the roles. I haven't been always impressed by Marijana Mijanovic, both technically and stylistically, but here she sings the role of David quite beautifully. The role of Saul was originally sung by Gaetano Orsini, the tenor for whom Handel later wrote the role of Bajazet in his opera Tamerlano. The voice type of this role is called tenore baritonale, as the part goes rather deep. Furio Zanasi gives a brilliant performance, expressing the moods of his character very well. The mad scene in part 2 is particularly well done. Saul's son Jonathan is given remarkably beautiful arias, and Birgitte Christensen - the only soloist I had never heard before - is singing them impressively. I find her voice very beautiful, and she sings her part very stylishly. Simone Kermes gives a very fine characterisation of Michal, in particular her inner conflict between the love for her father and for David. Abner, the voice of reason, and Phalti, Saul's cunning counseler, are well portrayed by Sonia Prina and Vito Priante respectively. Il Complesso Barocco realises the score with panache, and the often dramatic character of the instrumental accompaniment in the arias comes out very convincingly. The orchestra's leader Andrea Keller plays the violin solo in Abner's aria in part 2 and the theorbo solo is played by Jakob Lindberg.

In short: Conti's oratorio David is a splendid piece of music, which fully deserves to be part of the standard repertoire. I am very happy this work is recorded here, and in a top-notch interpretation to boot. There is every chance it will end as one of my records of the year. I just hope more of Conti's compositions will be explored, performed and recorded. I'm sure we shall be surprised again when they are.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Il Complesso Barocco

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