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[A] Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741): "L'Amore per Elvira"
Mhiairi Lawson, sopranoa
La Serenissima
Dir: Adrian Chandler

rec: March 27 - 29, 2006, Toddington, St Andrew's Church
Linn Records - CKD 281 (© 2006) [SACD] (76'11")

[B] Antonio VIVALDI: "Bellezza Crudel"
Tone Wik, sopranob; Alexandra Opsahl, recorderc; Per Hannisdal, bassoond

rec: Feb & April 2008, Jar Church
2L - 56 (© 2008) [SACD] (64'15")

[A] Elvira, anima mia, cantata (RV 654)a; Lungi dal vago volto, cantata (RV 680)a; Sonata for violin and bc in D (RV 11); Sonata for violin and bc in b minor (RV 37); Sonata for violin, cello and bc in c minor (RV 83); Tremori al braccio, cantata (RV 799)a
[B] All'ombra di sospetto, cantata (RV 678)bc; Che giova il sospirar, cantata (RV 679)b; Concerto for bassoon, strings and bc in e minor (RV 484)d; Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in c minor (RV 441)c; La farfalletta s'aggira al lume, cantata (RV 660)b; Se ben vivono senz'alma, cantata (RV 664)b

The cantatas of Antonio Vivaldi are not badly represented on disc, but it would be an exaggeration to say that they belong to the standard repertoire of singers and ensembles. Therefore discs with cantatas are welcome, in particular if the cantatas which are recorded belong to the lesser-known. And that is the case here.

As far as the repertoire is concerned La Serenissima's recording "L'Amore per Elvira" is especially interesting. It not only contains hardly-known cantatas but also chamber music which is largely neglected. This disc sheds light on music Vivaldi wrote for Mantua. In 1718 he performed his opera Armida al campo d'Egitto there and stayed in Mantua until 1720. He was appointed maestro di cappella da camera by Prince Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was governor of Mantua on behalf of the Habsburgs. Vivaldi held this title after he left the city.

For the Mantuan court Vivaldi has written several serenate and cantatas. To the latter belong the three cantatas recorded here. Adrian Chandler believes they could be part of what was originally conceived as a cycle, as the name 'Elvira' appears in all three of them. "They were probably written for the court's inner circle, some members of which appear in the cantatas sporting Arcadian pseudonyms, a popular practice amongst contemporary Arcadian communities." In the three cantatas in which Elvira figures Chandler sees a story. "In Tremori al braccio (RV 799) the lover, (whose name we later learn to be Fileno) trembles at his inability to confess his love to Elvira, only overcoming his reticence in the finale (though not without reservations). In the second work Elvira, anima mia (RV 654), Fileno bears the sad tidings to Elvira that he must leave for a while and asks for one last kiss before he leaves. In the final work, Lungi dal vago volto (RV 680), the returning Fileno spies Elvira in the distance and he finally reaches her in the happy concluding aria".

The first of these three cantatas was only discovered in 1999 which allows a performance of all three. It seems plausible to assume that they indeed are meant as a cycle. But it is a bit surprising that the scoring is not the same: whereas the first two cantatas are set for soprano and bc, the last also contains a solo part for the violin. As one would expect the expression finds its place mostly in the recitatives which tell the story whereas the arias are perfect vehicles for the soprano to display her virtuosity. It is a shame the performances are less than ideal. I find Mhairi Lawson's voice a bit too cool and detached for this kind of music. In addition her consistent vibrato is annoying and unstylish. In the recitatives she fails to treat the rhythm with enough liberty - a regularly repeating problem in recordings of baroque vocal music.

This disc also contains three sonatas, two of which are never recorded before because the parts of the basso continuo were missing. The Sonata in D (RV 11) and the Sonata in b minor (RV 37) are preserved in the Diözesanarchiv in Graz, together with three other sonatas some of whose parts have found their way in other sonatas. The two sonatas played here, both for violin and bc, are unique and therefore the basso continuo part had to be reconstructed for this recording. In addition the Sonata for violin, cello and bc in c minor (RV 83) is performed. Unlike the two violin sonatas which follow the traditional four-movement pattern of the sonata da chiesa this piece has three movements, like Vivaldi's concertos: allegro, largo, allegro.

It is only the fact that this disc offers unknown repertoire that I recommend it, although with much hesitation. I have already pointed out why the vocal items are rather unsatisfying, following the notes on the instrumental pieces I have to add that these don't fare much better: there is too much legato playing and too little differentiation between the notes. Very little is made of the baroque principle of music as a form of speech. This disc could have been so much more captivating if the players had kept that in mind.
I am surprised the names of the members of the ensemble La Serenissima are not mentioned in the booklet, not even the cellist who acts as soloist in the Sonata in c minor.

The second disc offers no less than four cantatas of the 36 which have been preserved. Two thirds of them are set for soprano, and mostly with basso continuo only. Just five have parts for instruments, either strings (2 violins and viola) or a single treble instrument, violin or transverse flute. We get here specimen of all three kinds: the disc starts with Che giova il sospirar (RV 679) for soprano, strings and bc, and closes with All'ombra di sospetto (RV 678) for soprano, transverse flute and bc, which is one of Vivaldi's better-known cantatas. In the other two cantatas the soprano is only supported by the basso continuo. These two also follow the conventional structure of aria - recitative - aria, whereas in the cantatas with instruments the first aria is preceded by another recitative.

The Norwegian soprano Tone Wik has a beautiful, flexible voice and knows how to sing baroque music. She articulates very well and the text is easy to understand. But that is about it. I can well imagine that her performances as they are given here would be appropriate in some repertoire, but here they are not. In Vivaldi's cantatas more temperament and more passion is needed. Tone Wik falls short in expression, especially in the recitatives, which are also sung too strict in time, without the rhythmic freedom which was expected from performers in recitatives. The arias are mostly too bland as well, partly because of a lack of dynamic differentiation on longer notes which make the performances rather static. Moreover the coloraturas are a bit stiff.

The instrumental ensemble has definitely great qualities and there is some fine playing here. The soloists are giving good performances, but not really noteworthy. The Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in c minor (RV 441) is one of Vivaldi's most popular pieces and I wonder why it is recorded time and again. The Concerto for bassoon,, strings and bc in e minor (RV 484) is less frequently performed, but it is played better by Frans Robert Berkhout and La Suave Melodia in another recent recording. By the way, I don't understand why in the latter concerto the ensemble is scored with only single strings, whereas the recorder concerto is performed with no less than 7 violins and 2 violas. As a result there are some serious problems in regard to the balance between the recorder and the strings.

In short, this disc is interesting because of the cantatas but doesn't really reveal their musical qualities and expressive power.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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