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Duets from the 17th and 18th centuries

[I] Agostino STEFFANI (1654 - 1728): "Crudo Amor"
Eugenia Boix, sopranoa; Carlos Mena, altob
Forma Antiqva
Dir: Aarón Zapico
rec: Oct 7 - 8, 2015, Oviedo, Auditorio Palacio de Congresos Príncipe Felipe
Winter & Winter - 910 231-2 (© 2016) (57'59")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Francesco CORBETTA (c1615-1681): Passachagliad [2]; Johann Caspar Ferdinand FISCHER (1665?-1746): Uranie (Passacaglia)e [3]; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-1651): Toccata IIIc [1]; Agostino STEFFANI: Begl'occhi, oh Dio, non più piangeteab; Crudo Amor, morir mi sentoab; Dimmi, dimmi, Cupidoab; Occhi, perché piangeteab; Placidissime cateneab; Sol negl'occhi del mio beneab

Sources: [1] Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, Libro terzo d'intavolatura di chitarone, 1626; [2] Francesco Corbetta, Varie scherzi di sonate per la chitara spagnola, Libro quarto, 1648; [3] Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Musicalischer Parnassus, 1738

Ruth Verona, cello; Daniel Zapico, theorbo (solo c); Pablo Zapico, guitar (solo d); Aarón Zapico, harpsichord (solo e)

[II] "Se con stille frequenti - Duetti da camera"
Lisa Castrignanòa, Giorgia Cinciripib, Silvia Frigatoc, soprano; Loriana Castellanod, Lea Desandree, Lucia Napolif, mezzo-soprano; Francesca Biliottig, Sara Mingardoh, contralto
Cenacolo Musicale
rec: Sept 2014 & June 2015, Pordenone, Villa Cattaneo
Arcana - A 424 (© 2016) (62'51")
Liner-notes: E/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Chi d'Amor tra le cateneab [2]; Sempre piango/Sempre ridofh [2]; Antonio LOTTI (1666-1740): Ben dovrei, occhi leggiadri (Querela amorosa)dh [3]; Se con stille frequenti (Crudeltà rimproverata)gh [3]; Francesco LUCIO (1628-1658): Fuggi pur, o crudeleh [1]; Agostino STEFFANI: Begl'occhi, oh Dio, non piùce; Ho scherzato in verità (Testimonianza di Fede)de; Ribellatevi, o pensieriab

Sources: [1] Francesco Lucio, Arie a voce sola, Libro primo, 1655; [2] Giovanni Bononcini, Duetti da camera, op. 8, 1691; [3] Antonio Lotti, Duetti, terzetti e madrigali a più voci, 1705

Gioele Gusberti, cello; Ugo Nastrucci, theorbo, guitar; Giorgio Dal Monte, harpsichord; Donatella Busetto, organ

In many operas and oratorios we find duets of two different characters. A good example is the oeuvre of George Frideric Handel, whose duets probably belong among the most expressive music he has ever written. However, the duet was also a separate genre: Handel himself composed a number of duets for either equal voices, mostly sopranos, or for soprano and alto. In contrast to the duets in dramatic works they are mostly not put into the mouth of two different characters. Chamber duets were dominated by counterpoint, which composers used for expressive reasons. It was mostly just one character who expressed his feelings, unsually about an unhappy love or a beloved who was out of reach or out of sight.

The duet has its origins in the renaissance, when composers wrote vocal or instrumental bicinia. Sporadically madrigals for two voices were written, for instance by Thomas Morley. At the end of the 16th century some composers started to write vocal pieces for two voices and bc, which allowed them to introduce a dramatic element as well as vocal virtuosity. The duet then took two different paths. On the one hand we see the dramatic duet for two different and often opposing characters, on the other hand the words of a single person are allocated to two voices. The latter happens, for instance, in oratorios of the 17th century, such as the Auferstehungshistorie by Heinrich Schütz. However, it is especially in the field of secular music that this kind of duet became very popular.

Duets were sung by professional singers, who were in the service of a royal or aristocratic court, or during the conversazioni of the Arcadian academies in Italy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Handel participated in such meetings during his stay in Rome, and it is quite possible that his early duets were performed at such occasions. His model was Agostino Steffani, the most celebrated composer of duets in his lifetime and beyond. The German theorist Johann Mattheson wrote: "The Italian style of the duet now lacks much of the good qualities of concentration and clarity, mentioned above, because of its fugal, artificial and interwoven nature. However, these duets demand a real man and are a special delight to musically-educated ears, in the chamber as well as in the church (and formerly, in Steffani's time, also in the theatre), provided that accomplished and reliable singers can be found for them; of these we now have fewer than of such works themselves. In this kind of duet the aforesaid Steffani incomparably surpassed all other composers known to me and deserves to be taken as a model to this day; for such things do not easily grow old".

No wonder, then, that Steffani plays a central role in the two discs reviewed here.

Many of his duets circulated in manuscript across Europe and composers of later generations, such as Handel, were strongly influenced by them. One could consider the duet the vocal counterpart of the trio sonata, which was modelled by Arcangelo Corelli. Steffani composed more than 80 duets, for various combinations of voices. The two present recordings only include duets for two sopranos or for soprano and alto, but Steffani also composed duets for soprano and tenor, which was rather rare in his time. It is notable that the duets don't follow a standard pattern. Some include arias with a dacapo, others have an AB or ABC structure. Most duets include sections for solo voice, either recitative or aria. Crudo amor, morir mi sento is the longest in the Winter & Winter recording. It is one of the few which is dated: it was written in 1698 and dedicated to Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg, who also wrote the text. It opens with a duet, which is followed by recitatives, ariosos and arias. In this case the ariosos are specifically indicated in the booklet. I can't check whether this is based on the composer's own indications in the score. Generally recitatives turn to an arioso towards the end, which explains why some of these sections take longer than one would expect on the basis of the length of the text. A rather short piece is Occhi, perché piangete, which is in three sections with the tempo indications lento, allegro, lento. The first includes chromatic descending figures, which depict the text: "Eyes, why are you weeping?" Dimmi, dimmi, Cupido has the structure of the chamber cantata: recitative (alto), duet, recitative (soprano), duet. Sol negl'occhi del mio bene also has two arias and two recitatives, but in a different order: the arias embrace two successive recitatives.

Eugenia Boix and Carlos Mena make the best of these duets and sing with much expression. They are responsive to the text and its affetti, and their voices blend pretty well. They are not always free of vibrato, but it is hardly disturbing. They receive excellent support from the instrumentalists. The three instrumental pieces are from Italy and from Germany, representing respectively the country of Steffani's birth and the country where he worked most of his life.

The Arcana disc includes three duets by Steffani. Begl'occhi, oh Dio, non più appears on both discs. Ho scherzato in verità is a somewhat lighthearted piece, whose text is from the pen of the comic actress Brigida Bianchi, and is structured around a kind of refrain. The same is the case in Ribellatevi, o pensieri. Michael Talbot, in his liner-notes, states that "[the] use of a refrain is here a precursor of the growing presence within the chamber duet of the da capo principle." The two duets by Giovanni Bononcini attest to that development.

That goes in particular for Sempre piango/Sempre rido, which - unlike the other duets in the programme - is about two characters, both singing in the alto range. Therefore it is close to the dramatic cantata, known as cantata a due. It opens with a duet, which is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria for each of the two characters. It is rather odd, that in this recording they are all sung by the same singer. I can't figure out what may have been the thought behind that decision. This work ends with a recitativo and aria a due. Chi d'Amor tra le catene is for two sopranos and consists of five arias for solo voice and two for two voices; some of the arias have a dacapo form.

The name of Antonio Lotti is the most surprising appearance in the programme of the Arcana disc. He is best-known as a composer of sacred music, in particular various strongly expressive settings of the Crucifixus for up to ten voices in the stile antico. Sacred music takes an important place in his oeuvre, but he was also a prolific composer of operas. In addition he composed numerous secular cantatas as well as a number of duets. About 20 of them have survived in manuscript, but the two recorded here are taken from a collection which was printed as his Op. 1 in Venice in 1705. It includes twelve duets, four trios and two madrigals for more voices, all with basso continuo. Se con stille frequenti is for two altos and comprises three sections; the second contrasts with the outer two in metre and key. In the first and last section we find some eloquent word-painting. Ben dovrei, occhi leggiadri is for soprano and alto and is again in three sections; notable is here that the last is a repetition of the first, but only as far as the music is concerned, as the text is different. Strictly speaking one cannot speak about a dacapo here.

In the middle of the programme we hear a solo aria, Fuggi pur, o crudele by Francesco Lucio. As he died in 1658, four years after Steffani's birth, he is the odd man out here. But the aria is quite interesting as it is a lamento over a basso ostinato. Talbot calls it a "not unworthy successor" to Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa. The aria is taken from a collection of arias, published in 1655, but was originally part of Lucio's opera L'Euridamante.

The cover of this disc has the name of Sara Mingardo in larger characters than those of the other participants. That is probably for commercial reasons, as she is by far the best known of all the singers. However, she sings only in three of the seven duets, and in Sempre piango/Sempre rido by Bononcini it is not Mingardo, but Lucia Napoli, who sings both solo arias. I have never been a big fan of Sara Mingardo, mainly because of her pretty wide vibrato. She is certainly not free of that here, but it is not too obtrusive and she adapts her voice pretty well to her partners in the various duets. All in all the singers are delivering fine performances here. They effectively explore the expressive features of these pieces. They don't try to make them too dramatic; the singing is in da camera style and has the intimacy these duets need. Lucio's aria is a very fine piece and makes curious about other parts of his (small) oeuvre.

These two discs pay attention to a genre which does not receive the attention it deserves. Hopefully more of them will appear on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Eugenia Boix
Loriana Castellano
Lisa Castrignanò
Lea Desandre
Lucia Napoli
Cenacolo Musicale
Forma Antiqva

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