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Pier Giuseppe SANDONI (1683-1748): "Cantatas & Instrumental works"

Francesca Aspromonte, sopranoa
La Floridiana
Dir: Nicoleta Paraschivescu

rec: June 30 - July 2, 2021, Seewen (CH), Katholische Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19439997182 (© 2022) (63'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Chi s'intende d'amara [2]; Ciaccona in Ab [3]; Del timor d'un cor gelosoa; Dimmi crudela; Folliab; Sonata VII à 3 in e minor [1]; Suite in g minorb

Sources: [1] various, Corona di dodici fiori armonici, 1706; [2] Cantate da Camera e Sonate per il Cembalo, c1727; [3] Six Setts of Lessons for the Harpsichord, c1745

Katharina Heutjer, Johannes Frisch, violin; Christoph Riedo, viola; Daniel Rosin, cello; Juan Sebastian Lima, theorbo; Nicoleta Paraschivescu, harpsichord (solob)

It may be due to the fact that I am not exactly an opera buff that I had never heard of Pier Giuseppe Sandoni. He has become mainly famous or rather infamous for his connection to Francesca Cuzzoni, one of the opera stars who participated in performances of operas by Handel. Her quarrels on the stage with her rival Faustina Bordoni have found a place in each book on the history of opera.

Sandoni was born in Bologna and was quite successful from early on: at the age of fifteen he was already appointed organist at S Giacomo Maggiore, and in 1700, when he was only seventeen years old, he was accepted as a member of the Accademia filarmonica. In 1713 and 1714 he was even acting as principle of the Accademia. His success was such that Silke Leopold, in her liner-notes, writes that it is not easy to see why Sandoni moved to England, in contrast to many of his colleages who settled in London in the hope to find a decent job there.

The first time his presence in London is documented is during the winter of 1715/16. In 1719 Handel gave him the job of harpsichordist in his Royal Academy of Music, and Sandoni also assisted him in the selection of singers for his company. In 1722 Handel sent him to Venice to collect Francesca Cuzzoni, and this resulted in a relationship which seems to have started during their journey to London, followed by their marriage in 1725. They soon became known for their extravagant lifestyle. Silke Leopold quotes the castrato Giacomo Berenstadt, who in a letter accused Sandoni of "lavishness, finery, jewelry, eating, drinking, bastards, debts and love affairs". The couple was both hated and loved. One of their supporters was Mary Howe, Lady Pembroke, who financed the publication of some of Sandoni's compositions.

Sandoni's oeuvre included some operas and oratorios, which are all lost; only the librettos have been preserved. His extant oeuvre is very small. New Grove lists a collection of six chamber cantatas and three harpsichord sonatas and a set of six lessons for the harpsichord which were published in London. A trio sonata was included in a printed edition of 1706, which appeared in Bologna. It is also mentioned that some harpsichord sonatas have been preserved in manuscript. To this some cantatas can be added, and two of these are included here; the third is taken from the above-mentioned edition.

The chamber cantata was one of the most popular forms of vocal chamber music in the early 18th century. Numerous pieces of this kind were produced. The most productive composer of chamber cantatas was Alessandro Scarlatti, who also laid down the basic texture of such works. They usually consisted of two pairs of recitative and aria, and were scored for one solo voice and basso continuo. However, Scarlatti himself and those who followed in his footsteps, often derived from this standard. So did Sandoni: Dimmi crudel omits the opening recitative, and Del timor d'un cor geloso opens with an aria, bringing the total of the arias to three. Sandoni's cantatas are also different in their scoring: Dimmi crudel has two parts for violins, and in Del timor d'un cor geloso they are joined by a viola. In Chi s'intende d'amar Sandoni includes an obbligato violin part. Also notable is that, whereas all the recitatives are of the secco type, the only recitative in Dimmi crudel is accompanied.

As far as their content is concerned, these cantatas are entirely in line with tradition, as they deal with (unhappy) love. Silke Leopold doubts whether they were intended for Francesca Cuzzoni, as they are not technically demanding and don't explore the singer's range (middle C to c'''). That does not mean that they are devoid of coloratura. One should not underestimate the skills of good amateur singers in those days. Often cantatas are considered a kind of 'pocket size' operas, and some certainly are close to opera. However, they are mostly devoid of the high drama of the opera, and a performer should realize that. It is probably not easy to find the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. Overall Francesca Aspramonte's approach is rather restrained, and especially in the recitatives I found her performances a bit bland. Having listened to these three cantatas I feel they are too much of the same. That is partly due to the performances, but also the cantatas. Let me say that I am less than impressed by these works. Francesca Aspramonte does sing well, and I am happy that she takes enough rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, and avoids exaggeration in her ornamentation and cadenzas. However, her singing is spoilt by an incessant vibrato. That does not make this part of the production any better.

I am more positive about Sandoni's harpsichord works, which are nice to listen to. One of the most brilliant pieces is the set of variations on the famous La Folia theme. As so many comparable works, this series increases in virtuosity, and is a real challenge for any interpreter. This part of the disc also includes a curious surprise. Nicoleta Paraschivescu plays a Suite in g minor, which has been preserved in manuscript. It includes two movements that we also know from the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, put together by his father as educational material. The Prelude and the Allemande correspond to the two Allemandes BWV 836 and 837. Their authenticity has been questioned, but this find confirms that Sandoni is the composer. Apart from this, it allows for filling in the missing parts from BWV 837, of which only the first eight bars had been preserved. The interesting question how Bach knew Sandoni's work and was able to copy it has to remain unanswered; this will undoubtedly be the subject of research by Bach scholars.

Nicoleta Paraschivescu delivers excellent performances of the harpsichord works. It is notable that the Ciaccona in A is preceded by an improvised prelude. This was common practice at the time, and it is nice that this is applied here. The Ensemble La Floridiana is playing the instrumental parts in the cantatas very well and is responsible for the interpretation of what may well be Sandoni's only trio sonata.

On balance, one can only welcome a disc that brings music to our attention, written by someone mainly known for other reasons. It seems to me that in particular the keyboard works are a really good addition to the repertoire.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Francesca Aspromonte
La Floridiana

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