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Benedetto MARCELLO (1686 - 1739): Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni dell'anno

Silvia Frigato (Primavera), soprano; Elena Biscuola (Estate), contralto; Raffaele Giordani (Autunno), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Inverno), bass
Venice Monteverdi Academy; Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte
Dir: Roberto Zarpellon

rec: Dec 26, 2013 (live), Asolo, Duomo
fra bernardo - fb 1503177 (2 CDs) ( 2015) (2.02'40")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Benedetto Marcello is one of the rather unconventional characters in music history. One could call him a maverick, as he did not care very much about the common habits and opinions in his time. That comes especially to the fore in his treatise Il teatro alla moda - in which he, albeit anonymously, sharply criticised the 'bad habits' in the theatre. His independence can partly be explained by his social standing. Being of aristocratic birth he could afford to be his own man: he was never in the service of anyone, and was in musical matters what was known as a dilettante.

Among the things he did not like in the music of his time was exaggerated ornamentation. One could consider him an early advocate of naturalness in music, as were in the mid-18th century the likes of Gluck and Tartini. His ideals probably manifest themselves most clearly in his Estro Poetico-Armonico, a collection of settings of the first 50 Psalms in an Italian poetic paraphrase. The recording which is the subject of this review is more conventional, so to speak, as it is an oratorio, which is not fundamentally different from what was written at the time.

Marcello's extant oeuvre includes four oratorios. The first was La Giuditta, on a libretto from his own pen. For the second, Joaz, Marcello turned to Apostolo Zeno, a poet who aimed at reforming the librettos of operas and oratorios. The two other oratorios were written for the Jesuit congregation of San Giovanni in Macerata and intended to mark the feast of the Assumption. They date from 1731 and 1733 respectively, and were probably intended as a pair. They were not only performed at Macerata, but also in Marcello's private palace in Venice. There is some uncertainty about the author of the libretto of Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni. The title page of the autograph score mentions the poet Giulio Vitelleschi (1684-1759), who was a little-known poet and not experienced in the writing of librettos. Michael Burden, in his edition of this work, calls the text "uneventful and on the verge of prolix". He also suggests that Marcello himself may have written the text.

Il pianto e il riso belongs among the genre of the oratorio volgare, an oratorio in vulgar Latin, as was common at the time. Also in line with tradition is the division into two parts. There are four characters, who sing recitatives and arias; the second part includes the only duet in this piece. Both parts close with a chorus, but - less common - the choir is also involved in two arias in the early stages of each part; it intervenes with outcries: "Alla guerra" and "viva" respectively. The story is not dramatic, as one may expect of a work written for a feast that celebrates the reunification of Mary's body with her soul in heaven.

I quote here the synopsis in Burden's edition. "Part 1 begins with the return of Winter from the mountains and deaks exclusively with the efforts of Spring, Summer, and Autumn to convey to Winter the terrible news of the death of the Virgin Mary. In their grief, they use a glorious series of images to describe the lost Lady, and the first part closes with all the seasons in mourning. Part 2 opens with Summer identifying confused emotions: should they mourn, or should they rejoice? In fact, Mary lives, for she has ascended higher than the stars, has entered heaven, and has triumphed over death. The seasons then compete with each other to be the one to make the offering to their Lady; in the end, they all agree that they have an equal claim - "Autumn, which saw your birth; Summer, your death; Spring, the Annunciation; and Winter, the season when you were immaculately conceived" - and the oratorio ends with rejoicing."

Although the work as a whole is not very dramatic, there are a couple of moments of considerable tension, and here Marcello turns to the form of the accompanied recitative, whereas most other recitatives are secco. One such moment is when Summer tells Winter that Mary has died. Other dramatic episodes are the two arias with chorus I mentioned before. The arias have, with one exception, a da capo. Although they are not devoid of coloratura, it is fair to say that Marcello generally avoids the excesses in some of the dramatic works of his time. Notable is also the role of the orchestra, only comprising strings and basso continuo. Marcello sticks to the tradition of writing in polyphonic style. At several moments the orchestra contributes to the expression in the text. Burden quotes a colleague who characterises this oratorio as a "highly poetic" work, which accords with "the classical view of the world, [in which] one objective of literature was to preserve fidelity to nature". This seems also be reflected in Marcello's treatment of the arias. He has written down most of the ornamentation, but he shows much restraint in this respect.

The recording of this beautiful work has to be welcomed; too little of Marcello's output is available on disc. It is an interesting work, musically, but also with regard to the connection between text and music. Unfortunately, the booklet includes the lyrics only in the original, and omits any translation. That makes it hard for most listeners to understand what exactly the various characters are saying. The extensive synopsis in the booklet helps a little to understand the developments, but are no real compensation for the lack of translations. The performance is a bit inconsistent. According to Burden, in his notes on performance, a line-up of one instrument per part is possible, but - considering the importance of the feast for which it was written - not ideal. This justifies the use of six violins in the present recording. It also may require larger forces for the choruses than the four soloists, as was the custom of the time. Here the Venice Monteverdi Academy comprises thirteen voices (4/3/3/3). That guarantees that the full dramatic weight of the choruses is conveyed. The inconsistency in the performance concerns the contributions of the soloists. As there is not much of characterisation of the four allegorical figures here, they can fully concentrate on a stylish interpretation of their parts. The recitatives are taken with the right amount of freedom. It is rather odd that Elena Biscuola does quite well here, whereas in her arias her singing is marred by an incessant vibrato. It is mostly not very wide, but clearly noticeable, and therefore damages the overall quality of this performance. Mauro Borgioni also uses more vibrato than I have heard from him in previous recordings. Could this be due to the form of the day? After all, this is a live recording, although I have not noticed any background noise. Silvia Frigato and Raffaele Giordani leave nothing to be desired. The former is quite impressive, for instance in 'Cento Gigli' in the second part. Giordani has a very fine and clear voice; 'Platano, Cedro, Olivio' in the first part is a nice example. Choir and orchestra are outstanding.

Despite some shortcomings I recommend this production as it sheds light on the output of a composer, who deserves more attention. And one may not understand the text, but even without knowing exactly what is going on, Marcello's music never fails to please the ear.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

Relevant links:

Elena Biscuola
Venice Monteverdi Academy
Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte


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