Friday, 31 August 2012

CD review - Conversazioni, Cantatas from a Cardinal's Court


The fascination or the rich elite of the late 17th and 18th centuries with the idea of academies, particularly Arcadian Academies, is curiously fascinating. That these aristocrats (including aristocrats of the church) could all take the names of shepherds and discourse on pastoral poetry seems rather far from our experience. Music was also mixed up in there too. The rules of one of Queen Christina of Sweden’s intellectual academies specified that every meeting end with performances of vocal and instrumental music. In Rome, the Arcadian Academy was hosted by Cardinal Ottoboni (1689 – 1740), a rich prince of the church whose household was a magnet for musicians. So that many of the cantatas written under Ottoboni’s auspices were probably for performance at the Arcadian Academy. Ottoboni also held a weekly academy of music and amongst the musicians involved were Caldara, Albinoni, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti and Handel. This disc from Sounds Baroque explores this milieu with a selection of cantatas and instrumental works written for Ottoboni.

There was another aspect to the Arcadian Academy which is not touched on in the liner notes, but is fascinating all the same, it is the aura of homo-eroticism. Certainly Ottoboni had a reputation as a rake and had illegitimate children, but in her book Handel as Orpheus, Ellen T. Harris uncovers some remarkable pointers to the aura of homosexuality which wafted round these Roman academies. So when the cantatas speak of love, with the coded Latin names for the lovers, we should not be too precise about their exact sex, despite appearances. Because, rather surprisingly, love is the main subject matter or more specifically Arcadian love; by making the protagonists Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses it put the subject at one remove from the listeners, became part of their play-acting.

The performers on the disc are Sounds Baroque, Joel Raymond (oboe), Georgia Browne (flute), Jonathan Byers (cello ), Andrew Maginley (lute) and Julian Perkins (harpsichord and director), with Andrew Radley (counter-tenor).

The disc opens with Clori, mia bella Clori by Antonio Caldara (c1670 – 1736) which is one of the most developed cantatas on the disc, and it features two upper instrumental voices (flute and oboe) and continuo accompanying the singer, in effect a trio-sonata texture. And Caldara writes an almost operatic sinfonia as the opening movement. The music is graceful and dance-like with a lovely intertwining of and echoing of voice and upper instruments in the final aria.

The other cantata which includes the more developed instrumental parts is the concluding one, Handel’s Mi palpita il cor. This is, to a certain extent, a bit of a cheat as it was written around 1710 in Handel’s early years in London but remains close in style to his Rome cantatas. The cantata exists in various versions, the one performed is Handel’s version for flute, but with flute replaced by an oboe in the final aria.

Listening to Handel’s cantatas on this disc and comparing them to those of the other composers, you are aware of Handel’s development of greater dramatic instincts, and his more striking (i.e. adventurous) way with vocal parts. To us his dramatic genius seems apparent, but you can imagine that to contemporaries his very vividness might be disturbing and that the other, more politer cantatas might be sometimes preferred.

The other cantata by Handel on the disc is Valendo Amor which is written for voice and continuo only, though Handel writes quite substantial ritornellos for the instruments. The text, rather oddly, portrays Cupid as a bird-catcher. Ellen T. Harris suggests that the men’s falling into Cupid’s nets is a metaphor for sexual intercourse.

Alibinoni’s short cantata Senza il core del mio bene consists of just two arias separated by a recitative, but the result is beautifully lamenting. Scarlatti’s Clor vezesso e bella is similarly compact, with echoes of the fluid structure of earlier 17th century cantatas.

The cantatas are interspersed with keyboard pieces by Handel and Domenico Scarlatti which evoke another aspect of life at Cardinal Ottoboni’s; Handel and Domenico Scarlatti engaged in some sort of keyboard duel. Here you have an echo of composers learning from each other and competing with each other.

Julian Perkins speculates that Scarlatti’s K 30, The Cat’s Fugue, is a parody of Handel’s Capriccio in G minor, and that the pieces may be echoes of those played at the famous duel. We have no way of knowing exactly, but it is undoubtedly true that Domenico Scarlatti did improvise keyboard pieces in Rome before his departure to the Iberian Peninsula.

This is a delightful and well thought out disc. The performers are all technical on the ball, but also manage to contribute performances which are appealing and ingratiating. You really feel that you are eavesdropping on one of Ottoboni’s academies or conversazione. Countertenor Andrew Radley has lovely warm tones and a technique which entirely encompasses the not inconsiderable demands of these pieces. Not every piece is showy, but all demand a fine vocal command. Radley provides this as well as lovely tone and a good feel for the words.

The CD booklet includes illuminating articles by Dr. Suzanne Aspden and Julian Perkins, plus full texts and translations.

The disc is labelled Conversazioni I so I look forward to the next one.(Caldara alone wrote 200 cantatas for Conversazioni in Rome, so there is plenty of repertoire to choose from).

Cantatas from a Cardinal’s Court
Sounds Baroque
Andrew Radley (countertenor)
Julian Perkins (director)

Antonio Caldara (c1670-1736) – Clori, mia bella Clori [19:03]
Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni (1671 – 1751) – Senza il core del moi bene [7.53]
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) Clori vezzosa, e bella [7.11]
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Toccata in G minor, HWV 586 [1.20]
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Capriccio in G minor, HWV 483 [1.56]
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) – Sonata in G minor, K 30 [4.28]
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Vedendo Amor, HWV 175 [13.49]
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) – Sonata in D minor, K 9 [4.05]
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) – Sonata in D major, K 430 [3.21]
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) – Mi palpita il cor, HWV 13cC [12.47]

Recorded in St Jude’s Church, Hampstead, London, 8-10 December 2009
AVIE AV2197 1 CD [76.37]

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