Friday 19 June 2020

Venice's Fragrance: this delightful disc from Nurial Rial and Artemandoline celebrates the 18th century's love affair with the mandolin

Venice's Fragrance; Nuria Rial, Artemandoline; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
Venice's Fragrance
; Nuria Rial, Artemandoline; Deutsche Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A disc which celebrates the 18th century's love affair with the mandolin, with a mixture of concertos and arias with mandolin

Artemandoline is a baroque ensemble founded by Juan Carlos Muñoz and Mari Fe Pavón devoted to the art of the baroque mandolin and its repertoire. On this new disc from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, Artemandoline is joined by soprano Nuria Real for Venice's Fragrance, a programme which celebrates the city's love affair with the mandolin, arias by Tommaso Traetta, Baldassare Galuppi, Gennaro Manna, Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, and Antonio Lotti, concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and a sonata by Carlo Arrigoni.

The ensemble is made up by a core group of instrumentalists, here joined by a number of collaborators to form a chamber ensemble comprising, Juan Carlos Muñoz & Mari Fe Pavón baroque mandolins, Girolamo Bottiglieri & María Roca violins, Ellie Nimeroski viola, Oleguer Aymamí cello, Manuel Muñoz baroque guitar, Ulrik Gaston Larsen theorbo, Jean-Daniel Haro double-bass, Ralf Waldner harpsichord, Alla Tolkacheva baroque mandolin, Martin Zeller & Leonardo Bortolotto baryton.

The Baroque mandolin is very much an 18th century Italian creation, the instrument developing out of earlier lute-like instruments. By the mid-18th century, with the introduction of metal strings, it reached a form recognisable today. It was also highly popular as a virtuosic classical instrument, though by the early 19th century the repertoire had moved more substantially to folk influenced material.

In his article in the CD booklet, Juan Carlos Muñoz estimates that there are around 200 surviving songs and arias for voice and mandolin, most of which remain in manuscript form. And much of the repertoire on this disc was culled from manuscripts in European libraries. In opera, the mandolin seems to have been used as an obbligato colouring, its sharp, sweet bright tone adding a particular colour to an aria, and theorbo players would often double on the mandolin. Carlo Arrigoni (whose Sonata for Mandolin, Violin and Bass is on the disc), was both a singer, theorbo and mandolin player, he worked with Handel and probably played the mandolin in Handel's oratorio Alexander Balus.

It is worth bearing in mind that Venice was the birthplace of the commercial opera theatre; by the mid-17th century, opera was a thriving commercial enterprise developed by the Venetian aristocracy, so there were plenty of operas. Whilst this disc has Venice as its focus, it has to be pointed out that though some of the opera composers were Venetian and many did work in Venice, the arias performed here come from operas which were premiered as far afield as Vienna, Parma, Naples and Dresden, such was the popularity of opera.

The first aria is from Tommaso Traetta's Le feste d’Imeneo, first performed at the Teatro Ducale in Parma in 1760. Trained in the Neapolitan school, whilst working in Parma (with its Spanish Bourbon duke and French duchess) Traetta came across the operas of Rameau which formed a major influence in the operatic reforms Traetta introduced (Traetta was one of the composers who pre-figured Gluck's reformed operas). The aria to 'Fair harmony' is delightful, with a charming mandolin obbligato, and a real sense for the colours that could be achieved with the combination of charmingly plangent voice, mandolin and strings.

Next an aria from Baldassare Galuppi's oratorio Jahel of 1770. A Venetian composer whose operas took him to Russia and to London, his oratorio Jahel was premiered at the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice where Galuppi was in charge of the music. This is again a charming piece, about the dawn, with a substantial mandolin and strings introduction; for much of the aria soprano and mandolin duet delightfully and Nuria Rial gives us some lovely coloratura moments.

Then an aria from Gennaro Manna's Achille in Sciro (Achilles on Skyros). Manna was another composer from the Neapolitan school, and Achille in Sciro was written for his debut at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1745. It is a rather darker aria, to 'ruthless Cupid', but the emphasis is again on lyricism rather than darkness, though with a move into the minor during the B section, and with plenty of moments for the mandolin to show off.

We hear two arias by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, from Il trionfo dell’amicizia e dell’amore and L’Astarto. Conti was in fact known for his mandolin playing, and wrote the earliest surviving mandolin method book. Born in Florence, he worked extensively at the Hapsburg Court in Vienna. Il trionfo dell’amicizia e dell’amore was premiered in 1711 in Vienna, and given in a revised form in Hamburg in 1718, and L'Astarto also premiered in Vienna in 1718. The aria from the pastoral Il trionfo dell'amicizia e dell'amore also features an attractive pair of barytons (a sort of viol with an additional set of sympathetic strings), which create some lovely textures.  Moving to L'Astarto, the music takes on a perky character, with a substantial instrumental introduction followed by the soprano line picking up the same character, and here Conti uses long passages without the bass or continuo, just voice and violin or voice and mandolin, to striking effect.

With Antonio Lotti's Teofane, we are back to more well known composers. Teofane, Lotti's penultimate opera, was premiered in Dresden in 1719. Born in Venice, Lotti worked primarily in that city, but he had moved from Venice to Dresden in 1717 specifically to write operas for the Saxon court. We open with an elegant solo for mandolin, with discreet continuo accompaniment, a real show-off moment, and what follows is an intertwining of the solo soprano and mandolin to touching and striking effect.

In amongst the arias we have two concertos by Vivaldi, the Concerto in G major for two mandolins, RV 532 and the Concerto in C major for mandolin, RV 425. Both were written for the girls of Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi taught the violin (and took other roles at times).  Many high calibre musicians worked at Venice's four orphanages and the female musicians reached a very high standard. But, as the French music historian Patrick Barbier has pointed out, being women, none of them could make a career for themselves, whereas in Naples it was young men (young castrati and more), who were taught and created the substantial European reputation of the Neapolitan school.

If Vivaldi's melodic imagination wasn't so vivid, his concertos could seem a trifle formulaic, with a pair of brisk and vivid Allegro movements and a slower and rather touching one in the middle. But there is simply so much to delight, and the faster movements are played with such verve. All three mandolin players, Juan Carlos Muñoz and Mari Fe Pavón in Vivaldi's double concerto and Alla Tolkacheva in Vivaldi's solo concerto, are able to spin a singing line in the slow movements, whilst the brightness of the instruments timbre and the plucked character of the sound contributes immeasurably to the livelier movements.

Arrigoni's Sonata is slightly different beast, with its solo lines for mandolin and violin over basso continuo. A rhapsodic prelude leads to a lively 'Canzona' where we appreciate the way Arrigoni creates attractive textures from his duetting instruments. The 'Courante' is graceful, and definitely danceable, and the piece concludes with a short but perky finale.

Soprano Nuria Rial brings skill and charm to the arias, delighting both in the way that she sings the music with such style and duets with the obbligato mandolins to create enchanting dialogues. Throughout, the players of Artemandoline perform the music with style and sympathy, accompanying and partnering, whilst also enchanting.

It is noticeable that the arias all seem to fit into quite a narrow range of styles and emotions, was that because they were chosen that way or did composers think of writing for the mandolin only in a limited number of ways? However, this delightful disc from Artemandoline and Nurial Rial certainly charms with the way they capture the enchanting textures of voice, mandolin, strings and continuo.

Tommaso Traetta (1727–1779) - Bella armonia vieni (Le feste d’Imeneo, 1760)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) - Concerto in G major for two mandolins, RV 532
Baldassare Galuppi (1706–1785) - Rosa et Lilio (Jahel, 1770)
Gennaro Manna (1715–1779) - Se un core annodi (Achille in Sciro, 1745)
Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681–1732) - Dei colli nostri (Il trionfo dell’amicizia e dell’amore, 1711)
Carlo Arrigoni (1697–1744) - Sonata for mandolin and violin in E minor
Francesco Bartolomeo Conti - Finché spera che le rieda (L’Astarto, 1718)
Antonio Lotti (1667–1740) - Lascia che nel suo viso Teofane, 1719)
Anonymous - La Folia
Antonio Vivaldi - Concerto in C major for mandolin, RV 425
Nuria Rial (soprano)
Recorded at Église romane de Mont-Saint-Martin, France, 20-23 August 2018

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