Featured Cantatas: Nel Silenzio Comune * Ferma Omai * Clori Vezzosa, E
Bella * Piango, Sospiro E Peno * Non Sò Qual Più
This survey of the cantatas of Alessandro Scarlatti started-out on Conifer,
but is now on DHM. Apart from the fact that on Conifer there was a rather
good photograph of the players behind the plastic which holds the disc, in
which stead here is an has inelegant advert, it is business as usual. Certainly
the booklet is printed on the same poor quality paper, but we do get detailed
notes, including, most unusually, biographies of not just the director and
singer, but of each member of the Arcadian Academy. On volume I the soloist
was Christine Brandes, followed by David Daniels for volume II, and now it
is the turn of countertenor Brian Asawa under the firm direction from the
harpsichord of Nicholas McGegan.
Alessandro (1660-1725) was the father of the now better-known Domenico Scarlatti.
However, in his time he was a greater success than his son, writing over
60 operas which were performed in the major Italian cities, and in excess
of 600 cantatas. These were produced for a private, aristocratic audience,
mainly for Queen Christiana of Sweden, who lived in exile in Rome from 1654
to her death in 1689. Following her death, the intellectual circle which
had revolved around her formalised into the original Arcadian Academy, from
which the modern American ensemble takes its name. Inspired both by ideals
of ancient Greece and the idea of the infant Jesus, the Academy sought to
see music and poetry spring from pastoral simplicity and innocence. Yet through
this the cantatas are concerned with lost love, unrequited love, and the
general aches, pains and miseries of love. Sample lines (in translation)
include: "I weep, I sigh, I suffer
I am scorched, consumed, I am close
to death." And "do you not believe that my heart has dissolved into ashes?"
Really, you have to wonder why anyone bothers!
Still, that is not the point, for with this very formal, coolly beautiful
music the poetic sentiments are just that, ideas to be expressed in poetic
form. Whether singing about a lost adored one, or meditating on the birth
of Christ, the song remains essentially the same. All feeling is distilled
into an artifice, which if one succumbs to its poetic charm, is appealing.
Certainly the words are of higher quality on the final, spiritually-themed
cantata, Non Sò Qual Più M'Ingombra, yet the music no
more requires the singer to sound as if he means the impassioned text than
does that for the more formulaic declarations to Phyllis, Chloris, and any
a passing shepherdess.
Nevertheless, taken individually, each cantata is enjoyable, without being
in any way distinctively memorable. It is doubtful that many listeners will
wish to play this disc of five all the way through at once, for effectively,
this is a modern recreation of a music which was already an idealised pastiche
of a non-existent Grecian Golden Age, and thus is now doubly removed from
our reality. Further, the five cantatas here cover a period from 1693, or
possibly earlier, to 1724, with little significant change in style - Scarlatti
must have been a very patient man to write 600 of these. Some effort is required
to empathise with this twice lost world, and fortunately countertenor Brian
Asawa is in fine voice, with his near soprano-like tones, and the Arcadian
Academy play with the a precisely refined distance. The subtle ambience of
St. Jude's Church on the Hill, Hampstead, is utterly sympathetic to the dusty
past. In the end though, one has to ask if this music can still live today,
or if it is really too artificial, to remote, to be anything beyond an occasional
pleasure, an artful echo of high artifice.
Gary S. Dalkin