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Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Arie, Madrigali e Cantate
Tarquinio MERULA (c.1595-1665)

Hor ch’è tempo di morire [8:51]
Giovanni SALVATORE (1600-c.1688)

Allor che Tirsi udia [8:33]
Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)

Deh, memoria, e che più chiedi [7:22]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)

Vorrei baciarti* (from 7th Book of Madrigals) [5:28]
Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)

Erme e solinghe cime (from La Calisto) [6:44]
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)

Se i languidi miei sguardi (from 7th Book of Madrigals) [7:14]
Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)

Costei ch’in mezzo al volto scritt’ha il mio cor [4:52]
Gorge Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Lungi da me pensier [11:45]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)

Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede RV 676 [10:20]
Sara Mingardo (contralto), Monica Bacelli (mezzo-soprano)*
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
Recorded January 2004, Sala Accademica del PIMS, Rome
NAIVE/OPUS111 OP 30395 [71:40]

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Sara Mingardo has been creating quite a stir in baroque circles but this is my first chance to catch up with her. In one sense she may be considered a "typical" baroque singer, in the sense that she uses a completely straight vocal production, from which vibrato has been rigorously excluded, and cultivates a somewhat plangent, nasal sound, with the result that a casual listener might suppose he was listening to a counter-tenor. She also makes considerable use of chest tones from C downward, which seems a little strange for a contralto (who might be expected to get down to at least an A before engaging the chest register); it is probable, though, that she is doing this from a conviction that it is historically correct, rather than because she has to. The stimulating essay in the booklet by Olivier Rouvière, which would be worth acquiring even if the record were not, goes into the question of sex and the human voice, instancing operas such as Hasse’s "Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra" in which the male part was sung by a woman and the female part by a man and advancing the view that the rigid association of certain voice-types with men or women just didn’t exist until the 19th Century.

All this is very fascinating, but what Mingardo has to offer is more fascinating still. While plenty of other singers have offered a vocal production such as that described above, the tendency has been to produce a chaste, virginally-pure style of interpretation, the vague idea at the back of people’s heads being that since whopping great operatic vibrato goes along with emotional wallow, the lack of the one automatically entails the lack of the other. Sara Mingardo clearly does not agree and sees no reason to hide her passionately Italian nature, no doubt arguing that there is no reason why Italians of the 17th and early 18th centuries should have been any less creatures of flesh and blood than those of today. (Incidentally, Handel has not strayed into the collection by mistake since this work belongs to his period spent in Italy, although he already shows an inclination to paint with a broader brush than the native composers). So right from the opening lullaby by Tarquinio Merula, Mingardo invokes a gamut of emotions, with even the odd gasp or sob or, on a few long, sustained notes, something resembling vibrato, such as one might expect in the performance of Mascagni or Cilea. Or, to put it another way, she combines a Callas-like emotional commitment with a baroque style of vocal production. The result is so surprising that the music almost takes on a strange, oriental colour, yet the results are also extraordinarily convincing and do not at all contradict any of the historical evidence we have as to how this music was performed. Incidentally, the duet with Monica Bacelli provides an interesting comparison with the type of virginal, dulcet tones we tend to think of as "normal" in baroque singing.

A good number of the pieces in the earlier part of the programme are slow, but I wonder if this was not done deliberately just to show how much variety Mingardo can get out of them, and when the fireworks come they go up like a rocket! The last section of the Vivaldi (a superb piece which loses nothing by being placed after Handel) reveals an infallible technique combined with great rhythmic verve.

The billing "Concerto Italiano" suggests a small orchestra but only five players are used - two violins (which only appear occasionally), a cello, a theorbo and a harpsichord, the last two being kept extremely busy in some elaborate realizations of the figured bass. Lacking a score, I have no idea whether the furious activity unleashed in the accompaniment as the Vivaldi’s steersman is tossed by the waves was actually written like that or whether it is a very imaginative piece of work by Alessandrini, and I should love to know. In any case, it is strange how much lusher and more colourful baroque music can sound on these small, authentic groups than it used to in the days when we used medium-sized string orchestras.

I feel that anyone at all interested in baroque music should give this a hearing and I cannot imagine them finding it less than fascinating and thrilling.

Christopher Howell

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