Like many of his Italian
contemporaries Vivaldi composed a number
of chamber cantatas. According to the
latest count he wrote 37, which is considerable,
but a small number in comparison with
the hundreds by the likes of Agostino
Steffani and Alessandro Scarlatti.
The fact that Vivaldi's
cantatas are overshadowed by his concertos
is not surprising. That was already
the case in his own time. Unlike his
concertos his cantatas were never published,
and their circulation was limited. They
were composed over a long period of
time. Some were written before 1720
when Vivaldi was in Mantua, others date
from the 1720s when Vivaldi was in Venice.
A number of cantatas have been found
in Dresden, where singers from Venice
were staying from 1730 on.
In the first decades
of the 18th century the chamber cantata
got its formal pattern of a sequence
of recitative - aria - recitative -
aria. Sometimes composers dropped the
first recitative. But in the cantatas
recorded here Vivaldi sticks to the
usual pattern. The subject matter is
also in line with the convention of
the time: they concentrate on - happy
or unhappy - love and everything connected
to that, mostly set in a mythical world
with nymphs and shepherds.
The relationship between
Vivaldi and the poets whose texts he
used wasn't unproblematic. When Carlo
Goldoni was asked by Vivaldi to adapt
an aria from the drama 'Griselda' by
Apostolo Zeno, Goldoni wasn't happy
with the result: "I then assassinated
Zeno's drama as and how he wished."
This suggests that
Vivaldi didn't care very much about
the quality of the texts he was going
to set to music. He seems to have changed
and abridged texts radically in order
to adapt them to the music he had in
mind. He was mainly looking for key
words which he could use to create the
appropriate 'affetti'. He did so with
great success. In the booklet Michael
Talbot writes: "Where Vivaldi excels
as a composer of cantatas is in his
ability to depict moods and even individual
words. No vocal roulade is just a roulade:
careful listening, text in hand, reveals
how skilfully and purposefully he worked
to mirror words with musical notes."
Unfortunately the record company seems
not to consider it necessary to listen
to these cantatas "with text in hand":
the booklet doesn’t contain the lyrics.
The liner notes refer
to the assessment of Vivaldi's cantatas
by the English journalist Charles Burney.
In his opinion they were "very common
and quiet, notwithstanding he [Vivaldi]
was so riotous in composing for violins".
Of course, he didn't know all of Vivaldi's
cantatas, and it seems rather unlikely
he knew some of the cantatas on this
programme, which are anything but "common
and quiet". The last aria of 'Lungi
dal vago volto' or the last aria of
'Qual per ignoto calle' are very virtuosic
and technically demanding, and very
expressive to boot.
I am not overjoyed
by the way the cantatas are performed
here. The accomplishments of the singers
are widely varying. I found it very
hard to listen to Mary Nelson, firstly
because of her continuing too wide vibrato,
secondly because of a lack of declamation
in her singing, in particular in the
recitatives, which are far too rigid
and stiff. The playing of the violin
in both arias is disappointing as well,
with too much legato and no dynamic
differentiation. The recorder in the
last cantata, 'All'ombra di sospetto',
is somewhat better in this respect.
The main asset is that there is no shortage
of ornamentation, even though there
is too little variety in it.
The performances of
Charles Humphries are a different matter
altogether. He seems to identify much
more strongly with the protagonists
in whose mouths the text is put. His
interpretation of the recitatives is
admirable. The range of the alto parts
in these cantatas is fairly wide, and
sometimes he has notes to sing which
are difficult to realise with a falsetto
voice. In such cases he goes into his
chest register, which gives these notes
much more impact than otherwise would
have been the case. The last aria of
'Qual per ignoto calle' is very virtuosic,
and Humphries can only just keep up
with the speed of the aria. But he does
so quite well: I compared his performance
with one by an Italian female contralto.
Even she had a hard time, and there
the tempo was slightly slower.
I find it difficult
to recommend a recording on the basis
of only two cantatas which are really
well performed. And I don't understand
how the execution of two singers within
one recording can be so different.
Johan van Veen