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Francesco Bartolomeo CONTI (1682-1732)
David: azione sacra per musica (1724)
Marijana Mijanovic (contralto) – David
Simone Kernes (soprano) – Micol
Sonia Prina (contralto) – Abner
Birgitte Christensen (soprano) – Gionata
Furio Zanasi (baritone) – Saul
Vito Priante (baritone) – Falti
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. Montevarchi, Italy, October, November 2003 
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3788772 [76:03 + 79:05]
Experience Classicsonline

The Conti renaissance continues apace with this highly seductive example of his too-long-overlooked art. Conti is best known for his years of service at the court of the Hapsburgs in Vienna where he worked successively as theorbo player and later court composer; he replaced Johann Joseph Fux. Since so much of Fux’s music is played and recorded it’s a disappointment that things have only fairly recently got around to his immediate successor. Doubtless the unavailability of scores has a lot to do with it, a situation that has been magnificently rectified with this splendid recording.

David is an oratorio or, to be precise, an azione sacra per musica and was completed in 1724. The role of Saul was written for the eminent Francesco Borosini who was soon to be associated with Handel in London. There are intriguing questions as to how well Handel knew Conti’s music – and how much his own Saul was influenced in particular by the mad scene in Conti’s David. These musicological questions of cross-referencing are perhaps best left to musical historians and musicologists but the fact that one can raise the issue at all attests to the highly superior nature of Conti’s writing.

David is indeed a really remarkable work and it deserves a recording such as this. Much of the plot is familiar but the music ensures distinction. The soloists all bring considerable individuality to the roles. As Micol we have Simone Kernes and her distinctive, slightly edgy soprano has athleticism in spades allied to a technical bravura. Her high leaps in Al genitor mio re are frequently spectacular and there’s one especially beautiful passage that compels admiration.  David is taken by Marijana Mijanovic, a remarkable singer, and hers is probably the most individual of all the voices in Alan Curtis’s repertory company – a soprano that edges close to the timbre of a counter-tenor.

Gionata is Birgitte Christensen who, like Kernes, has the ability fearlessly and freely to ascend into the vocal stratosphere but with two keen qualities in her favour – razor sharp articulation allied to a surprisingly rounded tone; Contra un padre is a particularly spectacular example of her skills. Sonia Prina is Abner and her contralto is lighter than one might expect but it’s highly expressive nonetheless. Her scene with accompanying solo violin in Part II – Al fianco anzi vorrei - is worth noting, so well have the engineers balanced solo voice and solo violin; Andrea Keller plays beautifully here and elsewhere. Vito Priante embodies the villainous power of Falti and his divisions in Agiterò la face attest to his posturing menace. We have saved Saul until now - Furio Zanasi. This is singing of characterisation-plus, enormously engaged, powerful and almost histrionic; I’d be tempted to call him the John Vickers of the Baroque world. It’s perfectly appropriate of course given the psychological depths embedded in the Biblical story and which have been transferred to this oratorio with penetrating results.

Listen to the fascinating accompanied recitatives throughout; as a single example try David’s Eccelso Dio in Part I. Better still there is a sequence of recitative, accompanied recitative and recitative toward the end of the First part – beginning Non pi. Già cedo that is breathtaking in its psychological acumen, in its pacing and refinement; it’s a truly electrifying amalgam of text and music, and performed here with unerring insight. Saul’s disintegration is realised with real bravura but don’t overlook the theorbo (Conti’s own instrument of course) in its contribution to the Second Part, notably the Preludio and David’s accompanied recitative Quanto mirabil, much less its lengthier contribution still to his following aria [disc two, track twelve].

Fortunately the starry soloists have their co-equals in the orchestral playing; the modestly sized chorus retains clarity of attack and brings great resilience to bear. And Alan Curtis, the prime mover of the set, directs with instinct, musicality and musicological intelligence quite beyond reproach. His booklet notes are required reading and the opposite of ponderous. This is a triumphantly assured and important recording.

Jonathan Woolf 



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