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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Euridice dall'Inferno (Cantata) [13:41]
Cello Sonata No. 2 in C minor [8:08]
Toccata in A major for harpsichord [4:51]
La concettione della Beata Vergine
(Oratorio) [31:01]
Ars Lyrica Houston
rec. 20 September 2006 Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts Houston, Texas, USA, 10-11 August 2005 Moores Opera House, University of Houston, Texas, USA (Vergine) DDD
NAXOS 8.570950 [57:41]
Experience Classicsonline

Euridice dall'Inferno (Euridice 'from' the Underworld) occupies less than a quarter of the time on this collection of lesser known pieces by Alessandro Scarlatti. It's a chamber cantata representative of the over 600 such works written by the composer for his wealthy Roman patrons. There seems to be little doubt that it was the positive reception by the latter of the former that accounts for such a high number - at least one every few weeks.Euridice dall'Inferno touches the common themes of love in all its guises and twists and turns reflected in the classical, pastoral world of 'nymphs and shepherds'. It can be a difficult idiom to perform convincingly, although the text (Italian and Latin texts are printed here - and translated into English) is actually very readable in its own right. It's scored for soprano and continuo (Baroque cello (Barrett Sills), archlute (Richard Savino) and harpsichord (Matthew Dirst) here) only, and in three pairs of recitative-da capo arias. As a consequence, the singer (Melissa Givens) and her emotions are very exposed. Her line is a clear one, conveying enthusiasm, sorrow and commitment to the paradoxes of Euridice's plight aplenty. But she never quite arrives at the necessary detachment; and at times there's a hint of wavering around her notes.

The most substantial piece on this CD, which all lasts under an hour, is the also diminutive (31 minutes) oratorio on the Conception of the Virgin Mary. Again, Givens features: she is the Archangel Michael, and supported by Gerrod Pagenkopf (counter-tenor, Grace), Joseph Gaines (tenor, Hersey) and Timothy Jones (bass, The Serpent) with two of the same continuo players as in the cantata, plus violin (Alan Austin), Baroque violin (Jonathan Godfrey), double bass (Dennis Whittaker); Scott Horton here plays archlute. Their approach is decisive and melodious, full-bodied and confident. Though the appeal of Scarlatti's melodies is never lost to technique.To say that the singing in either of these two pieces is perfunctory or offhand would be an exaggeration. But it lacks the kind of thrust and confidence which are, nevertheless, in evidence in the (instrumental) continuo. Not that the voices lack lustre; their singing is careful and precise - listen to the aria, 'Nundum Sydera micabant' [tr.26], for example: it neither lags nor inspires tedium. Indeed, we hear through it to the very lines of melody that were so important to Scarlatti. But taken with the very next number, 'Coeli stellae si furores' [tr.28], you are struck by something lightweight, as if everyone involved in the performance and preparation side of the enterprise had reached an agreement about the musical worth of the work, enlisted a capable production crew, then had to make up for a lack of world class talent and rehearsal time with slightly louche - though repressed - singing.

Given the concentrated structure of La concettione della Beata Vergine (two parts introduced by a sinfonia with barely five arias apiece, a trio and chorus as well as the highly economic recitatives), there is no time for lingering or indulgence. But out of that compression more accomplished ensembles would have drawn greater impact, stronger, raw emotion; yet rounder edges - as if they had been familiar with the piece for decades. Ars Lyrica Houston can in no ways be considered 'deficient'. Just rather ordinary. Passable, though; but nothing special.

The cello sonata number 2 in C minor is a four movement piece which truly emphasises the virtuoso capabilities of that instrument, here played  - again - by Sills, with violone (Deborah Dunham), archlute (Savino) and harpsichord (Dirst). Their playing is businesslike whilst engaging, clean and clear without being plain. It's a touching little piece, of which these four players make the most. And they leave you happy to return for more.

The A major Toccata in shorter still - in just two movements, an allegro and gigue. Of course, lovers of Alessandro Scarlatti's music will be listening for traits in this solo harpsichord work (Dirst again) which the composer's son, Domenico, employed. And sure enough they're there - ostinati; runs; crossing hands; angular, jumping melodies. Though not to the exclusion of everything else - chiefly an inventive liveliness mixed with containment - which it exhibits.

This CD, then, is more of a calling card for Alessandro Scarlatti. For anyone unfamiliar with his work and/or with the breadth of his compositional skills, it would make a good introduction. If the two choral works are unknown to you - particularly the Oratorio - then these performances, while not top of the range, make good starting points. They are, in fact, the only available recordings of both Euridice dall'Inferno and La concettione della Beata Vergine. One other of the Sonata exists, with Mauro Valli and the Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone on Arts Music (47616); the Toccata is only otherwise available as part of Alexander Weimann's survey of the complete keyboard works, on Atma Classique (22321). Alessandro Scarlatti's wise and winning music has a very precisely-carved place in the development of Baroque music.

This CD, though flawed, contributes to our greater understanding and enjoyment of it.

Mark Sealey


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