Baroque chamber cantatas were designed for entertainment. Intended
for quite a small audience, generally performed in the home
of a patron, they were meant to show off the skills of the performers
whilst charming, titillating and entrancing the listeners. Thus
they provided glory for the performers and reflected glory for
the patron. As the ‘onlie begetter’ the patron would come in
for considerable kudos.
In the earlier parts of the 18th century, such cantatas
were often associated with the arcadian movement. Quite a few
of those by Handel were written for such an Arcadian Academy,
where the high-born members took the names of shepherds. Those
that were not written directly for such academies, often used
the arcadian genre in their poetry. It was conventional for
the poetry of a chamber cantata to express itself in pastoral
terms. As such, the music could be taxing, displaying the singer’s
fine points such as a capability with divisions or a fine messa
di voce. Virtuoso display was not necessarily of prime importance.
Patrons regarded themselves as connoisseurs and, as such, it
flattered them if you wrote piece which implied that they had
a fine sophisticated taste.
On this disc we have five of a set of twelve cantatas written
by Nicola Porpora and dedicated to His Royal Highness Frederick
Prince of Wales in 1735. Frederick was George III’s father and
known for his musical talent. The famous Mercier painting depicts
him playing the cello in consort with his sisters.
Frederick, who was in constant opposition to his father, supported
the Opera of The Nobility which was set up as a rival to Handel’s
Royal Academy - which was supported by the King. Nicola Porpora
was one of the composers brought over to provide operas for
the new company and the famous castrato Farinelli (one of Porpora’s
pupils) came to London to sing. Frederick, a keen amateur cellist,
ended up making music with Farinelli with the singer accompanying
himself on the harpsichord.
These cantatas appeared in print in 1735, around the time that
Farinelli and Prince Frederick were making music together. Given
their florid dedication to the Prince they may well have featured
in these sessions.
When these pieces first appeared in print there was no mention
of the author of the texts. This is rather strange as they were
written by Metastasio, the leading operatic poet of the age.
The texts seem to have been written early in his career but
quite when Porpora got hold of them and set them is unclear.
We know from one of Metastasio’s correspondents that Porpora
wrote the cantatas whilst Metastasio was writing the texts,
so it seems highly unlikely that Porpora wrote them in London;
instead they seem to have been something he had in his luggage.
In style the cantatas generally adhere to the requirements of
the chamber cantata, providing the singer with many occasions
for subtle display of technique. But as an operatic composer
Porpora was known for the virtuoso display of the Neapolitan
style of opera which he brought to London. The arias in the
cantatas do not reach the level of virtuoso acrobatic display
that Porpora uses in his operas, but there are moments when
it is clear that he is definitely showing off, moving the chamber
cantata closer to the operatic scena; something that Handel
himself did as well.
So, though the first cantata on the disc, Or che una nube
ingrata allows the singer to display melodic
gifts and great lyric beauty, later cantatas include some display
elements. There are no alarming intervallic leaps, but fine
displays of breath control. The first aria of the cantata Veggo
la selva e il monte is simply lovely, but it
does require the singer to produce long trills. The same cantata
finishes with a lively conclusion where the singer gets to display
facility with divisions. In this aria and in a few others on
the disc Porpora includes a delightfully lively bass line which
contrasts nicely with the vocal line.
Here the cantatas are sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, displaying
all the control and musicality required of his great predecessor
Farinelli. Davies is simply a delight to listen to. There is
scarcely a moment when technical limitations intrude and everything
is sung with his familiar musicality. We really feel transported
to the chamber of a great prince, privileged to overhear the
singer entertaining his patron. If the performances sometimes
feel a little cool, then this is hardly Davies’ fault; he is
working with material which itself is slightly cool. Porpora
does not imbue his cantatas with the sort of imperative vivid
drama that Handel does; we have to be content with civilised
Davies is accompanied by the group Arcangelo, directed from
the cello by Jonathan Cohen. The other performers are Kristian
Bezuidenhout (organ and harpsichord), Stephanie-Marie Degano
(violin), Judith Evans (double bass), Monica Pusilnik (guitar
and lute), Siobhan Armstrong (harp), Rebecca Miles (recorder)
and Peter Whelan (bassoon). The accompaniments partake of the
same civilised musicality as the vocal one. The results feel
like real chamber music - a group of colleagues collaborating
- rather than musicians simply accompanying a singer.
The CD booklet includes an article on Porpora and the cantatas,
plus texts in Italian and English.
An attractive disc of civilised entertainment which wears its
learning and musicality lightly; lovers of fine singing should
not hesitate. It is a must for anyone interested in widening
their experience of baroque music.