Conversazioni I - Cantatas from a Cardinal's Court
Antonio CALDARA (c1670-1736)
Clori, mia bella Clori [19:03]
Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1751)
Senza il core del mio bene [07:53]
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Clori vezzosa, e bella [07:11]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Toccata in g minor (HWV 586) [01:20]
Capriccio in g minor (HWV 483) [01:56]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in g minor (K 30) [04:28]

George Frideric HANDEL
Vedendo Amor (HWV 175) [13:49]

Sonata in d minor (K 9) [04:05]
Sonata in D (K 430) [03:21]

George Frideric HANDEL
Mi palpita il cor (HWV 132c) [12:47]
Sounds Baroque (Andrew Radley (alto), Georgia Browne (transverse flute), Joel Raymond (oboe), Jonathan Byers (cello), Andrew Maginley (lute), Julian Perkins (harpsichord))/Julian Perkins
rec. 8-10 December 2009, St Jude's Church, Hampstead, London, UK. DDD
AVIE AV2197 [76:37]

This disc is devoted to the chamber cantata as written in Italy around 1700. The repertoire is huge: Alessandro Scarlatti alone composed at least 600, and probably many more. This bears witness to the popularity of the genre and the almost insatiable demand for compositions like those represented here. Of the other composers on the programme, Caldara and Handel both contributed considerably to the genre. Whereas Handel's chamber cantatas are among the most popular and are frequently performed, Caldara's output is still hardly explored. That makes the inclusion of one of his cantatas particularly welcome.

That is even more the case as the scoring is rather unconventional. The largest part of these chamber cantatas was for solo voice and basso continuo. In some cases one or two instruments were added, mostly violins. Caldara's cantata contains two parts for a treble instrument, and these are transverse flute and oboe. That suggests it was written later in his career, as in his early years these instruments were not very common, certainly not in Italy. It also doesn't adhere to the structure we know from Alessandro Scarlatti's cantatas and which was followed by most composers: two pairs of recitative and aria. Caldara's cantata begins with a sinfonia in three short sections, which is followed by three pairs of recitative and aria.

The content of most of these cantatas is conventional as they all deal with aspects of love, often focusing on the unhappy or frustrating side of it. Some mythological figures regularly turn up, in this case Clori who appears in the cantatas by Caldara and Scarlatti and in Handel's Mi palpita il cor. The two cantatas by Handel are the most dramatic, with a graphic description of the feelings of the protagonist. In Vedendo amor there is even some dramatic development, making it a kind of pocket-opera.

Considering the number of recordings of Handel's chamber cantatas it is almost tragic that exactly these cantatas come off best in these performances. Andrew Radley has a nice voice and a feeling for the dramatic. Mi palpita il cor is done quite well, and so in particular is the second half of Vedendo amor. He almost makes me forget his incessant vibrato. This aspect is a little puzzling as he regularly sings a long note with hardly a trace of it. Why use it elsewhere? The recitative 'In quel bosco' from Vedendo amor is really well done, but still rhythmically too strict. This is something I have noticed in particular in the cantatas by Caldara, Scarlatti and Albinoni: the recitatives are not sufficently speech-like and the interpreters fail to deliver the rhythmic freedom composers expected of them.

In these cantatas there is some general blandness, I'm afraid. That is regrettable from a musical point of view, but even more because these cantatas are little-known. In order to convince audiences that this is really good music, they should receive first-class performances. But they don't. Too many elements of the text are not fully explored. Just one example: the B-part of the opening aria of Albinoni's cantata Senza il core del mio bene is too flat: words like "tormenti e pene" (torments and pains) should be given more weight by colouring the voice and using a messa di voce, for instance. The flute and oboe parts in Caldara's cantata are also not very engaging. In short, the first part of this disc is too one-dimensional.

The title of this disc refers to the places where cantatas like these were performed: the palaces of the aristocrats which regularly held conversazioni (gatherings) with music. One of these is Cardinal Ottoboni about whose activities Suzanne Aspden writes in the liner-notes. This could suggest that all the music on this disc was performed at his palace, but that is not the case. Mi palpita il cor, for instance, was written after 1710 when Handel was already in London, and Albinoni probably never was in Rome. Handel was, and so was Domenico Scarlatti. The famous duel on harpsichord and organ between these two apparently took place during one of the conversazioni at Ottoboni's palace in 1708 or 1709. This has been taken by Julian Perkins as an opportunity to play keyboard works by both composers as intermezzi in the programme. He suggests Scarlatti's Sonata in g minor (K 30), one of only five fugues in Scarlatti's oeuvre and nicknamed The Cat's Fugue, is a parody of Handel's Capriccio in g minor. Julian Perkins plays these pieces well, although the tempo of the Sonata in d minor (K 9) seems a little too slow.

Lastly, it needs to be said that Mi palpita il cor exists in four versions: two for soprano (one with basso continuo and one with an additional oboe) and two for alto. Here we encounter a version for alto, but it is one which does not exist. The first (HWV 132c) is for alto, transverse flute and bc, the second (HWV 132d) for alto, flute, oboe and bc. If the disc should end with a piece in which all players participate, you would expect to hear the latter. But they perform the former, in which the flute part in the last aria is replaced by the oboe. This is a most curious decision which I don't understand.

On balance this is mixed baggage. The cantatas by Handel and the keyboard pieces are done well enough, but the lesser-known part of this disc is rather disappointing.

Johan van Veen

A mixed baggage - Handel comes off best, some other items are disappointing.