The combination of Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic proves all-conquering in this disc of Italian ‘duetti’. In truth they’re not all duets, as we also have cantatas and duetti da camera, extracts of which are sometimes presented, not the whole work. So one should note from the outset the cherry-picking nature of some of the selections, a circumstance made even more complicated by virtue of the fact that the director of Les Arts Florissants William Christie notes, in the booklet, that some of these pieces are première recordings (though I can’t find out definitively which).
One of the most important factors in the success of the performance lies in the nature of the voices and the sheer musicality of their deployment. It helps too that they are helpfully contrasted in timbre. Another factor is the small accompanying group taken from Les Arts Florissants, where we find two violins (Hiro Kurosaki and Catherine Girard), a cello (Jonathan Cohen), theorbo, lute (Elizabeth Kenny), and Christie himself on harpsichord and organ.
Naturally if the repertoire were merely dutiful it wouldn’t matter that the instrumental and vocal forces were so persuasive: it would remain dull music sensitively performed. The music though is anything but dull. Bononcini’s two Duetti da camera are splendid pieces. Pietoso nume arcier witnesses some magical interweaving of vocal lines and a briskly thrummed instrumental accompaniment in its second and final duet (these are all compact works). The manner in which the strings egg on the singers is a study in rhythmic energy in baroque music. We hear two duets from Chi d’amor tra le catene and the richly warm counterpoint, and the excellence of the repeated phrases reinforces how good it is to meet Bononcini in this repertoire.
The cantata by Mancini, Quanto mai saria più bello, is sung by Jaroussky. This rippling, dappled Arcadia of a work is gloriously assured, with the violins murmuring and the solo voice gently rising above them. Cencic’s solo work is Porpora’s Ecco che il primo albore. This powerful product of virtuosic Naples is tailor made for Cencic, whose surmounting of the divisions is outstanding, and where incidentally he sounds close to the timbre and nonchalance of David Daniels – I notice this especially in the middle part of his voice. There is no pushing in Cencic’s voice at all, and the runs are fluid and unbroken.
There’s sufficient variety of voice distribution, instrumental support and thematic material to keep even the flintiest-hearted auditor happy. Francesco Conti’s cantata for two sopranos, for instance, Quando veggo un’usignolo offers an extracted aria - eight delightful minutes devoted to nightingale trills and other avian pleasures. The ascending and descending melodic line is captivating and the performance outstanding. In fact throughout the disc one could hardly imagine things done better. Marcello’s Chiaro e limpido fonte is a duet and offers the contrast between Jaroussky’s somewhat lighter, warmer voice and Cencic’s more overtly virtuosic instincts. Here the inter-twining lines offer caressing warmth and also, lest it be overlooked, properly judged and convincingly theatrical recitatives.
Much of this repertoire is rare, and its colonisation by the two great counter-tenors is hugely to our advantage.