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Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728)
Lagrime dolorose - Secular cantatas
Fileno, idolo mio, cantata for soprano, two violins and bc [8:14]
Hai finito di lusingarmi, cantata for soprano, two oboes and bc [9:35]
Il più felice e sfortunato amante, cantata for alto, two violins and bc [8:27]
Spezza amor l'arco e gli strali, cantata for oboe, dulcian and bc [14:04]
Lagrime dolorose, cantata for bass, two recorders and bc [8:15]
Guardati, o core, cantata for soprano, two violins and bc [9:22]
Marta Mathéu (soprano), Aurelio Schiavoni (alto), Mauro Borgioni (bass)
Accademia Hermans(Avia Gershoni (recorder, oboe), Elena Bianchi (recorder, dulcian), Fabio D'Onofrio (oboe), Enrico Gatti, Rossella Croce (violin), Alessandra Montani (cello), Gabriele Palomba (theorbo), Fabio Ciofini (harpsichord, organ))/Fabio Ciofini
rec. 6-8 August 2012, Teatro Cucinelli di Solomeo, Perugia, Italy. DDD

Agostino Steffani was one of the most remarkable composers of the baroque period, especially because of his various simultaneous careers. He was not only active as a music director and composer but also in the diplomatic field and in the church. It wasn't always easy to keep his various activities apart. He enjoyed success but also experienced failure, and the latter made him virtually give up composing music after 1702. Towards the end of his life he composed some sacred works, among them his Stabat mater, one of his best-known compositions.
Steffani was born in Castelfranco near Venice and at an early age he sang as a choirboy in Padua. At the age of 11 he appeared in an opera performance. In 1667 he was taken to Munich by Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria. He remained there for 21 years. During this period he went to Rome to study with Ercole Bernabei, maestro di cappella of St Peter's. He later travelled to Paris where he became acquainted with the operas of Lully. At the same time he was ordained a priest. He also had his first experiences in the diplomatic world, and in 1681 his first opera was performed in Munich. However, he never secured his main objective, to be appointed as court music director in Munich. This resulted in him accepting the position of music director at the court of Elector Ernst August in Hanover in 1788. There he composed various operas for the newly built opera house, and in these he mixed the Italian and French styles.
From this time onwards he became increasingly involved in diplomatic missions, some of which were related to the War of the Spanish Succession. It seems that his activities in this field were not that successful. For that reason he became distressed and confined himself to revising and copying his chamber duets, a genre of which he was especially fond. In 1703 he entered the service of the Elector Palatinate, Johann Wilhelm, at Düsseldorf. He mainly worked in the field of politics including as a privy councillor. He wrote hardly any music at the time, and if some operas were performed they were presented under the name of one of his copyists. This was likely motivated by his ambitions for a career in the church. Composing operas was not going to help fulfil those ambitions. In 1709 he was appointed Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany and returned to Hanover. In this capacity it was his duty to promote the Counter-Reformation in a region which was dominated by Lutheranism. His work was constantly frustrated by lack of financial resources and the loss of several people who supported him. Towards the end of his life he encountered financial problems which he tried to solve by selling some of his possessions. At the same time his health began to deteriorate and he died in 1728.
Steffani's oeuvre is pretty large and is dominated by vocal music of which chamber duets occupy a prominent place. This was a form he apparently greatly preferred, and his duets are still the most often performed part of his output. Considering the popularity of the chamber cantata it is remarkable that he composed so few of them. The set of six Scherzi which is the subject of the present disc is virtually his only contribution to this genre.
These six pieces have a character of their own and are in several ways different from what was common at the time. The first notable feature concerns the scoring. Most chamber cantatas were for soprano, fewer for alto and almost none for tenor or bass. Here one of the six is specifically scored for bass. The instrumental scoring is equally striking. Most cantatas specified solo voice and basso continuo. Sometimes parts for one or two instruments were added, mostly violins. At times a single flute, recorder or oboe was included. Here all cantatas have two parts for a melody instrument. Three cantatas are for two violins, two for two recorders and two oboes respectively, and one - most remarkable of all - for oboe and dulcian. This shows that Steffani was an original mind who wasn't afraid of following his own route.
That also comes to the fore in the form of these cantatas which is very different. Fileno, idolo mio and Il più felice begin with an introduction of the two melody instruments, but in Spezza amor l'arco the soprano and the basso continuo begin the proceedings, with the two instruments joining them later. The instruments sometimes play a ritornello, but they are mostly also involved in accompanying the voice. In some cases they imitate the voice, in others they have also some material of their own. It was common practice to write da capo arias, but here Steffani regularly breaks with this habit as he sometimes composes an aria in AB form, without any part being repeated. In the second aria from Spezza amor l'arco the oboe is involved in the A part and the dulcian in the B part. Various recitatives end with a cavata, a line in the style of an arioso. If that is not enough, Fileno, idolo mio and Guardati, o core end with a short aria of just two lines.
From this description one may conclude that Steffani's contribution to the genre of the chamber cantata is quite small, but substantial and very interesting. Musically these pieces also have much to offer. Steffani was a master in depicting text but also a skilled contrapuntalist. Both qualities are exposed in these six Scherzi. This is not the first recording of these cantatas; in 2003 Affetti Musicali recorded them for Hungaroton. I was not really impressed by the performances, and the fact that two of the soprano cantatas were given to a tenor did nothing to help. Things are very different here and I have greatly enjoyed these performances. The three soloists deliver stylish and engaging interpretations, and pay much attention to the communication of the affetti. They add ornamentation but don't exaggerate nor do they add virtuosic cadenzas which would be out of place in this context. The contributions of the instrumentalists are technically assured and musically appealing.
In short, this is a very entertaining and musically rewarding disc.
The booklet includes concise but to-the-point liner-notes and all the lyrics are given with English translation. It is a shame that in some cantatas there is no extra space between the sections. This makes it hard to see where a recitative or aria begins. The cantatas are allocated to just one track; I would have preferred single tracks for each recitative and aria.
Johan van Veen