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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660 - 1725)
Alto Cantatas
Concerto for recorder, 2 violins and bc in c minor [8:42]
Perchè tacete, regolati concenti?, cantata for alto, 2 violins and bc [21:37]
Sonata a quattro for 2 violins, viola and bass in g minor [5:58]
Filen, mio caro bene, cantata for alto, recorder, 2 violins and bc [13:32]
Sonata a quattro for 2 violins, viola and bass in d minor [5:34]
Concerto for recorder, 2 violins and bc in a minor [11:16]
Gabriella Martellacci (contralto)
Insieme Strumentale di Roma (Dario Benigno (recorder), Giorgio Sasso, Paolo Perrone (violin), Teresa Ceccato (viola), Diego Roncalli (cello), Luca Cola (double bass), Salvatore Carchiolo (harpsichord), Marco Silvi (organ))/Giorgio Sasso
rec. October 2012, Basilica dei Santi Bonifacio e Alessio, Rome, Italy. DDD
Texts included, no translations
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94440 [66:56]

The title of this disc is not quite correct. It suggests that it is devoted to cantatas for contralto, but in fact the programme includes only two cantatas and these take up about half the playing time. The other half is filled with instrumental works. The reference to the type of voice for which the two cantatas are written makes sense. Alessandro Scarlatti was the most prolific composer of chamber cantatas of his time, but only about ten percent of his output in this genre is scored for an alto voice. The large majority is for soprano, and that was the common scoring during the whole period in which this kind of works was written, roughly speaking between 1680 and 1740.

There is another remarkable aspect of these two cantatas. The voice is not only supported by the basso continuo, but also by treble instruments. In both cantatas Scarlatti included parts for two violins, and in Filen, mio caro bene these are joined by a recorder. The cantatas date from different stages in Scarlatti's career. The latter cantata adopts the pattern that was to become the standard in the first half of the 18th century: two pairs of recitative and da capo aria, in this case preceded by a sinfonia. Perchè tacete, regolati concenti is an early work and here the structure is much looser. The opening sinfonia is followed by a recitative and an aria. The latter is strophic; both stanzas have a da capo. Then follows another recitative and an aria with ritornello. Next come two pairs of recitative and aria; only the first has a da capo.

The authors of the lyrics are mostly unknown. It is assumed that Scarlatti himself wrote the texts of many cantatas as he was once described as 'professor also of Poetry'. In his liner-notes Salvatore Carchiolo states that the literary quality of most lyrics is rather limited, and that their main purpose was to offer the composer the opportunity to set them in such a way that he could stir the emotions of the listeners. We must take his word for it, because the booklet includes the lyrics, but omits any translations. That makes it also impossible to assess how Gabriella Martellacci deals with the texts. Her singing is admirable: she is a real contralto, with a rather deep and strong, but also warm and pleasant, voice. She sings the recitatives very nicely, with the necessary rhythmic freedom. In the da capos she adds some ornamentation, but doesn't overdo it and resists the temptation to rewrite complete lines.

She makes a stronger impression than the instrumental ensemble. In the cantatas they do pretty well, but especially in the two concertos (or sonatas) with recorder they produce a rather weak sound, sometimes even hesitant. These concertos are part of a famous collection, known as the Manoscritto di Napoli 1725, with pieces by Scarlatti and several other composers, all written for recorder, strings and bc. These are not solo concertos, but rather concerti da camera in which recorder and strings are treated on an equal footing. These concertos are available in several - and mostly better - recordings. Part of the problem is also the recording. It seems as if the miking of the various pieces is different. In these two concertos the instruments have less presence than in the two sonate a quattro. Moreover, a cathedral is not the most suitable venue for this kind of repertoire. Especially in the cantatas there is more reverberation than one would wish.

The two sonate a quattro are the most interesting parts of the instrumental oeuvre on this disc. They are from a set of four which reflect Scarlatti's preference for and skills in counterpoint. He suggested performance without a keyboard instrument, and that is how they are played here. That way they are not very different from the consort music of the renaissance. Here again the string parts are treated on strictly equal terms. Carchiolo sees this preference as one of the reasons that Scarlatti ended his life in a state of relative obscurity as his music was stylistically out of touch with contemporary taste. We should enjoy them: these sonatas are very nice pieces which deserve to be part of the standard repertoire. Fortunately they are played here rather well, although certainly not perfect. I could imagine a more engaging performance, with a more brilliant sound from the violins.

Most of the performances are enjoyable, but as there are also serious shortcomings I am not fully happy with this disc. I would have preferred the inclusion of the two remaining string sonatas instead of the recorder concertos. It is also regrettable that Brilliant Classics omitted translations of the cantatas. That seems to be the label's policy lately, and that is not something to celebrate. It may be a budget label, but they should realise that many purchasers are condemned to miss what the cantatas are about and how Scarlatti dealt with the texts.

Johan van Veen
http://www.musica-dei-donum.org
https://twitter.com/johanvanveen