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Giovanni Battista COSTANZI (1704-1778)
Cantata per Natale
Silvia Frigato (soprano) - Elpino; Elena Biscuola (contralto) - Angelo; Alessio Tosi (tenor) - Tirsi
Gambe di Legno/Alessandro Ciccolini
rec. December 2011, Church of the Kartause Mauerbach, Austria. DDD
FRA BERNARDO FB1409323 [72:30]

Few music-lovers will be familiar with the name of Giovanni Battista Costanzi. Some may know him as a cello concerto in D is attributed to Haydn (H VIIb,4), but also to Costanzi. That piece dates from 1772, close to the end of his life and career. The present disc includes a piece which he composed in 1723, when he hadn't even turned 20. At that time he had already entered the service of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome. In 1729 his opera Carlo Magno was performed, which was a huge success. As a result he held some of the most prestigious positions in Roman music life in the next decades. It seems that Luigi Boccherini was one of his pupils. The French composer Grétry considered him one of Rome's most popular composers. He was a prolific composer but the largest part of his oeuvre has been lost. What remains is a handful of oratorios, a number of liturgical works, including masses, the above-mentioned opera and arias from some other works for the stage, a cantata and some instrumental works.

The Cantata a tre voci Elpino, Tirsi, e Angelo con stromenti per la notte di SS:mo Natale was written for a performance on Christmas Eve of 1723 in the Palazzo Apostolico. The libretto was from the pen of Filippo Leers, a poet - possibly of Dutch origin - who was a prominent member of the Accademia dell'Arcadia under the name of Siralgo Ninfasio. The cantata is divided into two parts, and is not fundamentally different from pieces which are known as oratorios. The two main human characters are the shepherd Tirsi (tenor) and his son Elpino (soprano). In the first part we meet them as they dwell in the fields near Bethlehem. They notice a sudden brightness at midnight. An angel (alto) appears and brings them the message of the birth of the Son of God. He urges them to pay homage to the new-born. They meet the angel again near the hut where Joseph, Mary and Jesus are living. They worry about what they shall give Jesus: Tirsi has only two lambs and Elpino a dove; they both apologize with the words: "My offering is small and honest, but do not look at the gift, look at the thought behind it". They notice that the baby smiles, but then he starts weeping. The shepherds ask the angel why. He points to a dark cloud which is a foreshadowing of the treatment of Jesus by Jerusalem - a reference to Jesus' Passion. But he comforts them by showing them the new world which will be the final outcome of Jesus' life: "From the treasure in his veins which the godless spill a better city will arise".

One could argue that this cantata is a little conservative in style. The arias in the first part are rather short, although they all have a dacapo. In the second part we find some longer arias, but neither is especially virtuosic, and they are certainly not comparable to the operatic arias which we find in many oratorios of the time. That is probably partly due to the time and place where the cantata was first performed. It reminds me of Alessandro Scarlatti's pre-1700 oratorios. However, the instrumental scoring is more modern: the strings are joined by two recorders, two transverse flutes and two oboes, and even a psaltery. The latter only appears in an obbligato role in Tirsi's aria 'L'innocenza che rendesti' in the second part. The wind instruments also have only some parts to play in arias, but most of these are accompanied by strings alone. Constanzo must have been a virtuosic cellist; he had the nickname Giovannino del Violoncello. This could explain the obbligato cello part in the aria 'Innanzi al Re' (Tirsi) in the first part. The cantata also includes a couple of accompanied recitatives, another modern trait. There are some short entries of the choir; one of them is in a duo of Tirsi and Elpino in the second part, 'Vago bambin': "Gentle child (...), you are the sun". It has a siciliano rhythm, often used in music for Christmastide, for instance in Corelli's famous 'Christmas concerto', the pastorale of which is played here as the sinfonia to the second part.

This is not a spectacular new discovery, but a quite nice piece which is a welcome addition to the catalogue of music for Christmastide. It is well written, the arias are fine, both vocally and instrumentally. I am not sure whether this is a live recording, but if that is the case, you won't notice, except probably one or two insecurities in the choral sections which would have been corrected in a studio recording. The three soloists do a good job: they have the right voices for the repertoire, sing stylishly, avoid excessive vibrato and take the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives. I have a slight reservation in regard to the obbligato part of the psaltery in the aria 'L'innocenza che rendesti'. I have the impression that Ulrike Knapp plays a cadenza here; at least that is how it sounds. If that is the case it is probably too long, in proportion to the length of the whole aria.

This is a recommendable production: nice music, interesting instrumental scoring and good performances. The English translation is printed separately which is a little uncomfortable. However, that is far better than no translations at all which is the case in quite a number of productions, especially by Italian labels.

Johan van Veen


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