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El Maestro Farinelli
Bejun Mehta (alto)*, Joël Grare (percussion)**
Concerto Köln/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. July-August 2013, Probenstudio Stolberger Straße, Cologne; January 2014, chamber music room of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne*, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
ARCHIV 4792050 [68:31]

If you look at the cover of this disc you may wonder what it is about. You probably know the name of Farinelli, one of the most famous castratos of the 18th century. This is certainly not the first disc devoted to him but then you may ask why there is no name of a singer on the cover. If this is a recital of arias Farinelli may - or may not - have sung, then who sings them? The answer is: Bejun Mehta sings arias - just one aspect from Farinelli's repertoire. This disc is not so much about Farinelli the singer rather about Farinelli the impresario, after he had settled in Spain in 1737. The programme includes pieces which in some way or another can be connected to Farinelli and his Spanish environment. However, the way the programme has been put together results in a lack of consistency.

Farinelli was born as Carlo Broschi in 1705 in Andria. In 1711 the family moved to Naples and in 1717 he became a pupil of Nicolo Porpora who at that time was already famous as a singing teacher. He was just 15 when he made his debut as a soloist in Porpora's opera Angelica e Medoro, to a libretto by Metastasio. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Farinelli and the librettist, who referred to each other as 'dear twin'. In the next years Farinelli sang in various operas in Naples and Rome and then his career brought him to other Italian cities where he achieved great success. In Turin he met the English ambassador who played a crucial role in bringing him to London where he participated in performances of the Opera of the Nobility which the previous year had engaged his former teacher Porpora. Farinelli sang in operas by Porpora and by Hasse.

In 1737 he left for Spain at the invitation of Queen Elisabeth in the hope that his singing would help cure the debilitating depression of Philip V. Every night he sang some arias for the King until the latter's death in 1746. In 1737 he was appointed as 'royal servant', and in 1747 - under the reign of Philip's successor Ferdinand VI - he became artistic director of the theatres of the palace at Buen Retiro in Madrid and the palace of Aranjuez. He held these posts until the King's death in 1759. He turned to Metastasio for the realization of many of his projects. Several of the latter's libretti were performed in settings by composers such as Nicola Conforto who opens the present disc with the overture to La festa cinese, an opera to a libretto by Metastasio and performed in Madrid in 1751.

He was from Naples and started to write operas in the late 1740s. In 1752 he received a commission to compose an opera on Metastasio's libretto Siroe for Ferdinand VI's name day. In 1754 he composed another opera for the King's birthday. His operas were so successful that he moved to Spain where he later was joined by his wife and sons. He would never return to Naples. The aria 'Alto Giove' from Porpora's opera Polifemo is one of those which Farinelli is known to have sung for Philip V. We also hear the overture to Carlo il calvo, an opera from 1738. The inclusion of pieces by José de Nebra can be justified by the fact that he was a contemporary of Farinelli and one of the leading composers in Spain. We hear vocal and instrumental extracts from several zarzuelas, a typical Spanish form of music for the theatre. Nebra was the most prolific composer of such pieces of his time. Another composer of zarzuelas was the Venetian-born Francesco Corradini who composed his first works for theatres in Naples and moved to Spain in 1725 or 1726. Las mascaras is a comedy from which we hear a baile (ballet).

The link between Farinelli and the other works of the programme is different, and sometimes very indirect. Johann Adolf Hasse never visited Spain, and the liner-notes don't mention any of his operas performed there. He was however one of Farinelli's favourite composers. He took part in the performance in 1725 of the serenata Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, the first work Hasse composed during his time in Naples. An opera overture would have been a more logical choice than the Sinfonia in g minor which may originally have been intended as chamber music, to be played by two violins, viola and bc. There is no connection between Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Spain or Farinelli at all. The Symphony in e minor is played here immediately after the fandango from Vendado es amor, no es ciego by Nebra, and that is because of Bach's use of the fandango in this work. This symphony is here given the nickname Fandango, but as far as I know that is the first time; I have never previously encountered this symphony with this title.

The inclusion of the overtures by Jommelli and Traetta is also debatable. The former was one of the most influential composers of his time, but that is hardly a reason to include this piece here. In the case of Traetta there is a very indirect link in that he was also a pupil of Porpora. As the latter had a wide circle of pupils other composers could have been included as well or instead of Traetta.

This disc suffers a little from a lack of discipline and logic in the choice of repertoire. However, it has many virtues: no fewer than seven items are recorded here for the first time, and to that one can add all the pieces by Nebra. The quality of everything in this programme certainly justifies inclusion. The performances are outstanding: the orchestral items receive vigorous interpretations, with healthy expressive qualities in the slow movements. Bejun Mehta is a fine and sensible singer with a good feeling for the style of the repertoire. He delivers a very engaging performance of the fandango by Nebra. However, I'd rather he hadn't sung both parts - a recording should be as close as possible to the circumstances of the performance in the time of the composer. Modern technique should help, not distort. I enjoyed Mehta's account of Porpora's aria 'Alto Giove' which is much better than the horrible account by Franco Fagioli (I reviewed his disc here).

This is a disc for curious minds. All composers represented here deserve more attention than most of them have received so far. They are served well by Bejun Mehta, Concerto Köln and Pablo Heras-Casada.

Johan van Veen

Nicola CONFORTI (1718-1793)
Overture La festa cinese [3:57]
Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768)
Overture Carlo il calvo [4:23]
Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783)
Sinfonia in g minor, op. 5,6 [9:26]
José DE NEBRA (1702-1768)
Vendado es amor, no es ciego, zarzuela: Tempestad grande*/** [2:46]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Symphony in e minor (Wq 178 / H 653) [11:01]
Francesco CORRADINI (1690/92-1769)
Baile de las máscaras (exc) [4:55]
Juan MARCOLINI (fl 1760-1770)
Overture La dicha en la desgracia y vida campestre [3:30]
Nicola Antonio PORPORA
Polifemo, opera: Alto Giove* [8:25]
Amar y ser amado y la divina Philotea, incidental music: seguidilla** [1:29]
Para obsequio a la deydad, nunca es culto la crueldad, y Iphigeniaen Tracia: seguidilla [0:54]
Vendado es amor, no es ciego, zarzuela: seguidilla [1:13]
Viento es la dicha de amor: canción** [1:18]
Donde hay violencia no hay culpa (attr): seguidilla (1) [2:39]; seguidilla (2)** [0:52]
Niccolň JOMMELLI (1714-1774)
Periodical Overture [5:45]
Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779)
Overture Armida [5:29]



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