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Quella fiamma: Arie antiche
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto/director)
Orfeo 55
rec. Chapelle de la Trinité, Lyon, 2016
ERATO 9029 576529 [73:20]

Nathalie Stutzmann is a remarkable singer. A true contralto in an age of mezzos (with a lower register to die for), she combines a formidable technique with a vivid sense of drama and character, both of which she applies to a dauntingly wide repertoire. Moreover in recent years she has embarked on a burgeoning second career as a conductor: following many conspicuously well-received guest appearances, she will begin the 2018-19 season as both Chief Conductor the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway and Principal Guest Conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin.

As far as I can tell, this is now the fourth disc on which Stutzmann has played the dual role of singer/director. On each occasion she has collaborated with Orfeo 55, a crack Montpellier-based chamber orchestra – here 17-strong – founded by her in 2009. Following discs devoted to Vivaldi (2011), Bach (2012 – review) and Handel (2014), they now turn to repertoire that is in the main considerably less familiar. Stutzmann’s starting-point is the three-volume collection entitled Arie antiche: ad una voce per canto e pianoforte, published in Milan between 1885 and 1888 (the disc’s programme note is wrong to claim that the first volume dates from 1890). Its compiler was the composer and musicologist Alessandro Parisotti, who put together works by many noted composers, predominantly though not exclusively of the Italian seicento and settecento, with a view not least to their enabling young singers to gain a thorough grounding in vocal technique.

Parisotti was of his time in not always adhering to what we would now regard as proper standards of scholarly rigour. Not only was he inclined to “clean up” the wording of certain faintly indelicate love lyrics, but he was not beyond passing off his own compositions as the work of some past bel canto luminary: the Arie antiche attributes the song Se tu m’ami (recorded here by Stutzmann) to no less a figure than Pergolesi; it is now clear, however, that Parisotti wrote it himself. That said, Stutzmann and many other singers speak warmly of the lessons they have learnt from working with his collection. Interviewed for the programme note, for example, she speaks of the value of Scarlatti’s “Già il sole dal Gange” for teaching breath control, of Caccini’s “Amarilli” for training the singer to control her/his vibrato, or of Carissimi’s “Vittoria, mio core” for the introduction it provides to the art of melisma.
If all this implies that this issue is an essentially academic or even nostalgic exercise, then nothing could be further from the truth. Stutzmann and her musicians clearly believe in the ability of Parisotti’s collection to communicate with a modern audience, and perform their excerpts from it with great ardour and vigour – not least the contralto herself, who relishes the many opportunities they provide for verbal underlining and emotional expressiveness, occasionally indeed to the detriment of the vocal line. The delights offered by the songs are many and varied, and their overall standard very high – though there is no denying that the two Handel items stand out, as in a different way do those by Alessandro Scarlatti. Of the others, I particularly enjoyed such quieter, movingly articulate numbers as Caccini’s “Amarilli” and Caldara’s “Sebben, crudele”, performed with a simple harp or theorbo accompaniment.

It is high time to say more about Stutzmann’s accompaniments. Parisotti’s anthology does what it says on the can by offering arrangements for voice and piano only – and previous recordings of items from the Aria antiche have been content to follow suit, most notably perhaps the Decca compilation (4362672) featuring Cecilia Bartoli and György Fischer – which has some nine items in common with the present disc. Stutzmann and Orfeo 55, however, wanted to go a stage further and recreate the accompaniments of Parisotti’s original sources, most though not all of which are scored for a small orchestra with basso continuo. The booklet does not go into much detail, but it is clear that most of the orchestrations here were edited and, one suspects, touched up by members of Orfeo 55 and their associates: in all some five individuals and the collective ‘Orfeo 55’ are mentioned in the booklet as having contributed to a total of twenty orchestrations. Whatever their precise origins, nearly all the instrumental solutions suggested work and sound authentic – indeed the only piece I registered as sounding potentially anachronistic (Falconieri’s instrumental “Passacalle”) transpired not to have been re-scored for this performance at all.

By no means all of the accompaniments are revelatory. Many, indeed, come across as pretty standard early-to-high Baroque fare. There are some examples, though, where obbligati for certain instruments add considerably to the character and atmosphere of a piece. This applies to Michele Fattori’s bassoon in the aria from Bononcini’s Griselda, to Patrick Langot’s cello in the echt-Parisotti “Se tu m’ami”, and to the two eloquent violinists who feature in Cavalli’s fine “Delizie, contenti”. Perhaps most interestingly, the beautifully light and airy instrumental accompaniment to Mancini’s “Plaisir d’amour” – the only French item on the disc – helps Stutzmann to make that glorious old warhorse appear remarkably fresh and spirited. John McCormack and Gerald Moore are suddenly light years away.

Not all the items on the disc are vocal; there are some six purely instrumental pieces. Amongst these there is one dear old friend: the sumptuous central adagio from Marcello’s D minor Oboe Concerto, so beloved of Evelyn Rothwell, Heinz Holliger and indeed Ennio Morricone, and here very nicely turned by Shai Kribus. With the possible exception of the largo from Porpora’s Cello Concerto, however, none of the others is likely to be known to collectors; indeed, there is one short piece by a composer of whom I confess I had never heard, the short-lived Czech Samuel Capricornus (real name Bockshorn!), who was active mainly in Bratislava and, latterly, Stuttgart. In all honesty he doesn’t emerge here as a neglected genius, but his Sonata a 3 at least inspires some excellent violin and bassoon playing, and cleanses the palate nicely to receive Plaisir d’amour. Indeed, such a punctuating, preparatory function may explain in part why the instrumental items are included. Stutzmann says, “We have interspersed this recording with a number of 17th-18th century pieces and sonatas which serve as stops on the journey, as breathing space”. That’s fair enough, but I feel that, if anything, these words undersell her conception: in practice the non-vocal items are extremely carefully chosen and programmed, and help lend the disc as a whole the sense of a coherent journey. A good example of this is provided by the two instrumental pieces by Porpora, one lively, the other lyrical, which frame Durante’s affecting setting of the Marian poem “Vergin, tutto amor”. The first Porpora piece provides something between a “breathing space” and appropriate light relief, but the second ideally carries forward the mood and atmosphere created by Stutzmann’s exquisitely sensitive performance of the Durante. As such it is very much a part of the journey, and not just a staging-post.

All in all, it will already have become clear that several aspects of this CD are not really for the purist. It’s also not ideal for sound buffs: both singer and orchestra are rather closely miked, and the ecclesiastical acoustic, whilst warm, is decidedly reverberant. For everyone else, though, it’s a real winner. Conceived with great intelligence, creativity and sympathy, and performed with consummate virtuosity and dedication, it’s already on my list of ‘Records of the Year’.

Nigel Harris

Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
“Già il sole dal Gange” from L’honestà negli amori [1:54]
“O cessate di piagarmi” from Pompeo [3:02]
Francesco DURANTE (1684-1755)
Danza, danza fanciulla gentile [1:33]
Vergin, tutt' amore [2:43]
Introduction – Poco andante from Concerto No. 1 in F minor [1:42]
Andrea FALCONIERI (c.1585/6-1656)
Passacalle from Il primo libro di canzone, sinfonie, fantasie [2:09]
Giulio CACCINI (1551-1618)
“Amarilli, mia bella” from Le nuove musiche [3:24]
Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674)
Vittoria, mio core [3:19]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
“Ah, mio cor, schernito sei” from Alcina [5:33]
“Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto [5:45]
Francesco CONTI (c.1681/2-1732)
Doppo tante e tante pene [6:16]
Giovanni Battista BONONCINI (1670-1747)
“Per la gloria d’adorarvi” from Griselda [2:21]
Nicola PORPORA (1686-1768)
Adagio – allegro, from Sonata a 3, Op. 2 No. 3 [2:49]
Largo, from Cello Concerto in G [3:17]
Alessandro PARISOTTI (1853-1913)
“Se tu m’ami” from Arie Antiche, Book 1 [3:17]
Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690)
“Che fiero costume” from Eteocle e Polinice [1:15]
Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676)
“Delizie, contenti, che l’alma beate” from Il Giasone [1:16]
Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747)
Adagio from Oboe Concerto in D minor, S D935 [3:30]
Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665)
Sonata a 3 No. 4 from Prothimia suavissima, Book 2 [3:49]
Jean-Paul Egide MARTINI (1741-1816)
Plaisir d’amour [3:38]
Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816)
“Nel cor più mi sento” from L'amor contrastato [3:04]
Antonio CESTI (1623-1669)
“Intorno all’idol mio” from Orontea [3:50]
Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736)
“Sebben, crudele” from La costanza in amor vince l’inganno [2:42]



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