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Antonia BEMBO (1643-1720)
Produzioni Armoniche
Armonia delle Sfere
rec. 2017/2018, Salle delle Vigne, Delizia di Belriguardo, Voghiere & Chiesa Parrochiale di Stroppari di Tezze sul Brenta, Italy
No texts or translations provided
TACTUS TC640280 [3 CDs: 204:34]

Since Antonia Bembo doesn’t seem to have made any previous appearance on these pages and email conversations with some usually knowledgeable friends have shown that she is very little known, some background information might be a good way to start discussion of this attractive and interesting disc. She was born Antonia Padoani, in Venice, most probably in 1643 or shortly before. Her father Giacomo, who had studied medicine and philosophy at the University of Padua, was a member of the city’s upper-class educated elite. His daughter was to become a singer and a composer; we know that in her youth she studied with Francesco Cavalli and, given her social background, she would pretty certainly have had a decent general education along Humanist lines. In August 1659 Antonia married Lorenzo Bembo (1637-1703), a nobleman from one of Venice’s ancient aristocratic families. The marriage, however, was not registered with the civil authorities until 1663. This may imply that the Bembo family did not want it to be widely known that Lorenzo had married ‘beneath his status’. The first child of the marriage, a daughter, was born later in 1663, which makes it likely that Antonia’s pregnancy prompted the decision to make the marriage ‘official’, as it were. In 1662 husband and wife moved to Padua. Lorenzo Bembo was increasingly active as a diplomat for the Republic of Venice which would, of course, have meant that he was often absent from the marital home, though two sons were born in 1665 and 1666. By the beginning of the 1670s the relationship was clearly in trouble; so much so, that in December of 1672 Antonia petitioned (unsuccessfully it seems) for divorce, accusing her husband of “mistreatment, theft and constant infidelity” (to quote from Nicola Badolato’s excellent booklet essay for this CD). Probably at some point between February 1674 and November 1676 Antonia, decamped to Paris.

In Paris she established herself first as a singer and then as a composer at court and acquired, as her patron, no less a figure than Louis XIV, who provided her with the means to live– perhaps as a ‘boarder’ – in a religious community, the Petite Union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaumont, in the parish of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle in Paris.

It was initially as a singer that Bembo won the king’s patronage. In the dedication to the king in the manuscript of Produzioni Armoniche she writes “the situation being represented to Your Majesty that I had tome talent in song, You were pleased to let me be heard … Your Majesty then deigned to favor me with a pension” (translation by Yvonne Rokseth, ‘Antonia Bembo, Composer to Louis XIV’, The Musical Quarterly,
23 (2), 1937).

The pension enabled Bembo to give her time to composition. None of Bembo’s music was published during her own lifetime, and there seem to have been no public performances of it. The music survives in five handsome manuscripts, one of them divided into two volumes. Bruce Gustaffson provides a succinct summary of their contents: “The surviving output is not enormous (53 vocal works, 12 of them of substantial size), but the range of genres is impressive: independent secular Italian arias (20), Italian cantatas (12 secular, 3 sacred), motets in petit motet style (8 in Latin, 7 in French), a serenata, a Te Deum in grand motet style, and an Italian opera with French influences” (Journal of the American Musicological Society, 61(3), 2008, p.650). The most varied of these manuscript collections is Produzioni Armoniche, of which the full title reads thus: Produzioni Armoniche della Dama Bembo,nobile veneta, consacrat al nome immortale di Luigi XIIIIU, grande ri di Francia e di Navarra / Harmonic Productions of Lady Bembo, a Venetian noblewoman, dedicated to the Immortal Name of Louis XIV, great King of France and of Navarre (my translation).

Produzioni Armoniche, which was probably the first of this set of manuscripts, being presented c.1700-1701, contains 41 pieces; some of them – such as those which relate to important royal occasions in France – were obviously written after Bembo’s move to Paris. But many – perhaps all -of the Italian love songs may have been written prior to her departure from Venice and copied, perhaps with revisions, into this manuscript prior to its presentation. It was obviously compiled with a good deal of careful thought and arranged in a purposeful sequence. That sequence is not simply chronological, though chronological considerations played some part in the arrangement Bembo designed. Other factors were language, genre and specific dedications. There is a clearly discernible structure in the manuscript, so what we have is a sequence, rather than simply a collection. The sequence (which is here recorded in the order of the manuscript) begins with a ‘Sonetto al Re’, which both continues the dedication’s praise of the king and offers a further reminder, by setting a text in Italian, that all this is the work of an Italian who has ‘chosen’ to become one of that king’s subjects. The next three pieces (for ease of reference I will identify the works by the letters PA and their ordinal number in the manuscript, i.e. PA 2-4) also praise the King.

By way of balance and symmetry, Bembo’s sequence ends with three petits motets and a French air (PA 38-41) – so as to make it clear that this composer born in Venice had now fully assimilated the French musical idiom(s).

Returning to the beginning of the sequence, one notices that we have (in PA 5-7) three spiritual songs (with Italian texts), affirming the shared Catholicism of Louis XIV and ‘his’ composer. In PA 9-14 we have a series of six pieces, again in Italian, in praise of Louis and his family, including his son, ‘Monsieur’, (PA 12) and his granddaughter-in-law, Marie-Adélaïde, on the occasion of her marriage.

The longest and central section of the sequence (PA 15-34) consists largely of Italian arias and duets on various aspects and experiences of love. One or two of the pieces here – e.g. PA 15 – might, I suppose, be described as solo cantatas rather than arias.

PA 35 is described as an ‘Epitalamio’ in the manuscript and, as such, is related once more to the marriage of Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy, who became Duchess of Burgundy by her marriage to Louis, the King’s eldest son. The text of PA 36 is about the happiness of love and was perhaps placed in this position so that it might be understood as a further musical ‘blessing’ on this marriage. PA 37 is a cantata - though, it should be noted, Bembo seems not to use this word at all - in honour of the king’s brother, Phillipe, Duke of Orleans.

PA 38-40 are all settings of sacred texts in Latin, the language of Catholicism common to French and Italian alike. All three of these pieces are for soprano, and are, in the litotic words of Claire Anne Fontjin, “not unlike the motets that her contemporaries in France were writing in the late seventeenth century” (quotation from Professor Fontjin’s Ph.D dissertation of 1994 – Antonia Bembo: ‘Les Goûts réunis’, royal patronage and the role of the woman composer during the reign of Louis XIV, p.248; I have been unable to the see same authors book of 2006, Desperate Measures: The Life and Music of Antonia Padoani Bembo). Having, thus demonstrated her mastery of one of the prevailing forms of contemporary French music, Bembo closes
Produzioni Armoniche by demonstrating her skill in a second such form, with an especially beautiful air ‘Ah, quell absence’, an air sérieux which could readily have earned a place in any French collection of airs, such as those published monthly by J.B. Christophe Ballard from 1696 onwards.

‘Armonia delle Sfere’ is quite a name for any musical ensemble to live up to but, even if they are not absolutely ‘celestial’, the singers and musicians of the ensemble are generally impressive. The core group consists of two singers (soprano and alto), flute, baroque harp, theorbo/baroque guitar, viola da gamba, harpsichord and chamber organ (replaced by the pipe organ of the Chiesa Parrocchiale of Stroppari di Tezze sul Brenta, a town in the Veneto, on 3 tracks). We are told that in addition to this core group of performers, the recording was made “con la participazione di” two additional singers (a contralto and a bass), a flaute dolce, a second baroque harp, and a “tromba storica” , which we might translate as ‘period trumpet’. The instrumental sound is nicely varied, many different combinations of instrument being used during the 41 tracks. The flutes are consistently attractive throughout and I also liked the sound of recorder and viola da gamba in ‘Passan veloci l’ore’ (PA 30). Amongst the singers, the Japanese soprano Miho Kamiya is outstanding; in many passages her voice is positively thrilling, her diction is always excellent and her phrasing is sensitive to both text and music. In ‘D’onniponte Padro’ (PA 6) Kamiya is accompanied only by the harpsichord of Sylvia Rambaldi and gives a powerfully expressive reading of this lament, the colours of her voice shifting in response to Bembo’s writing, with Rambaldi providing effective and sympathetic accompaniment.

‘Mostro d’orgoglio’ (PA 7) is a long sacred cantata in Italian, which tells the story of Saint Reine (Regina), the daughter of an aristocratic pagan in third century Burgundy who became a Christian and chose to live as a poor shepherdess while meditating and praying. At the age of 15 she was seen by Olybius, the tyrannical Roman of Gaul who immediately desired her and sought to marry her. She resisted all his ‘persuasions’, whether to give up her Christian faith and/or to marry him. Olybius imprisoned and tortured her, but she withstood all his maltreatment and eventually she was sentenced to execution by beheading. During her execution, onlookers saw a white dove hovering above her. In typical Italian fashion (though this piece was, given its subject matter, surely written after Bembo’s arrival in Paris), Bembo repeatedly uses madrigal-like word-painting. So, for example, when Reine warns Olybius that God will doom him to death: “Decreto fatale / Di tragica sorte / Con pena immorttale t’annunzia la morte” melismatic writing reinforces her words. When, later she insists that his “Cappi, lacci, e catena” (shackles, snares and chains) will not frighten her, descending and ascending notes effectively present an ‘image’ of these instruments of torture. It is therefore no surprise that, when, in the final section of this substantial piece the ‘narrator’ tells us that the she was carried to heaven on the wings of seraphim, the word “ali” (wings) is emphasized through melisma. Miho Kamiya understands the significance of all this and does justice to it without any exaggeration of the effects. Of the other singers, the experienced alto Gloria Banditelli, while by no means unsatisfactory, is less consistently memorable. It is, I suppose, only fair to say that Kamiya gets most of Bembo’s best writing, presumably reflecting the fact that the composer was herself a soprano.

This is a richly enjoyable and important release. It is important because, for the first time we have a complete recording (which sensibly follows the order of the manuscript source) of Produzioni Armoniche, making clear what a fascinating collection / sequence it is. It illustrates how in the life and music of a single female composer that reconciliation of French and Italian styles – what François Couperin was to call (in 1724) ‘les goûts réunis’ can be discerned. But, above all, Produzioni Armoniche contains a good deal of fine music. If this review were not already very long, I would have liked to say something of other outstanding pieces, such as ‘Lunghi dal patrio’ (PA 15), the text of which (I suspect it is by Bembo herself) is based on the story of Clytia and Helios (from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses), a relationship between a water nymph and Helios, the Sun-God. Bembo, from the watery city of Venice, would surely have identified herself with Clytie (or Clizia as she calls her), while the identification of the Sun-God Helios with the Sun-King Louis XIV was a recurrent trope in the praise of Louis. Such ‘identifications’ underlie the emotional power of this fascinating piece. Another beautiful and impressive work is ‘In braccio di Maria: (Per Il Natale)’ (PA 5). So far as I am aware, the only previous CD devoted to Produzioni Armoniche is that by Maria Jonas and Convoce Coel released in 2006 (ALPHA 099). But that recording contains only 12 of the solo soprano works from Bembo’s collection – mixed with lute music by Robert deVisée, a cello sonata by Giuseppe Maria Jacchini and a toccata for harpsichord by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Here, on the other hand, we have all 41 of the works in the Produzioni Armoniche, whether they be solo works for soprano, solo works for alto or duets.

Not for the first time, Tactus’ exploration of unfamiliar areas of Italian music has discovered treasure. This album should be heard by all lovers of baroque music. Please note that at time of writing, the texts, indicated to be available through the Tactus website, were not available.

Glyn Pursglove

1.Gran re che tutto a tutti: (Sonetto al Re) [4:26]
2.Chiaro esempio di Gloria: (al Re)  [5:14]
3.Triumphet astri Lodovici Gloria: (Pour Saint Louis) [9:29]
4.Domine salvum fac regem [2:46]
5.In braccio di Maria: (Per Il Natale)  [8:52]
6.D’onnipotente Padre: (Lamento della Vergine)   [10:47]
7.Mostro d’orgoglio: (Martiro de S.ta Regina) [16:43]
8.Te vider gli avi miei [6:27]
9.Immenso splendore: (al Re)   [2:59]
10.Dal centro della luce: (al Re)  [3:42]
11.Pace a voi al re: (al Re)   [4:27]
12.O del celtico scettro: (a Monseigneur)  [4:17]
13.Or che lampeggia in cielo: (A la Duch. A di Borgogna) 5:13
14.Qual ti rischiara il ciglio: (Per la nozze di Mad.a la Duch. A di Borgogna) [12:45]
15.Lungi dal patrio: (Clizia amante del Sole) [10:08]
16.Abbi pietà di me: (Aria adagio) [4:15]
17.In amor ci vuole ardir: (Aria)  [1:07]
18.E ch’avete bell'ingrato: (Aria)  [1:45]
19.Non creder a sguardi: (Aria a 2) [3:16]
20.Amor mio, facciam la pace: (Affettuoso) [6:11]
21.Son sciolti i miei lacci (Aria allegro)  [1:51]
22.Mi basta così: (Aria) [2:17]
23.Volgete altrove il guardo: (Aria)  [3:51]
24.Non m’hai volute credere: (Aria allegro)  [3:06]
25.Di bell’ire accesi i sguardi: (Aria)  [3:17]
26.S’è legge d’amore: (Aria affetttuosa)  [3:51]
27.Mi console, non son solo: (Aria allegra)  [3:03]
28.Prendete la porta: (Aria)  [4:01]
29.Frema Borea: (Aria)  [2:20]
30.Passan veloci l’ore: (Aria)  [4:49]
31.Beata sirena: (Aria)  [3:13]
32.M’ingannasti in verità: (Aria) [1:38]
33.Anima perfida  [4:42]
34.Amanti a costo di pianti: (Aria a due)  [3:48]
35.Squarciato il velo: (Per le nozze di Madama la duchessa di Borgogna Epitalamio) [9:07]
36.Chi desia viver in pace: (Aria allegra) [4:32]
37.Qual mi balena al guardo: (Per Monsieur) [4:30]
38.Panis Angelicus [2:21]
39.Tota pulchra es [2:48]
40.Domine salvum fac regem [2:57]
41.Ah, quel’absence: (Air) [4:15]

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