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Agostino STEFFANI (1654-1728)
O barbaro Amore - Duetti da camera
È spento l'ardore [6:20]
Saldi marmi [9:36]
Io voglio provar [6:16]
Non so chi mi piagò [7:19]
Placidissime catene [6:01]
Lontananza crudel [3:33]
Il mio seno è un mar di pene [9:20]
Quando ti stringo, o cara [3:11]
Labri belli, dite un po [7:30]
Oocchhi, perché piangete? [6:54]
Andréanne Brisson Paquin (soprano), Céline Ricci (mezzo-soprano), José Lemos (alto), Steven Soph (tenor), Mischa Bouvier (baritone)
Jennifer Morsches (cello), Deborah Fox (theorbo, guitar)/Jory Vinikour (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, USA
Texts and translations included
MUSICA OMNIA MO0711 [66:07]

Agostino Steffani was a remarkable composer, in particular because of the diversity of his activities. He was not only a professional composer, but was also heavily involved in politics, especially as a diplomat, and made a career in the Catholic Church. He was a precocious talent: as a boy - before his voice broke - he had already participated in opera performances. For 21 years he was in the service of Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria in Munich. He then moved to Hanover where he became music director at the court of Elector Ernst August. In the 1690s he became increasingly involved in diplomacy; some of his missions were connected to the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1703 he entered the service of another Elector, Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate in Düsseldorf. In 1709 he returned to Hanover and focused on his activities in the Church. It was his assignment to promote the Counter Reformation in a region dominated by Lutheranism. At this time he hardly composed any music.

Steffani's oeuvre is quite large and comprises almost exclusively vocal music. The genre of the duet was especially important to him and his duets were the main reason for his fame. In 1739 the German theorist and composer Johann Mattheson wrote: "The Italian style of the duet now lacks much of the good qualities of concentration and clarity, mentioned above, because of its fugal, artificial and interwoven nature. However, these duets demand a real man and are a special delight to musically-educated ears, in the chamber as well as in the church (and formerly, in Steffani's time, also in the theatre), provided that accomplished and reliable singers can be found for them; of these we now have fewer than of such works themselves. In this kind of duet the aforesaid Steffani incomparably surpassed all other composers known to me and deserves to be taken as a model to this day; for such things do not easily grow old".

Many of his duets circulated in manuscript across Europe and composers of later generations were strongly influenced by them. One could consider the duet the vocal counterpart of the trio sonata which was modelled by Arcangelo Corelli. Steffani composed 75 duets, for various combinations of voices. It should be noted that there is a clear difference between the duet and the cantata à 2. The latter was usually a dialogue between two different characters. The duet, on the other hand, was a setting of a text put into the mouth of a single person. The scoring for two voices offered the opportunity to use harmony for expressive reasons. The duets by Steffani bear witness to that.

It is mostly not known when and for whom Steffani composed his duets. Most of them may have been written during his time in Hanover. It seems that two ladies at the court, one of them Princess Sophie Charlotte, were interested in music, but they obviously were amateurs. Only a few duets are within the grasp of non-professional singers. What about the technically more challenging duets? The court in Hanover had no chapel, and Colin Timms, in his liner-notes, suggests that the duets may have been performed by professional singers who visited the court during the opera seasons. The court in Munich, on the other hand, had its own chapel, and some of its members may have sung the duets with a part for a lower voice. Timms states that here again visiting singers may have performed Steffani's duets. He does not mention wether the chapel had any castratos in its ranks. These duets are tailor-made for such singers.

High voices were dominant in chamber cantatas and operas of the time. It is not any different in Steffani's duets. In 69 of the 75 duets, one of the parts is for soprano. Six are for alto with either a tenor or a bass. Eleven duets are for two sopranos, twenty for soprano and alto. All the duets are for solo voices and basso continuo. It is known that Steffani composed some duets with additional instruments, but these have been lost.

The structure is various: some are through-composed, others comprise different sections, some of which are set for solo voice. As far as the present recording is concerned, it is notable that Il mio seno ends with a solo for soprano. In most duets the solo sections are in the middle, and the piece ends with a section à due. There are also some duets with sections in the form of a recitative. Phrases and sections are repeated, and some arias have a dacapo.

Over the years several recordings of Steffani's duets have been released, but it would be an exaggeration to state that they are part of the standard repertoire of singers of our time. That is rather odd: these duets are of outstanding quality, and most of them technically of such a standard that they are perfectly suited for opera singers to show their skills. The present disc bears witness to that. Musically and technically, there is quite some variety, and there is also a considerable amount of text expression, through musical figures as well as harmony. An example of the latter is the second section of Saldi marni.

The singers involved here are doing a pretty good job as far as the exploration of the expressive features is concerned. They treat the text in such a way that its content is effectively communicated. The recitativic episodes come off well too. One could argue that the voices of Andréanne Brisson Paquin and Céline Ricci are that different in timbre. However, as these duets are no dialogues, that is probably an asset rather than a problem.

That said, I am not really happy with these performances, and that is - as so often - because of the frequent use of vibrato by all the singers. Céline Ricci and Steven Soph are relatively modest in this department, but in particular Andréanne Brisson Paquin and José Lemos very seldom reduce their vibrato. That is particularly problematic in pieces for two voices, as in such repertoire the voices need to blend perfectly. Here they do not. I realise that some music lovers don't care about this. They should not hesitate to add this disc to their collection. Those like me, who find this hard to swallow, should probably check first, whether this is acceptable or not. I'm still hoping that one day Steffani's duets will be available in performances that are stylistically fully convincing.

There is no lack of expression here, but stylistically these performances leave something to be desired.

Johan van Veen

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