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FRANCESCO CAVALLI (1602-1676)

Doriclea, opera (Lamento de Doricleaa);
Elena, opera (instr movements; sinfonia);
La Calisto, opera (Dolcissimi baciab; Vivo per tea);

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, opera (SV 325) (Di misera reginaac);
L'incoronazione di Poppea, opera (SV 308) (Pur ti miroab; Signor, oggi rinascoab);
Sì dolce è ’l tormento (SV 332)
a;

FRANCESCO PROVENZALE (1624-1704)

Squarciato appena haveaa;

LUIGI ROSSI (1598-1653)

Lamento de la Regina di Sueziaa


Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzosopranoa
Sandrine Piau, sopranob
Susanna Sundberg, contraltoc

Ensemble Cappella Mediterranea
Dir: Leonardo García-Alarcón

Naïve V 5286

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The title of this disc, "Baroque dream", is not immediately clear, and is nowhere explained in the booklet. However, the title of the liner-notes by Leonardo García-Alarcón point us into the direction of what the programme is about: "Music, the human voice and sprezzatura". The four composers who are represented here, are all known first and foremost for their vocal compositions, in particular opera. One of the features of their compositions is the close connection between text and music, and the wish to express the text with musical means. The ideal of recitar cantando, as laid down by Giulio Caccini, comes to the fore in the pieces included in the programme. The term sprezzatura is certainly appropriate as well. This stands for expressiveness in music, which is partly achieved through a free treatment of rhythm. These qualities are expressed in the operas from which we hear extracts on this disc. Some of these are lamentos, just as some independent pieces. The lamento was one of the favourite genres of the 17th century, as it was a form par excellence to express the intense feelings of the protagonist.

The programme opens with one of Claudio Monteverdi's most famous pieces, Sì dolce è 'l tormento, in which the basso continuo takes the form of a basso ostinato, another favourite device of 17th-century composers. This, and its division in four stanzas, restricts the freedom which the term sprezzatura refers to, but it is remarkable how Monteverdi achieves a large amount of expression nonetheless. The disc ends with one of his most famous lamentos, 'Di misera regina', sung by Penelope in his opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. Two extracts from L'incoronazione di Poppea are of a different nature: these are love duets between Poppea and Nero.

This disc also shows that some stylistic changes took place during the 17th century. In particular the operas of Francesco Cavalli point into the direction of the emergence of the aria which was to become a central part in the opera of the late 17th and the 18th centuries. The text is still in the centre, but the composer pays more attention to melody than before. That doesn't lead to a restriction in the expression of emotion, as the 'Lamento de Doriclea' from Cavalli's opera Doriclea shows. From La Calisto we hear the love duet of Endymion and Diana, 'Dolcissimi baci'. In Cavalli's operas the role of the instruments is increased: they not only play the ritornelli, but also accompany the singer, and also have some instrumental pieces to play. This disc includes several of them, but their exact nature isn't always clear.

Luigi Rossi has mainly become known for his opera L'Orfeo, and in particular the fact that it was performed in Paris in 1647. Through this performance he contributed to the emergence of the tragédie lyrique in France. This was one of only two operas, though. The largest part of his oeuvre comprises secular cantatas, among them several lamentos. One of these is the Lamento de la Regina di Suezia (The lament of the Queen of Sweden). In her personal notes in the booklet Anne Sofie von Otter writes: "It recounts the moment a breathless messenger informed the Queen of Sweden, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, of the tragic death of her husband, King Gustavus II Adolphus. The King was killed in battle on the foggy fields of Lützen, Germany, in November 1632, the war being the infamous Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which involved large parts of Europe, not least Sweden. Maria Eleonora was well known for her beauty and her highly strung psyche. She was called hysterical and mentally unstable, and according to the King's wishes, she was not given custody of her daughter, Christina, when the King died". This is all the material a composer needs to write a piece of intense emotions, and the ideals of Caccini to which I referred before come impressively to the fore here.

In a way the most curious piece on this disc is at odds with these ideals. Francesco Provenzale is of a later generation, and his music is clearly rooted in the Neapolitan tradition, whereas the other three composers worked mainly in Venice and Rome respectively. Squarciato appena havea is a scena which parodies Rossi's lamento. He doesn't use Rossi's text but follows the story, and when someone is quoted he uses a popular tarantella with guitar accompaniment. It is not quite clear why he made it, but it is a quite odd piece. It is performed before Rossi's lamento; it would have been more logical to swap them.

Anne Sofie von Otter gives a very good performance of this piece. What is more, she is very impressive in the whole programme. I have to admit that I was a little sceptical; I still vividly remember her awful disc "Ombre de mon amant". Here she shows great discipline in the way she uses her voice; there is no wide vibrato, and she pays much attention to the text. The treatment of dynamics and the addition of ornamentation are all in accordance with what was expected at the time. In the duets her voice blends well with Sandrine Piau's.

I therefore rate this disc highly, because of the repertoire and the performances, despite a mild attack of percussionitis. Rossi's lamento includes a passage in which the Queen of Sweden urges her subjects in belligerent terms to take revenge for her husband's death. Here García-Alarcón has added percussion which is not required by the composer; this piece is for solo voice and basso continuo. In fact this shows a lack of faith in the expressive powers of the forces Rossi requires. The percussion doesn't make things any better. But if you have heard other recordings under García-Alarcón's direction - for instance Falvetti's oratorio Il diluvio universale, you know that he is contaminated with percussionitis. In the case of the sinfonia from Cavalli's opera Elena I can't tell whether percussion is required here; I suspect it isn't.

Nobody should be discouraged by this to purchase this disc. It did annoy me but didn't spoil my enjoyment nor my admiration for the performances of in particular Anne Sofie von Otter.

Johan van Veen, 17 December 2012

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