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Passo di pena in pena

Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Ecco, Dorinda, il giorno
Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Sonata a 3 in f minor, op. 8,9
Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Venticel che tra le frondi
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Ombre tacite e sole
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Amor hai vinto (RV 683)

Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, alto
Ensemble Il Profondo

Cantus - C 9636


This is the first solo recording of the alto Flavio Ferri-Benedetti and the ensemble Il Profondo. The latter is basically a basso continuo ensemble and obviously mostly cooperates with instrumentalists and singers. For this recording it has been extended by three string players.

It is not so easy to put together a programme for a debut recording. If only mainstream repertoire is chosen, the debutants are up to stiff competition from more seasoned interpreters. Some music lovers may ignore such a recording as they already have the music in other interpretations in their collection. On the other hand, a programme with music by composers hardly anyone knows will probably not get much attention. And that is what is vital for a first recording of performers who are in the early stages of their career.

The programme of this disc is well balanced. It includes a cantata which is a kind of 'evergreen' of baroque vocal music. Vivaldi's cantata Amor hai vinto is frequently performed by male and female altos all over the world, and exists in various recordings. This gives the opportunity to compare the interpretation with existing recordings and to find out where the artists stand in the early music scene. On the other hand we get music by composers who are not unknown quantities - and that certainly goes for Alessandro Scarlatti - but who are represented with pieces which are certainly not familiar. According to the liner-notes the cantata by Porpora is even recorded here for the first time. The trio sonata by Locatelli sheds light on a part of his oeuvre which is lesser known, as he is most famous for his concertos and sonatas for solo violin. Lastly, the character of the cantatas is such that various aspects of the art of singing in the baroque era, and therefore different sides of the soloist's skills, come to the fore. The cantatas by Vivaldi and Porpora are the most virtuosic, Bononcini's cantata is of a mostly lyrical character, whereas Scarlatti's Ombre tacite e sole is the most dramatic.

In a lengthy essay in the booklet José Carlos Cabello describes the historical and social context in which such music was performed. We are talking here about meetings organized by the rich and famous acting as patrons of the arts, and of literature and music in particular. "The organization of these meetings was, for the most powerful circles, the perfect chance to shine more than 'the others', and those who could afford it, did not hesitate to incur in large expenses to ensure the presence of great poets, famous actors and, of course, the best 'music professors' and singers available". It was quite common practice that "the best poets improvised verses that great composers put into music on the go, and excellent singers premiered them just a few hours later in interpretations marked by an extraordinary eloquence that such a unique, creative effervescence favoured". This could well explain that most cantatas were scored for solo voice - mostly soprano - and basso continuo. Often there was just no time to compose and copy parts for melody instruments. The cantatas on this disc are remarkable for the inclusion of parts for strings.

Ombre tacite e sole by Alessandro Scarlatti is even more remarkable since the strings not only participate in the arias, but also in the recitatives. It comprises two pairs of recitative and aria; both recitatives are accompanied, and the first is introduced by a short sinfonia. The scoring points out the dramatic character of this cantata which is very close to opera. The second aria abruptly ends on the a closing note by voice and instruments; there is no ritornello. Other tools which Scarlatti uses to express the text are sudden pauses and daring harmonic progressions. According to Carbello Scarlatti has added a number of indications, for instance in regard to dynamics.

This cantata is quite a challenge for performers and here they can show what they are made of. The interpretation is impressive and is an indication of what is to come. Flavio Ferri-Benedetti has a beautiful voice which he uses intelligently and effectively at the service of text expression. He shows a strong sensitivity towards the text: words and phrases are singled out through the colouring of the voice, dynamic contrast and ornamentation, all according to the affetti which need to be conveyed. His voice can sound sweet and fluent, but also sharp, angry and agitated. The instrumental ensemble displays the same amount of dramatic flair, which comes especially to the fore in the accompanied recitatives. The trials and tribulations of the protagonist in this cantata are perfectly communicated.

Whereas cantatas by Scarlatti are quite popular and regularly performed, the oeuvre of Giovanni Bononcini is hardly explored as yet. There is every reason to change that: he was highly respected in his time and was particularly admired for his melodic inventiveness. Ecco, Dorinda, il giorno is a fine specimen of his style. It begins with a preludio in two contrasting sections (andante and allegro) which is followed by three pairs of recitative and aria. The first aria is a supreme example of Bononcini's melodic skills and Ferri-Benedetti sings it very nicely. His vocal agility is demonstrated in the second aria. Here he also makes use of his chest register which is quite effective. There is no pause between the last recitative and the following accompagnato, another sign of the good sense of drama of the performers.

Every book on music history and many liner-notes mention Porpora, the most famous singing teacher of his time; among his pupils were castrati such as Farinelli and Caffarelli. As a composer he is about to be discovered judging by the number of recordings which have been released in recent years. Since I greatly admire his music I was happy to see one of his cantatas being selected for this programme. It is a beautiful piece with two arias embracing an accompanied recitative. It shows a mixture of the galant Neapolitan idiom and a considerable amount of vocal virtuosity. Ferri-Benedetti masters it impressively, and the whole performance of the first aria has a nice gentle swing. I notice with satisfaction that he resists the temptation to sing the top notes with full power as happens too often. The words "sospiri" (sigh) and "deliri" (rave) are coloured differently.

Vivaldi's cantata Amor hai vinto may be one of the most famous creations of the Venetian master, but this recording has a surprise for us. The second recitative has been preserved in two versions, one secco, the other accompagnato. The second is chosen here. The first aria is taken at quite a brisk tempo. It is beautifully done, but is this an andante? The sea seems a bit rougher here than in other performances. Ferri-Benedetti closes the da capo with a foray to the bottom of his chest register. I can't figure out the reason for that. The vocal acrobatics of the last aria are admirable. In the da capo Ferri-Benedetti probably takes a bit too much freedom in his ornamentation. However, the performance of this cantata as a whole is exciting.

In the middle of the programme is the Sonata a 3 in f minor, op. 8, 9 by Locatelli. As I indicated this is from a part of the composer's oeuvre which is less well-known, but fully deserves attention. The expression of the slow movements comes off very well, thanks to the effective dynamic shading and the perfect intonation. The whole sonata is played with much passion and flair, and the ensemble confirms the positive impression it has made in the cantatas.

I have gone into some detail in this review because I have heard here various things which I consider as indispensable in this kind of repertoire, and which I sorely miss in many recordings.
Firstly, Flavio Ferri-Benedetti acts as a true narrator in the recitatives and puts the text in the centre. He does so by obeying to the metrical flexibility which was expected from interpreters. His delivery is excellent; every word is understandable which is not common in recordings of cantatas and operas.
Secondly, one of the positive features of these performances is the treatment of dynamics. There is a clear dynamic shading and a differentiation between good and bad notes. The stressed syllables and notes are marked through dynamic accentuation, even in case of a swift tempo. As a result the rhythmic pulse is also clearly exposed.
Thirdly, there is a modern trend to exaggerate in regard to ornamentation. In the da capo’s complete lines are virtually rewritten in such a way that the original is almost unrecognizable. These performers have avoided that. They add quite a lot of ornaments, but always in a tasteful way.
Lastly, this disc shows that it is perfectly possible to deliver expressive and theatrical performances of baroque music without an incessant and obtrusive vibrato. Obviously Ferri-Benedetti makes use of vibrato, but then as an ornament, not as a way of singing.

This production is rounded off by an exemplary booklet with an informative essay and interesting personal notes by Ferri-Benedetti.

From whatever angle you look at it: this is an exceptionally fine disc by exceptional artists. We shall hear more from them in the years to come, that's for sure.

Johan van Veen, 4 February 2013

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