CD Review: Vivaldi’s ‘Arie e Cantate Per Contralto’ & ‘Musica Sacra Per Alto’
Masterful Performances From Delphine Galou, Ottavio Dantone & Accademia BizantinaBy Alan Neilson
This point was always going to be reached! The Naïve label’s ambitious and highly commendable mission to record the entire Vivaldi catalogue held by the Italian National Library in Turin at some point was going to come to an end, or, more accurately, a series of endings.
With these two recordings “Arie e cantate per contralto,” and “Musica sacra per alto,” the Naïve label winds up its recordings for the contralto voice.
The problem of course with such discs is that they can struggle to have a defining theme, as it brings together the remnants, oddities and left-overs. This was not the case for the disc dedicated to Vivaldi’s scared music, but unfortunately this was very much the impression that one was left with when listening to the disc devoted to arias and cantatas. Even the accompanying booklet struggled to convincingly define an overarching connection between the tracks.
With the outstandingly talented husband and wife team of contralto Delphine Galou and Ottavio Dantone, conducting the Accademia Bizantina, there is much to satisfy even a listener with only a passing interest in Vivaldi’s music. It also probably comes as no surprise that the discs act as a showcase for their talents as much as it does for Vivaldi’s music.
Arie e cantate per contralto
This first disc consists of three cantatas and eight arias from five operas, of which the most well-known is the cantata “Cessate, omai cessate” (1734 -5) which has been recorded on numerous occasions, and provides a fine opening to the disc.
Divided into four sections, recitative – aria – recitative – aria, the piece laments a lover’s suffering and desire for vengeance. In what is a detailed reading, Dantone and Galou combine to produce a passionate performance, contrasting an intense poignancy with a heartfelt desire for vengeance, in which attention to the text is exact.
Its opening aria, “Ah, ch’infelice sempre,” is probably the highlight of the disc. With two pizzicato strings, a single violin and cello, the piece is agonizing in its sensitivity and Galou captures the torment and longing for death, her voice draped in grief.
The second aria, “Nell’orrido albergo,” provides a powerful contrast, as Galou, infused with an urgency for vengeance and overflowing with passionate intensity, takes leaps in her stride and presses the voice into a focused, determined straightjacket, inflected with precise accented emphases. It is a performance which can leave the listener with little doubt as to Vivaldi’s talent for capturing the dramatic in his compositions for the voice.
The other two cantatas, a couple of occasional pieces, which Vivaldi wrote between 1718 and 1720, are not to the same standard even though Galou and Dantone make the most of them. The melodies for the two arias in the cantata, “O mie porpore più belle,” are light and pleasing, but contain little dramatic depth or musical interest. Here, Galou’s voice dances across the the rhythmically taught and bright accompaniment of the orchestra.
The cantata, “Quel in pioggia dorata,” is again dramatically of little interest, but is given an energetic and lively performance, with some notable playing from a pair of horns, symbolizing the hunt, the pass-time of the nobility.
The arias are a mixed grouping, and the quality of the writing is variable. Together, however they offer opportunities for the musicians to display their interpretative abilities, and it is fair to say that Galou and Dantone take full advantage.
The earliest “L’innocenza sfortunata,” is the only surviving aria from Vivaldi’s lost opera “Tieteberga,” written for Venice’s Teatro San Moise in 1717. An aria about a woman’s plea to her lover to defend her honor, it is a fairly simple piece with little nuance. Dantone elicits an agitated reading from the Accademia Bizantina, reflecting the rising emotional state, which Galou builds upon in a wonderful presentation, allowing her vocal line to become increasingly fraught, and the focused ornamentations more emotional.
Two arias, “Liquore ingrato” and “Andrò fida e sconsolata,” are taken from the opera “Tito Manlio” written for Mantua in 1719. Both have gentle melodies, which in the latter is defined by the use of two concertante recorders. This gives the piece a delicate elegance, which Galou reflects with her equally refined and composed singing.
In contrast, the aria, “Semplice non temer” from the 1720 opera “La verità in cimento” is a real oddity. Obviously, a comedy piece in which the singer is enjoying mocking her suitor and his mother, Galou indulges in some fun, hamming up and exaggerating the words, displaying her formidable vocal versatility.
Another work written for Mantua was Vivaldi’s lost opera “La Candace o siano li veri amici,” dating from 1720. Eleven arias, however, have survived, of which three are included on the disc, including “Care pupille,” “Per dar pace al tuo dolore,” and the demanding “Si, si bel volto che v’adoro,” in which a woman gives voice to her undying love.
For large parts the voice is exposed, with only a thin orchestral accompaniment for support, and therefore, if the the aria is to be brought to life it requires a nuanced and intelligent interpretation from the singer, with careful attention being paid to the words.
Galou rose to the challenge and produces a masterful performance, in which her vocal coloring, dynamic shadings, intelligent phrasing and embellishments are compelling, successfully producing a dramatic reading.
The final track is “È pur pace al tuo dolore” from the opera “Giustino,” which was written for Rome in 1724. A distinguishing feature of the track is its twee sounding ritornello which conjured up thoughts of a Christmas carol or of a nursery rhyme, and although this might make dramatic sense given the naïve sentiments being expressed, it was fairly disconcerting to listen to. It was not the best track with which to end the disc.
Musica sacra per alto
No such quibbles exist about the quality of Vivaldi’s music on this disc of scared pieces, which is consistently high throughout. The theme which links the tracks together, beyond that they were written for the church, revolves largely around the crucifixion and Easter.
Galou, and the Accademia Bizantina under Dantone’s direction, again in sparkling form, are joined by tenor/countertenor Alessandro Giangrande, while Alessandro Tampieri steps forward from the orchestra to provide solo violin in a concerto for La SSma Assontione di Maria Vergine.
Dating from the 1710s, there are two motets, written as introductions for the Miserere, “Filiae maestae Jerusalem” and “Non in pratis,” are structured in three parts, recitative – aria – recitative. The use of the motet in this form was allegedly devised by Vivaldi, himself. The texts are a mix of Arcadian and Biblical imagery. Neither is particularly demanding, but are exquisite in their delicacy. Galou captures the deep sadness of the crucifixion, engaging intimately with the texts, giving voice to the tortuous pain and pleading of the people. Her careful articulation, delicate coloring and gentle embellishments add an intense poignancy to the presentation.
“Hymnus Deus tuorum militum,” a hymn about Man’s redemption through Christ’s crucifixion, was written in the 1720s, for contralto and tenor. The text is in five quatrains of which only first, third, and fifth are set, separated by a ritornello. It is a refined piece in which nothing is overstated. Galou and Giangrande’s voices are delicately interwoven, blending beautifully to create a colorful musical montage, in an intelligently crafted reading.
Also from the 1720s is a setting of “Antiphona Salve Regina” in praise of the Virgin Mary. The piece consists of six arias. It is a work which not only displays Vivaldi’s talent in setting a text, but its musical sophistication presents Galou and Accademia Bizantina with opportunities to display their art, in what are six sensitively drawn and nuanced portraits, exemplified by the delicately crafted third aria, “Ad te suspiriamus gementes,” which depicts the people’s suffering. At times, the brighter coloring of Galou’s voice not only captures their pleas for intervention, but hints at the underlying trust they have for the Virgin, and contrasts poignantly with the darker orchestral sections which reveal their suffering. Her subtle ornamentations and short coloraturas are intelligently employed and add refinement and elegance to what is a performance of quality.
The violin concerto, “Concerto in re maggiore per la SSma Assontione di Maria Vergine” from 1725, was written to celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the pietà. It is a pleasing work, displaying Vivaldi’s craft in writing for strings, and Tampieri’s virtuosity on the violin. The first movement is a fine Allegro, in which Dantone creates a fresh, delicate and engaging sound from the orchestra, through which Tampieri threads his violin. The second movement, Grave, is very thinly scored, over which the violin, captures the pain and suffering of the pietà. The third movement, an Allegro, is given a vibrant presentation, topped by a technically assured and lively capriccio for violin. Its inclusion on a disc which is essentially dedicated to the voice works well; it opens up space, and encourages reflection, and provides a greater degree of contrast than one normally is used to on such discs.
The disc ends with “Antifona Regina coeli,” from 1726, which consist of only two lines in two short movements. The first movement, which is also reprised at the end, is a glorification of the risen Christ, to which Dantone produces an uplifting and exhilarating reading, dominated by incisive trumpet playing. In the second movement, the mood is one of reverence, capturing the humility and pleas of the people, as they plead for intercession. Giangrande, singing wonderfully, evokes the sentiments of the piece, successfully contrasting joy with supplication, and brings the disc to a fulfilling conclusion.
Both discs are worthy for the performances of Galou and the Accademia Bizantina alone, and for this reason are highly recommended. However, “Musica sacra per alto” is the more satisfying of the two. Not only are Vivaldi’s compositions of a consistently high standard, which is not the case for “Arie e cantate per contralto,” but thematically it holds together more successfully, and exhibits a better overall musical balance.