marcello cantatas elegia

Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739)
Arianna abbandonata
Alessandro Marcello (1684-1747)
Irene sdegnata
Benedetto Marcello
Quanto fu lieto
Qual turbine
Lucia Cortese (soprano)
Camerata Accademica/Paolo Faldi
rec. 2019, Auditorium Pollini, Padua, Italy
Texts and translations included
Elegia Classics Elecla19075 [71]

Benedetto Marcello is one of those composers who have benefitted little from the emerging interest in the Italian music of the first half of the 18th century. The number of discs with music from his pen in my collection is very limited, and over the years I haven’t seen many discs that were completely devoted to his oeuvre. He was different from his peers in that he wasn’t a professional composer. He was from an aristocratic family, and therefore wasn’t able to make a career in music; he was what was called a dilettante. That didn’t prevent him from being highly respected as a composer. In particular his Psalms on Italian texts brought him fame and were praised by the likes of Georg Philipp Telemann, Giovanni Bononcini and – later in the 18th century – Padre Martini.

Marcello was quite critical about the musical fashion of his time, in particular about what he considered ‘tasteless’ ornamentation. His goal of a more ‘natural’ way of setting texts to music was reflected in his oratorio Joaz (1727), which is seen as anticipating the reforms of Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Marcello composed more than 400 cantatas, mostly for solo voice and basso continuo. Among them are several about figures from antiquity, such as Cassandra and Lucrezia. The disc to be reviewed here also treats the fate of such a figure: Arianna abbandonata.

The basic form of the cantata had been established by Alessandro Scarlatti. It consisted of two pairs of recitative and aria, mostly for a solo voice and basso continuo. The scoring could be extended with one or several instruments, mostly violin(s). However, composers often treated this basic form with considerable freedom. They could extend the number of recitatives and arias, for instance by opening with an aria, or added a sinfonia as a kind of overture. The latter is the case in the three cantatas by Benedetto Marcello that have been included here.

The programme starts with Arianna abbandonata, which begins with a remarkably long sinfonia in three sections (prestissimo, adagio assai, allegro), taking more than four minutes in total. It is followed by a dramatic accompanied recitative, in which Arianna expresses her anger about Theseus’s leaving her. In the first aria she complains about his cruelty. In the next secco recitative and aria she not so much gives way to her anger but rather pleads for his return; her unbroken love gives her delight.

This cantata strongly contrasts with the next, Irene sdegnata, a work by Benedetto’s elder brother Alessandro. The latter had many other interests, such as poetry and painting, and was also involved in politics in his home-town Venice. His fame is largely based on his oboe concerto. This cantata is about another woman, who has been left by her lover Fileno. The opening sinfonia sets the tone, as it includes some strong dissonances and ends abruptly, followed by an accompanied recitative, in which Irene wishes her unfaithful lover a confrontation with the elements: “May the abyss, the heavens, the earth and the ocean rage war against impious Fileno!” In the first aria she still restrains herself and complains about her fate. After a second accompanied recitative she vents her anger at full force: “May your foot encounter monsters, lightning bolts, and abysses, precipices and wide ravines”.

The third cantata, by Benedetto again, is of a more lyrical nature. Quanto fu lieto is again about a separation from a loved one, but the protagonist is not filled with bitterness, but rather remembers the good old days and hopes that they will return. This cantata opens again with a sinfonia; the first recitative is accompanied. In Qual turbine heavy weather conditions at sea are used as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of love, which was very much a topos in the baroque era. The whirlwinds the opening recitative refers to, are illustrated by the sinfonia, which is followed attacca by an accompanied recitative. In the first aria the text – “The timid helmsman does not know how to escape the quivering whirlwinds and the moaning ocean, and he is doomed to shipwreck” – is depicted by unsettling harmonies. The ensuing secco recitative reflects the content of the text, which says that the sky is peaceful and the sea is calm. However, it ends with the statement that “the tempests that a severe and aloof countenance moves in a lover cannot be cleared as fast”. The real meaning of what has been described is then revealed in the last aria: “My heart that goes sailing through the sea of love feels a tempest that is no less fierce than this”.

In comparison to the cantatas of the likes of Scarlatti, Handel or Vivaldi, those from the pen of Benedetto Marcello receive not that much interest. Those by his brother have fared even worse, although it needs to be said that it seems that the largest part of the latter’s oeuvre has been lost. That has to be regretted very much, as the cantata included here is an excellent specimen of the important genre of the chamber cantata. Benedetto’s cantatas are also very fine works, and given the large number that have come down to us, there is still some catching up to do. Although the chamber cantata was a specific genre, to be performed during gatherings of the academies which existed in many towns in Italy, some cantatas are close to opera. That goes certainly for Benedetto’s Armida abbandonata, whose first aria is of operatic proportions, taking here more than 11 minutes. The ensemble comprises six violins, two violas and two cellos, which may be appropriate in this work. In the other pieces I probably would prefer a one-to-a-part line-up, as this seems to have been the standard for performances of chamber cantatas. That said, the playing is excellent, and where the tenor of a cantata is depicted in the ensemble, the effects the composers intended have been realized to full extent.

However, the star of the show obviously is Lucia Cortese, whom I did not know, but hope to hear again in the years to come. I am very impressed by her performances of these cantatas. Whether dramatic or more lyrical, she finds the right approach in each recitative and aria. She has a lovely voice, which suits the more intimate arias very well, but in Alessandro’s cantata she shows that she is not devoid of dramatic skills either. The recitatives are performed with the right amount of rhythmic freedom, and the dynamic differentiation is just right.

It is just a shame that the English translation of the Italian liner-notes is rather poor. Fortunately the lyrics of the cantatas have received a much better translation.

Johan van Veen

Availability: Elegia Classics