Sara Mingardo Se con stille frequenti Duetti da camera Bononcini Lotti SteffaniSe con stille frequenti
Duetti da camera
Bononcini – Lotti – Steffani

Sara Mingardo, contralto
Francesca Biliotti, contralto; Loriana Castellano, mezzosoprano; Lisa Castignanò, soprano; Giorgia Cinciripi, soprano; Lea Desandre, mezzosoprano; Silvia Fregato, soprano; Lucia Napoli, mezzosoprano

Cenacolo Musicale

Arcana, 2016

Se con stille frequenti is an album devoted to a collection of seven chamber duets composed by three of the most important composers of the XVII and early XVIII century (Agostino Steffani, Giovanni Bononcini and Antonio Lotti), with the addition of an operatic aria by Francesco Lucio as centrepiece.

The story of chamber duets begins with the introduction of the basso continuo in the compositional praxis just before 1600. This important step, as Mark Talbot points out in the booklet: «opened up new possibilities for vocal chamber music. In the Renaissance period the number of polyphonic voices in play was rarely fewer than three, the minimum required for full harmony. But the use of an instrumental continuo part, above which improvised chords were added, opened the door to writing for only one or two singers, at a stroke increasing the potential both for dramatic realism and for the display of vocal virtuosity. Recitative and aria, each of which styles became more strongly differentiated from the other as the new century progressed, emerged from Italian monodies written in the stile nuovo around the turn of the century.

In the 1620s the practice of alternating passages – later in the century to become independent movements – in the two styles gave rise to a new musical genre: the continuo-accompanied solo cantata. Slightly earlier, the polyphonic madrigal (or canzonetta) for three voices had mutated into the duet madrigal for two singers supported by continuo, of which Monteverdi’s Zefiro torna is a celebrated early example. This genre then evolved further into the chamber duet, which, like the cantata, was commonly made up of several discrete sections (later, movements) and frequently, though not invariably, included passages set as recitative».

The outstanding figure of Agostino Steffani (1654–1728), bishop, diplomat and composer, is also the first to be presented in Se con stille frequenti. Steffani widely contributed to the spread of opera in Northern Germany, but he is remembered above all for his interest in chamber duets for two voices and continuo. He composed more that seventy of them by 1702, for the major part in closed form, typical of the XVII century cantata, while the others are in open forms, as the Renaissance madrigal. Steffani’s opera and duets were taken as models by other composers, as it happened with Corelli’s trio sonatas.

The next composer is the Venetian Antonio Lotti (1666–1740), now remembered primarily for his church music, even if in his times he successfully wrote operas and vocal chamber music. He published a collection of Duetti, terzetti e madrigali a più voci, Op. 1, in Venice in 1705, with a dedication to Emperor Joseph I, drawing the attention of his contemporaries: Benedetto Marcello wrote an anonymous pamphlet (Lettera famigliare d’un accademico filarmonico) where he criticized Lotti’s counterpoint, but others admired it. Padre Martini included one of Lotti’s works in his counterpoint treatise, Esemplare ossia Saggio fondamentale, while Vivaldi copied sections of two of his compositions and Giovanni Bononcini claimed to be the true author of In una siepe ombrosa, but this proved to be false and led to his resignation from the Academy of Ancient Music in London.

Bononcini (1670–1747) too published a collection of Duetti da camera, Op. 8, stylistically advanced in comparison to Lotti for its assimilation of the structural principles of the solo cantata.

The centrepiece of Se con stille frequenti is of a different kind, being an aria from an opera by Francesco Lucio (1628–1658), L’Euridamante, premiered in 1654 at the S. Moisè Theatre in Venice. Lucio’s years of activity date from 1645, when he was organist at the church of San Martino in Venice, and was notable primarily as a composer of opera (to him was attributed Cesti’s L’Orontea), but he wrote also motets and a collection of Arie (1655).

The delightful and delicate dues of these composers are performed by eight extremely talented singers, but it is the prestigious name of Sara Mingardo that stands out first.

Mingardo does not sing in every composition and her intervention is limited to four duets and Lucio’s aria, but this is enough for her qualities, in particular her unmistakable expressiveness and taste, to emerge. The best moment to appreciate her is in the heart-breaking aria from Lucio’s opera L’Euridamante (Fuggi pur, o crudele), where she sings alone. Moreover, her dark and more mature voice makes a wonderful contrast with the lighter voices of her colleagues, as it happens in Lotti’s Se con stille frequenti and Ben dovrei, occhi leggiadri, where she duets with Francesca Biliotti and Loriana Castellano respectively.

The other singers may lack Mingardo’s depth, but they are nonetheless remarkable and I really hope to have the occasion to listen to them again. All of them are fine and accurate singers and I would like to remember at least the clear and crystalline voices of Lea Desandre and Silvia Frigato, who confer an ethereal lightness to Steffani’s Begl’occhi, oh Dio, non più, Lisa Castrignanò and Giorgia Cinciripi, who perform with great artistry Bononcini’s languid Chi d’Amor tra le catene and another and extremely enjoyable duet by Steffani, Ho scherzato in verità, sung by Lea Desandre and Loriana Castellano with a lively spirit.

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