16 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara – LA CONCORDIA DE’ PIANETI (V. Cangemi, R. Donose, F. Fagioli, D. Behle, D. Galou, C. Mena, L. Tittoto; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara - LA CONCORDIA DE' PIANETI (DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)ANTONIO CALDARA (1671 – 1736): La concordia de’ pianeti—Verónica Cangemi (Diana), Ruxandra Donose (Giove), Franco Fagioli (Apollo), Daniel Behle (Mercurio), Delphine Galou (Venere), Carlos Mena (Marte), Luca Tittoto (Saturno); La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel; Andrea Marcon, conductor [Recorded in the Konzerthaus Dortmund, Germany, 13 – 19 January 2014, in conjunction with the work’s modern première on 18 January 2014; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356; 2 CD, 108:07; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Despite the quality of his oeuvre, Antonio Caldara is a composer whose name remains more known than his music. A native Venetian whose turbulent career took him to Barcelona and Vienna via Mantua and Rome, Caldara was a prototypical son of a violinist who mastered several instruments and took up composition as a natural continuation of the family legacy. His liturgical music found favor at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, and he was likely the composer of the first Italian operas performed in Spain, but, beyond speculation and generalities, who was Antonio Caldara? Even the date of his birth is uncertain, and sadly little information of verifiable veracity about his life remains. What is known is that he was not altogether fortunate in his choices of employers: his tenure at the Mantua court of the Francophile Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga was cut short by the expulsion of French interests from Italy, and his stay in Barcelona was relatively brief but seemingly remarkably productive. The extent to which his artistry was shaped by education and experience remains a matter of conjecture, but his surviving music affirms that he earned the right to be regarded both by his contemporaries and by posterity as one of the true masters of the Italian Baroque. By the time of his death in 1736, Caldara had assumed a vital position in the musical life of Hapsburg Vienna, and that his passing was mourned by the imperial court indicates the esteem in which he was held in Europe’s most musical city. That the man deserved such homage from his contemporaries must suggest that, in an age in which ambition and curiosity lead artists into the most neglected corners of Baroque repertory, his music merits the attention of the most inquisitive artists of the Twenty-First Century. Long an advocate for overlooked music of the Seventeeth and Eighteenth Centuries, the Archiv label here gives the music of Antonio Caldara an impeccable opportunity to lift the composer’s name out of decaying musicological tomes and thrust it into the global musical conversation.

First performed in 1723 in Znojmo in today’s Czech Republic, Caldara’s ‘componimento teatrale per musica,’ La concordia de’ pianeti, was created as a diversion for the Hapsburg Empress’s name day during a royal visit to Moravia. Details of the first performance are vague, but Znojmo had the distinction of being the base of operations for one of Caldara’s most intriguing contemporaries, Prokop Diviš, the inventor of a contraption known as the denis d’or, ostensibly the first ‘electronic’ musical instrument in the modern sense. Presumably, musical forces either existed or were assembled to suitably serenade sojourning crowned heads from Vienna, and the participation of several of the continent’s most celebrated singers—the castrati Carestini, Orsini, and Genovesi, who sang Apollo, Giove, and Diana, and tenor Gaetano Borghi as Mercurio—assured a regal ambience. Recorded in conjunction with a concert presentation in Dortmund, this performance has the advantage of the services of excellent singers and musicians of proven elegance in similar repertory. Aside from strangely artificial-sounding applause, the recording gives no indications of its live-performance provenance. The acoustic is slightly dry, which accentuates a few blemishes in the singers’ vocal productions, but the overall sonic atmosphere is pleasing to the ears. Though not Caldara’s best work even among the few scores known to Twenty-First Century listeners, La concordia de’ pianeti is an inventive score, and Archiv’s engineering allows Andrea Marcon and the instrumentalists of La Cetra Barockorchester Basel to exercise their gifts with great refinement but without fear of details being obscured by indifferent sound quality. The taut playing of the work’s Introduzione sets the stage for a thoughtful but unexaggerated performance, and the singing of La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel in the choruses ‘Oggie brillate e ardete,’ ‘Questo giorno celebrate,’ and ‘Tu sei cara in pari guisa’ further establishes the success of the performance as a whole. The choristers maintain close-knit ensemble without sounding inappropriately ecclesiastical, and their near-perfect diction gives their utterances heightened immediacy. Having dedicated much of his career to leading performances of music by Vivaldi, Maestro Marcon knows how this essentially Venetian score should go, and he and his team of continuo players, musicians, and singers give Caldara’s music a reading of tremendous energy and finesse.

As sung by bass Luca Tittoto, Saturno is a staunchly curmudgeonly presence, the character’s recitative with Giove, ‘Mercurio non risponde,’ receiving from the singer charismatically gruff enunciation. In the aria ‘Di quel bel nome al suono,’ Mr. Tittoto manages the wide range of the music capably, producing terrifically resonant low notes. There is a surprising vulnerability to Saturno’s ‘Mi piace, o dive, o numi,’ realized viscerally by Mr. Tittoto, and he channels considerable resources of tonal shading into his imaginative phrasing of the aria ‘Pari a quella il mondo vede.’ The basses in performances of Baroque vocal music are often whining, weak-voiced singers with grainy, featherweight timbres. Saturno demands a measure of true brawn, and Mr. Tittoto supplies it well within the boundaries of good taste.

Marte is sung by countertenor Carlos Mena with a blend of subtly-inflected diction and compact tone. Sparring with Apollo, Diana, and Venere in the recitative ‘Se tanto ottien laggiù,’ he matches the sheen of his timbre to the dramatic impetus of his words. He exhibits a fine bravura technique but intermittent weakness on sustained tones in the aria ‘Non v'è bella che non creda.’ Marte’s scene with Venere, ‘No, non è il solo,’ is rousingly done by Mr. Mena, who then sings the exhilarating aria with trumpets ‘Da mia tromba’ excitingly, as well. Mr. Mena’s dulcet but unmistakably masculine timbre is always heard with pleasure.

Delphine Galou is one of the few true contraltos singing today, and her performances invariably convey complete preparedness and concentration. As Venere in La concordia de’ pianeti, she contends with music that is almost perfectly-suited to her voice. In Venere’s exchange with Mercurio, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the burnished quality of her timbre lends her portrayal authority and sensuality appropriate for the character. Ms. Galou’s singing of the complex aria ‘Non si turba e non si duole,’ its deceptive cadences put to clever dramatic use, is distinguished by the fantastic strength of her sustained tones. To both the recitative with Giove, ‘Qual se improvvisa face,’ and the aria ‘Ad Elisa ancor d'intorno’ she devotes the best of her artistry, wrapping her voice around the words alluringly. In the symbolic Licenza, a flattering paean to the imperial birthday girl, Ms. Galou gets the last words with the recitative ‘Ecco, Elisa, gli applausi’ and aria ‘La concordia de' Pianeti,’ which she sings chicly. The sophistication for which Ms. Galou is renowned is evident in every note that she sings in this performance, and her sensitive, womanly Venere is rightly the musical and dramatic nucleus of the recording.

In the context of this recording, Daniel Behle further confirms that he is one of the Twenty-First Century’s most important singers with a performance of breathtaking bravura swagger. In Mercurio’s recitative with Venere, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the tenor tears into the words with a vengeance, the innate refinement of his basic vocal production not inhibiting his carefully-honed dramatic instincts. Mr. Behle dispatches the fiery coloratura passagework in the aria ‘Tal se gemma e rara e bella’ with incredible gusto. He joins delightfully with Saturno and Giove in the recitative ‘Più belle sempre furo,’ and his singing of the aria ‘Madre d'Amor tu sei’ is characterized by exemplary breath control and keen phrasing. Mr. Behle creates an aptly aristocratic Mercurio with Puckish charm, and the voice is, as ever, an exceptionally secure, beautiful instrument.

To the ranks of several outstanding recent recordings countertenor Franco Fagioli adds a performance of Apollo in La concordia de’ pianeti that reaches very high levels of expressive, lovely singing. In ‘Mal crede il dio guerrier,’ his recitative with Mercurio and Giove, Mr. Fagioli seems to truly listen and react to his colleagues. His broadly-phrased singing of the aria ‘So ch'io dal suolo alzai’ is crowned with extraordinary high notes. Later, he lavishes great nobility and tonal luster on Apollo’s recitative ‘Ben cedi, o Cintia’ and aria ‘Questo dì così giocondo.’ There are a few ungainly moments in Mr. Fagioli’s negotiations of pyrotechnics, but he is a shrewd, uncompromising singer who excels in almost every musical task that he undertakes. This recording finds him very near to being on his best form, which is to say that he sings magnificently.

Rugged machismo is not the hallmark of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose’s Giove, but he is a willful, virile god with a voice that sounds as though it holds thunderbolts in reserve. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that a singer’s vocalism is too beautiful, but Ms. Donose’s opulent vocalism is a bounty that is almost richer than Giove’s music justifies. In the recitative ‘Mal discerni a i grandi’ and aria ‘Alla bontade e al merto,’ Ms. Donose displays impressive poise, and her bravura technique is never less than equal to Caldara’s requirements. Similarly, her voice flows through the recitative ‘Il giusto augurio accetto’ and aria ‘Goda il mondo’ with the sheen of liquid gold. Ms. Donose is an astonishingly versatile singer, and this recording documents her artistry at its peak.

Soprano Verónica Cangemi is the kind of singer who can uplift or break a listener’s heart with something as simple as the resolution of a cadence. As the chaste Diana in La concordia de’ pianeti, she enchants with the magic of a great actress. In Diana’s recitative with Mercurio and Venere, ‘Di Mercurio è costume,’ and the encounter with Giove, Venere, and Mercurio, ‘Ben sovente più bella,’ she communicates with both her colleagues and the listener with insightful use of text, shading her tone to reflect the shifting emotions of the words. Her traversal of the aria ‘Ad essa io cederò’ is a lesson in historically-informed singing allied with a poet’s caressing of nuances in the text. Even in the recitative with Giove, ‘Poiché tanto prometti,’ her phrasing is endearingly pensive. Ms. Cangemi provides the emotional zenith of the performance with her serene, heartfelt singing of the aria ‘Voti amanti ch’il chiedete.’ The voice is no longer produced with the obvious ease that her singing demonstrated in years past, and there are passages in which the velvet has worn off, revealing the sturdy hardwood core. Ms. Cangemi nonetheless remains a Baroque stylist of the first rank, ornamenting her arias with great creativity, and her coolly engaging Diana proves an ideal foil to Ms. Galou’s fervid Venere.

Like many of his contemporaries, Antonio Caldara is only just beginning to emerge from the long shadows of Händel and Vivaldi. The small group of stylistically authentic recordings of Caldara’s music represents a still-inadequate reflection of what history suggests that the composer’s significance in the artistic milieu of the first half of the Eighteenth Century warrants. La concordia de’ pianeti is not a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Händel’s Tamerlano or Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, but its quality suggests that the next Caldara manuscript to emerge from a dark library may well be. Performed as well as La concordia de’ pianeti is on this recording, almost any piece might seem a valuable discovery.