A. Scarlatti: O penosa Lontananza

Cantate da camera
Deborah Cachet soprano, Scherzi Musicali, Nicolas Achten bass & director
70:01
Ricercar RIC 396

In a long and interesting note covering both music and performance practice choices, Nicolas Achten attempts to justify the most contentious aspect of this new CD of Alessandro Scarlatti chamber cantatas – the use of a large continuo group – by quoting Francesco Gasparini’s L’armonico pratico al cimbalo, first published in Venice in 1708. Achten is particularly exercised by the fact that Gasparini refers to richly filled-out, dissonance-inflected chords, taking the author’s observations as his cue to provide no fewer than three performers on theorbos or archlutes, while also adding to this plethora of plucked strings by including a triple harp and occasional guitar. The major flaw in his argument, it seems to me, is that Gasparini is referring solely to the harpsichord and that by employing a large continuo group Achten has come up with an anachronism – a 17th-century sound in 18th-century music. Neither is this just an arcane stylistic point, since there are numerous occasions in these performances where the thickly textured plucking distracts attention from the vocal line, supporting which is after all the prime function of basso continuo.

Performance practice questions out of the way, the first point to make is that the six previously unrecorded works included are all fine examples of Scarlatti’s refined, elegantly turned Arcadian cantatas. They include three for baritone, two for soprano, while O penosa lontananza, the cantata that gives the disc its name, is for both singers. In addition to continuo, four have parts for two violins and all follow the form of the mature secular cantata, that is to say an alternation of recitative and aria, though not necessarily in that order. In keeping with the genre the topic is, of course, pastoral love in idyllic settings, frequently treated with a subtle ambivalence or gentle mockery. Fiero, acerbo destin, for soprano, starts with language and music of madrigalian intensity – ‘Cruel and bitter destiny of my soul, I suffer, languish, and die’– before turning to parody itself – ‘Tell me, lovers, have you heard a more cruel and hopeless story’. It is music originally intended for a cultured, sophisticated audience and it needs an intelligent approach from its performers, who must always keep in mind that is it music for the salon, not the opera house.

In this respect both Deborah Cachet and Nicolas Achten are successful, though in differing ways, the former, for example, tellingly capturing the irony of the cantata mentioned above. Cachet’s singing throughout is indeed near unalloyed pleasure; the quality of her voice is lovely, crystalline in purity and owning to the ability to spin an unwavering cantabile, yet full of a youthful warmth and, where needed, passion to evoke the shepherdesses who talk of nothing but love in its different guises. However Cachet does earn a black mark for her ornamentation of da capo repeats, where she too frequently strays too far from the melodic line. Few would be likely to term Achten’s bass ‘lovely’, since it has a grainy quality and is also prone to excessive vibrato. He is, however, an intelligent vocal actor, which brings compensations where strong interpretation of the text is needed, as in the final cantata on the disc, Tu resti, o mio bel nume. Here, particularly in the long final recitative and concluding aria, Achten communicates with profound understatement, almost as if self-communing, the dichotomy found in the poet’s exploration of parting and death as two sides of the same coin.

An interesting recording then, if one that is far from flawless, particularly in relation to what is to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of 18th-century continuo.

Brian Robins