Ristori: Cantatas for soprano | Oboe concerto

María Savastano soprano, Jon Olaberria oboe, Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
68:12
Audax Records ADX13711

Giovanni Alberto Ristori will be an unfamiliar name to many. His birthplace in 1692 or 3 is the subject of dispute, but he was the son of a musician and actor who led a commedia dell’arte  troupe in the service of the Saxon Elector and Polish king, August II, in Dresden. Ristori’s earliest operas were staged in Padua and Venice, but in 1715 he and his wife settled in Dresden, where he survived the cull of Italian performers – though not without a cut to his wages – following the death of the elector in 1733. He would go on to serve the Dresden court for nearly forty years, composing operas, serenatas, cantatas and sacred works, at the same time acting as organist to the court Catholic chapel and harpsichordist at the opera. Highly esteemed at court, Ristori is today largely forgotten, though I encountered him quite recently through a not very satisfactory DVD of his 1736 opera Le Fate.

The three cantatas recorded here all have texts by one of the more artistic members of 18th-century European royalty, Maria Antonia, the daughter of the Bavarian Elector, who by the time she married Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony in 1747 was already not only an accomplished singer, keyboard player and lutenist, but also a talented poet. Two of the cantatas have texts derived from Virgil’s Aeneid, one on the familiar topic of Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas, the other the lesser-known episode from much later in the Aeneid  when Aeneas marries Lavinia, the intended bride of his rival Turnus. The notes make much of Metastasio’s praise for the latter poem, though given the great Viennese court poet’s adept mastery of diplomacy, especially where royalty was concerned, we should perhaps be wary. The third poem is a more conventional pastoral tale. While all three texts are well constructed, they fall short of real outstanding merit.

Much the same might be said about Ristori’s music, which while never less than highly competent never fully engages the imagination, or at least not that of this listener. Interestingly, the scores and parts – preserved in a beautifully bound volume as part of a collection once belonging to Maria Amalia – show that the cantatas were designed to be given either as chamber works with the usual alternating recitatives and arias or by a larger ensemble of strings and, in the case of Lavinia a Turno, oboes. It is the latter option that has been chosen here. This works especially well in the often-lengthy accompanied recitatives that dominate all three cantatas, one of the more unusual features. Despite the obviously more weighty subject matter of the two Aeneid  cantatas, it is the pastoral Nice a Tirsi  that seems to me the most rewarding. Its two well-contrasted arias consist of a touching lament for her absent lover by Nice and to conclude a charming ‘duet’ following the lovers’ reunion, in which the role of Tirsi is taken by an obbligato oboe.

The performances by the young Argentine soprano María Savastano are very appealing. The voice has that attractive Latin burnish familiar from singers such as Maria Christina Kiehr and is well produced across the range, with well-developed chest notes. There’s a fast vibrato, which can occasionally become troublesome on sustained notes and while technique is good in passaggi  the articulation of ornaments, which includes rather shallow trills, is not always as precise as it might be. I do part company with Savastano (or whoever advised her) on her ornamentation of da capo’s, which to my mind are not sufficiently decorated and often resort to pulling the melodic line around too much. But I don’t want to make a lot of these caveats. This is very good singing indeed, admirably supported by Ensemble Diderot, whose Jon Olaberria also contributes a fine performance of a brief 4-movement Oboe Concerto in E flat.

Brian Robins