Sacred Duets

Nuria Rial soprano, Valer Sabadus countertenor, Kammerorchester Basel
60:24
Sony Classical 88985323612
Music by: A. Scarlatti, Pasquini, Colonna, D. Gabrielli, Bononcini, Torelli, Lotti, Caldara, Porpora

During a recent discussion on the diction of singers with a friend, I raised in particular the question as to why that of great singers of popular music and jazz – people like Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra – was in general so much better than that of classically trained singers. Obviously there are some answers that come from the differences in the music itself, popular songs being usually more declamatory and syllabic and therefore easier to enunciate. But that doesn’t explain everything and here as if to underscore the point is a CD that could not provide a better illustration of just how bad the diction of classically trained singers can be.

‘Two of the most beautiful baroque voices …’ runs Sony’s blurb on the cover. And indeed they are, though countertenor Valer Sabadus is liable to become a bit blustery in bravura writing. More to the point is the fact that throughout the whole the programme both he and the enchanting Nuria Rial might as well be singing their shopping lists for all the meaning of the text they convey to the listener. Which is a great pity, because this is a fascinating programme of duets and solos (pace  the CD’s name) taken from Italian oratorios of the 17th and earlier 18th centuries. The genre is of course very different from the English form, being heavily influenced by the spirit of the counter-Reformation and therefore much indebted to theatricality. So the innocent ear should not be surprised to find here duets that not only have texts that read (and you can read them in the booklet, even if you can’t hear them!) like operatic love duets, but sound like them. Take, for example, the exquisite duet ‘Lascia ch’io veda almeno’ for Justice and Peace from Porpora’s Il Verbo in carne, first given in Naples in 1747/8. This beautifully wrought number with its shapely vocal lines cajoled along by sequential orchestral figuration opens with the words (for Justice), ‘Grant that I may at last see in this kiss, O beloved, the victorious world set aside its bitter pain’. Here, a hundred years after the event, are words and music to transport us back to ecstatic, erotic counter-Reformation world of Bernini’s St Theresa. Much the same applies to another Porpora duet, from his Il martirio di San Giovanni Nepomuceno (Venice, c. 1730). Here an Angel sings to St John at the moment of his martyrdom, ‘O how sweet a victory in heaven I shall see you enjoy’. Again we find the same quasi-erotic tenderness and ecstasy in both music and text. It is worth pointing out in parenthesis that Sony have reversed the track listing for these two numbers, the Il martiro  duet being track 15, not 13 and vice versa.

The unavoidably bland overall impression made by the CD is not mitigated by the neat but somewhat anonymous support of the modern-instrument Kammerorchester Basel, who on their own account play Torelli’s Concerto grosso, op. 8/8. The performance is tidy, but lightweight and a few moments of vulgarity in the central Adagio – some mannered rhythmic freedom and unconvincing portamenti – almost come as a relief. Ideal for anyone who likes lovely sounds as background music.

Brian Robins

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