Eugenia Boix, Carlos Mena, Forma Antiqua, Aarón Zapico
Winter & Winter 910 231-2
+ Corbetta, J. C. F. Fischer & Kapsperger
The colourful and active life of Agostino Steffani was founded on his early promise as a singer, a talent resulting in him being employed by the Bavarian Elector Ferdinand Maria in 1667, around the time of his 13th birthday. He would remain in Munich for 21 years, composing a number of operas for the electoral court, the last of which, Niobe (1688), has been successfully revived (and recorded). The same year that saw the production of Niobe also found Steffani moving to take up an appointment in Hanover in the service of Duke Ernst August, service that would include not only musical, but also diplomatic activity. Later his career would focus on ecclesiastical duties as Bishop of Spiga and, of particular importance, Apostolic Vicar in northern Germany.
Steffani’s surviving output consists wholly of vocal music, a crucial role being played by the chamber duets for two voices and continuo. For the most part composed before 1702, they incorporate a variety of forms, ranging from the up-to-date alternation of recitative and da capo aria to sectional through-composed works reminiscent of madrigal form. Among the six duets recorded here, the present CD includes two examples of the latter, of which, Occhi, perché piangete is especially striking for its opening Lento section featuring long, painful chromatic legato lines. Indeed, one of the striking aspects of these settings of Arcadian poetry dealing principally with the pain of love is Steffani’s acute response to text, which does not exclude mimetic treatment of such lines as ‘Jove’s flash between your eyes’. The duets are characterized musically by their easy mastery of counterpoint and gracious melodies, the exquisitely interwoven lines of the opening aria of Dimmi, dimmi, Cupido providing a particularly felicitous example. They are, moreover, of considerable historical importance, the influence on the chamber duets the young Handel composed in Italy readily apparent.
The performances are commendable, though not ideal, not least because the rather close acoustic does few favours to the voices; I certainly associate alto Carlos Mena’s always musical singing with having more bloom on the voice than is the case here. His soprano partner Eugenia Boix is a less finished singer – one need only compare the many imitative exchanges between the two – but it is an attractive voice, though liable to become undisciplined under pressure at times. Both singers are largely successful in expressing the texts with greater insight than is sometimes the case. I have ambivalent feelings about the continuo group of cello, theorbo, harpsichord and an anachronistic Baroque guitar. There is at times a stilted feel to their contribution, which only truly comes to life in the interspersed solo items allotted to the theorbo, harpsichord and guitar in works by Kapsberger, Fischer and Corbetta respectively.