Steffani: O barbaro Amore

Duetti da camera
66:07
Musica Omnia mo0711
(Booklet notes by Colin Timms)

The duets of Agostino Steffani play an important role in the development of vocal chamber music, reflected both in their own intrinsic merit and the influence they had on succeeding composers, not least Handel. Justly, their importance has started to be reflected on CD, the most recent issue emanating from the Boston Early Music Festival reviewed by David Hansell on EMR earlier in the month (August 2018), while my review of a disc by the Spanish Forma Antiqua ensemble can be found in the listings for July 2016. Since it included a fairly comprehensive introduction to Steffani’s chamber duets interested readers are referred to that review. Now those recordings are joined by this newcomer, which also emanates from the USA.

It is probably a measure of the challenges these duets present to their performers when I conclude that none of these recordings is truly satisfactory. A major difficulty is the communication of texts that deal with many aspects of love, not infrequently in ironic terms. As Steffani scholar Colin Timms perceptively writes in his valuable notes for the new issue (he also wrote the essay for the Boston issue), the ‘vocal writing […] reflects the rhythm, sound and meaning of the words, arousing a variety of affective responses…’ The problem is nowhere on these performances does it do so beyond generalised emotional gestures; it is surely not without significance that not one of the eleven singers featured across the three CDs has Italian as their native language. It shows.

The new disc features no fewer than five singers, of whom Canadian soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin and mezzo Céline Ricci, the best-known name, have the lions share. Both they and their male companions, countertenor José Lemos, Steven Soph (tenor) and Mischa Bouvier (baritone) turn in good honest performances that in the final analysis fall some way short of ideal. Italian diction, Ricci excepted, is poor, while Paquin’s bright soprano has considerable character but the voice is too ill-focussed at times for this repertoire, though she and Ricci turn in a satisfyingly affecting performance of the more straightforward and exquisitely wrought ‘Lontananza crudele’. But one needs listen only to the searing chromatic lines of the opening ‘Occhi, perché piangete’ in the rival Spanish version, itself not ideal, to be aware of what is missing here. The continuo support on the new disc is unexceptionable, if at times somewhat stolid. It remains only to add that anyone who wants to investigate Steffani’s chamber duets – and that should include anyone interested in Baroque vocal music – the present recording involves no duplications with the Boston CD. But what we really need are interpretations by some of the fine present crop of Italian early music singers.

Brian Robins

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