Cantatas for bass
Sergio Foresti, Stile Galante, directed by Stefano Aresi
Pan Classics PC10389
Solo chamber cantatas for bass voice are extremely unusual, the genre being one overwhelmingly dominated by either the soprano or alto voice. I suppose if any composer was going to have devoted himself to them, the prolific Antonio Caldara would be a good bet since his vast catalogue of compositions includes around 350 secular cantatas. Further, as the notes for the present CD suggest, there is another probable explanation for Caldara’s secular bass cantatas and it is one that helps date them. From 1716 to 1736 the composer was in the employment of Emperor Charles VI at the Habsburg court in Vienna, a musical ruler with a particular penchant for the bass voice.
It therefore seems almost certain that the six cantatas recorded here for the first time were composed during Caldara’s Viennese years, a claim supported by the fact that the only one that can be positively dated, Il Dario, belongs to 1727. Although not mentioned in Pan’s notes, it is my belief that such strong circumstantial evidence takes on even greater credibility when the identity of the singer for whom the cantatas were written can be established with near certainty. This was Christoph Praun (or Braun), who took the serious bass roles in the operas of composers such as Caldara and Conti staged at the Imperial court between 1718 and 1732. Evidence that these cantatas were written for Praun is further enhanced by comparing the style of them with the two arias written for him in the role of Saturna in Caldara’s serenata La Concordia de’ pianeti of 1723. Here we find the same virtuoso demands that predominate in the cantatas: a wide tessitura involving frequent leaps requiring great flexibility, coupled with demanding chains of passaggi, characteristics that suggest a singer with a not inconsiderable technique.
Bass roles in the operas of this period were usually given to villains, military men or those of commanding character, so it is little surprise to find that the protagonists of these cantatas include Brutus, Polyphemus, Samson, and Darius, the Persian king defeated by Alexander the Great. The remaining two cantatas conform to the more familiar pastoral tradition. All are scored with continuo accompaniment (here cello, theorbo and harpsichord) and take the customary form of alternating recitative and aria, though ‘A destar l’alba col canto’ (one of the pastoral cantatas) and Il Dario both open with an aria, The latter seems to me the finest of these works, Caldara capturing Darius’ grief at the supposed loss of his wife in an opening aria of real depth and tragic mien, the desolation articulated in powerfully expressive chromatic writing. An extended central recitative calls poignantly on the gods to relieve Darius of his suffering, while the final aria is a heartfelt plea to the shade of his beloved wife to return, its poignancy again stressed by chromaticism. Nothing else quite reaches this level, though the dignity of the blind Samson’s first aria ‘Di quest’occhi è spento il lume’ certainly deserves special mention.
Although Sergio Foresti brings considerable insight to interpreting these cantatas, with much expression and a keen awareness of text, I doubt that his performances will be much to the taste of readers of a specialist platform such as EMR. Though the voice projects authority, there is a persistent wide vibrato that for early music listeners is likely to consistently detract from the virtues of the performances. This along with woolly, approximate articulation of ornaments and a lack of flexibility in the many demanding passaggi mar the performances seriously, as do the rather too frequent problems Foresti has with pitch. Stile Galante provide unexceptionable support, with the familiar caveat that the theorbist is far too active. An interesting CD that basses might want to explore for the repertoire, but one unlikely to attract too many early music specialists.