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CD Review

Alessandro Scarlatti

Philharmonia 9

La Gloria Di Primavera

  • Suzana Ograjensek, soprano Estate (Summer)
  • Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano Primavera (Spring)
  • Clint Van Der Linde, countertenor Autunno (Autumn)
  • Nicholas Phan, tenor Inverno (Winter)
  • Douglas Williams, bass-baritone Giove (Jove)
Philharmonia Baroque Chorale
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia PBP-09 2CDs 138:36
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Also available on Blu-ray Audio PBP-09BD:
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Sicilian Alessandro Scarlatti lived from 1660 to 1725. Together with Corelli and Pasquini, he was elected to the Accademia dell'Arcadia in Rome, where it is assumed that he met Handel the following year, 1707. Indeed, the opening of La Gloria Di Primavera from Philharmonia Baroque Productions is strangely redolent of Handel's choral and larger-scale instrumental works.

La Gloria Di Primavera, recorded here on two CDs by five soloists with the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan, is a serenata. That's an extended work in several movements for single special occasions such as marriages and birthdays. In this case it was the birth of the future Archduke Leopold in April 1716. After periods of war, the Hapsburgs now controlled Naples as one of the territories ceded to them by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

Scarlatti was the court composer of the Neapolitan Prince Gaetano d'Aragona and his wife, Aurora Sanseverino. Naturally Scarlatti was commissioned to write such a celebratory work for Archduke Leopold's birth – both as an act of subservience on the couple's part and as genuine relief at the prospect of peace and stability: a male heir to the Holy Roman Empire, the Archduke would continue the Hapsburg dynasty; and it was hoped that this succession would prevent or avoid more wars like that of the Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1714.

La Gloria Di Primavera is a series of 55 short numbers (barely half a dozen last more than four minutes) divided into two parts, which are distributed almost equally across the two disks here. The serenata is not dissimilar to the opera seria: mainly syllabic secco recitatives are accompanied only by harpsichord, lutes/theorbos and cello. They lead into the majority of the (da capo) arias; although Jove's recitatives understandably benefit from the fullness of the orchestra which adds melismatic depth and harmonic richness.

On learning of the birth of the Hapsburg heir each of the seasons pays tribute in turn. Spring (Primavera) attempts to claim supremacy because Leopold was born in April. Jove is asked to intervene and judge which season has the most acceptable claim to celebrate… Summer for when the child was conceived; Autumn for representing fecundity in abstract; Winter for safe gestation; or indeed Spring for delivery. Somewhat predictably, Jove agrees – Spring. And the remainder of the work consists of amplifications of the praise due to the Holy Roman Empire's principle family. The degree of virtuosity and richness of the writing for each soloist reflects the hierarchy of this outcome. This helps to ensure the variety in Scarlatti's writing without which a work of over two and a quarter hours could otherwise have been turgid and formulaic. It isn't. Nor is it or its writing tied to events which are also now quite remote from us. The idea of contention, contrast and eventual confluence are dealt with in more of a universal way (again as Handel was able to do) as Scarlatti confers on the music a wider appeal.

What's more, Scarlatti expected a more elaborate staging of La Gloria Di Primavera than would have been the case for a conventional oratorio, although the theme and "sentiment" were similar… expositional, declamatory with a controlled mixture of rhetoric, embellishment and statement. The alternation of solo and ensemble numbers leaves the listener completely unfatigued. Yet some shortcomings of the singers mean that one is not so consistently swept along by the strength of the somewhat single-minded allegory celebrating the power of the Hapsburgs as was the original audience in May 1716: it had to be reprised – twice. Thereafter it sunk into obscurity. Until this recording.

None of the singers is outstanding. Soprano Suzana Ograjensek (summer), for instance, has something of a dull tone and seems to sing consistently under the notes. Countertenor Clint Van Der Linde has much more enthusiasm and sense of the dramatic than he does staying power and penetrative interpretation of his role as Autumn. Tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Douglas Williams display less weakness in the face of a driving and unambiguous orchestral score. Allegory is not an easy idiom to live up to these days, perhaps. You are left with the impression that – collectively – these singers rarely break loose from an operatic approach while not tethering their style to the secular cantata and excelling in technique.

Repeated listening to what must have been a difficult work to realize and record does go some way to overcome such reservations. After all, Nicholas McGegan is in charge. It is an achievement worthy of real praise to project Scarlatti's musical inventiveness "through" the specifics of the occasion for which it was written and to emphasize the ways in which the whole. The allegory is successfully made to means as much as possible despite an idiom which is perhaps somewhat difficult for members of a twenty-first audience to lose themselves in.

The acoustic is that of a live recording at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California, in October 2015. It's drier and less "giving" than it might be when the need for the serenata's sense of splendor and atmosphere is considered. There is reverberance, but it's short and does little to help the singers. To the instrumentalists, on the other hand, it adds focus. The CDs come with a nicely-produced full-color booklet of 60 pages with background to the work, tracklist, bios of the performers and the full text in Italian with English translation. The essay by Bruce Lamott is particularly well-written and provides much needed context for a work with which most listeners are almost sure to be entirely unfamiliar. This appears to be the first (certainly the only current) recording of this work. For lovers of Baroque choral music, and those enthralled by Alessandro Scarlatti's happy blend between established and gently exploratory forms, although there are serious reservations about the vocal soloists, it makes a useful addition to the catalog.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey

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