The eighty-or-so chamber duets of Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) have received only sparse and very selective attention from recording companies over the years. But that has begun to change recently - and it's about time, because Steffani's Duetti da Camera are among the truly exquisite masterpieces of the baroque era. They epitomise many of the qualities that make baroque music so appealing to us today: melodic beauty, delicate counterpoint, delicious harmony, emotional drama and sheer expressive power. Modestly scored for two voices and continuo, they were regarded as models of vocal music in their time, by the young Handel among many others. Their poetic texts, mostly expressing the interwoven pleasures and pains of unrequited love, are set to music of intricate and mesmerising beauty by one of the great baroque masters of the voice.
Wonderful music, then, but experience suggests that it’s more difficult than it might seem to do it full justice in performance. Forma Antiqva, directed by Aarón Zapico, are a talented early music ensemble, and their performance of this selection of duets has a lot to commend it. The two singers, soprano Eugenia Boix and countertenor Carlos Mena, are stylish, expressive and command the necessary virtuosity. Eugenia Boix is excellent throughout, but Mena's voice lacks volume and can at times be overwhelmed by the more characterful voice of the soprano. This could have been compensated in the recording balance, but it wasn't. The pair are accompanied by cello, theorbo, guitar and harpsichord. Personally I could have done with a bit less strumming and more keyboard sound in the instrumental balance, but that's a minor complaint.
Singers and players all take a lively, animated approach, conveying well the emotional drama of the works although sounding a bit jerky at times at the expense of the music's flow, continuity and delicate counterpoint. A more serious problem, however, is the recording editors' decision to break up the various episodes of the longer duets into separate tracks, with significant pauses interrupting what should be continuously flowing, developing and closely related sections. These amount to gaps of around 5 or 10 seconds, depending on whether or not you include the last signs of reverberation of the previous closing note. This may not sound like a lot but, with an adjustment for scale, it feels a bit like stopping for a tea-break halfway through the Choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth. What is the point, and who on earth would want to listen to just one section of a unified six- or seven-minute work? For all I know, this decision may have had nothing to do with the musicians themselves, but instead be the work of some ignoramus in the editing studio afterwards. But, either way, it is a serious error of judgement in my view, and the result is detrimental to the music and, in particular, to the cumulative emotional power within each work.
The six duets chosen are all lovely works, my own favourites here being 'Occhi, perché piangete?' (track 5); 'Crudo amor' (12-15), even though it's one of the duets that suffers from the tea-break syndrome; and 'Placidissime catene' (16), which is performed continuously and comes off beautifully altogether, fully capturing the subtlety and passion of this marvellous piece. The other duets included are 'Begl'occhi, oh Dio', 'Dimmi, dimmi, Cupido', and lastly 'Sol negl'occhi del mio bene'. Significantly perhaps, the choice of works is almost exactly the same as in the recording on the Glossa label by Rossana Bertini and Claudio Cavina, which I'll return to in a moment. I think this is a pity because there are many other duets from Steffani's collections still awaiting a decent recording, or any recording at all. However, the six duets on the present disc are also interspersed with a few instrumental pieces, helping to make this an attractively varied programme. There's a fine Toccata for theorbo by Kapsberger (6), a Passachaglia by Corbetta played on the baroque guitar (17), and J.C.F. Fischer's Passacaglia from his 'Uranie' suite – this latter usually a wonderful piece but here disappointingly understated (11); there have been far more compelling performances by Mitzi Meyerson, Andreas Staier and William Christie.
Comparing this disc with other available collections of Steffani's duets, it's among the better ones but is by no means up to the exceptional standard of the really outstanding recording by Bertini and Cavina, with the Arcadia ensemble directed by Attilio Cremonesi, on the Glossa label. That's available in various editions, the best of all being the original 1994 issue with the Carracci painting occupying the entire cover, because of its complete texts, translations, full notes and fine presentation; but that's getting hard to find nowadays. By comparison the present disc from Forma Antiqva is good – in places very good – but has significant faults. I'm giving it four stars all the same because of its best bits, and because I love Steffani's music so much. In fact, I hope this ensemble will bring us more such recordings, but preferably of previously unrecorded duets and with more sensible editing.
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