Having enjoyed Fabio Bonizzoni and La Rizonanza’s recordings of Handel’s Italian cantatas, I was very interested when I picked a copy of his recording of serenatas by Alessandro Scarlatti. The two on this recording – written for Rome in 1706 – are Serenata a Filli and Le Muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezze di Filli and the soloists are Emanuela Galli, Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and the countertenor Martin Oro.
In the history of Baroque music Alessandro Scarlatti predates Handel, yet the former clearly had a direct influence on the young German who must have become more than well-acquainted with Scarlatti’s music doing his sojourn in Italy. Without a doubt Handel took what he learned from the elder Italian and wove it into his own musical language. From his Italian cantatas onwards to his operas, there is a clear debt owed to Scarlatti. Indeed, at times some of the arias in these serenatas could almost – I can only say almost – be mistaken for works by Handel himself – particularly the works that Handel wrote during his stay on the peninsula and immediately after.
To the performances. In short they are stunning. This disc is worlds apart from the recent recital disc of Mozart arias by Ildebrando Arcangelo. These performers clearly loved performing these works and it shows.
Bonizzoni clearly ranks as one of the most intelligent and thoughtful baroque interpreters around today, and his ensemble, La Rissonanza are faultless. This music is not easy to perform. Scored simply for strings and continuo it’s simplicity belies the challenge to deliver performances of subtlety, colour and verve. They deliver it in buckets. The playing is articulate, crisp, with a real sense of rhythm and gesture. Yet from the very start they achieve a rare feat – of balance. Balance between the singers and the instrumentalists but also the fine balance of emotions between the individual numbers.
And the singers similarly relish the challenge of delivering brilliant performances. They wrap themselves in the words of the text, with clean, clear diction, and produce music of an outstanding standard. I enjoyed Emanuela Galli on Bonozzoni’s Handel canatas, but Arias Fernandez and Oro are two artists I do not know at all, but I will keep and eye out for other discs and performances of these two singers.
While both of these serenatas were written for a specific patron in Rome, Serenata a Filli is the more substantial of the two works and it is a sheer pleasure from beginning to end. The structure may be simple but there is never a dull moment. Following a very simple sinfonia, reminiscent of one of Corelli’s concerti grossi, it is a succession of arias, duets and – for me quite surprisingly – trios interspersed with recitative. It is a credit to the performers that – because of their careful attention to the texts – even the recitatives come to life.
The arias are either basic da capo or strophic in form, and again Bonnizoni avoids over ornamentation in the vocal lines. The faster numbers dance along with great verve and the more gentle arias simply melt. The highlight of this serenata is clearly Ombre voi d’un cor fedele, performed with almost heart-stopping simplicity by Arias Fernandez. Below a simple vocal line the momentum is maintained by a dymanic ground bass – in this aria Bonnizoni doesn’t allow us to forget the fundamental debt that baroque music owes to dance idioms.
However Scarlatti moves the music on. No, non ingrannate which follows immediately after has a charming obbligato violin interplay with Galli and at the final return of the first section a subtle rhythmic change to the opening phrase. A beautiful little detail that just raises the attention of the listener once again.
The final trio, Svegliati o bello intanto, is a remarkable finish to the first serenata. The mournful opening clearly echoes the opening sinfonia and demonstrates Scarlatti’s sense of overarching form. The delicacy achieved in the heart-wrenching suspensions, the word play on svegliati and the sometimes surprising modulations demonstrate in a nutshell the genius of the whole serenata.
The performance of the Serenata e Filli would be worth having the disc alone, yet Bonnizoni and his merry band provide a second remarkable performance, of Le muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezza di Filli.
In tone and style this is a complete different work although the attribution of ‘di Filli’ means that they were written for the same patron. The opening sinfonia and trio, Viva, viva pur felice demonstrate not only Scarlatti’s influence on Handel, but also his Venetian compatriot, Antonio Vivaldi.
Again this serenata is a succession of arias and ensembles, and has a more pastoral yet melancholy feel. From the beginning Scarlatti achieves a completely different feel and in some ways the instrumental writing in this serenata is more ‘advanced’ than in the previous serenata. From Sua guancia vezzosa with its charming cello obbligato and the delicate violin filigree of Se rivolge quegli’occhi innamorata, to the returning cello obbligato for Questa si ch’in petto aduna, Alessandro Scarlatti creates a completely different emotional world.
And the simple final trio, Dormi o bella Filli concludes Le muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezza di Filli, provides the perfect ending to an immensely enjoyable recital.
Without a doubt, this is a disc to buy for yourself and your friends.