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February 2015

During the baroque era, and especially from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, a large number of works were written which are known as serenate. These were mostly written for special occasions, such as weddings, and in honour of specific personalities. The serenata which is the subject of this disc is a little different. Its core is a dispute about love by five characters, which is overheard by the two lovers we meet at the start of the work, Damone and Clori. Another notable aspect of this work is that it is based on a script by Queen Christina, who had abdicated from the Swedish throne after her conversion to Catholicism and then settled in Rome where she developed into a major patron of the arts.

Alessandro Stradella had no formal ties with the Queen, but worked for her on several occasions. The first time was in 1671 when - largely due to her efforts - the first public opera theatre in Rome, the Tordinona, was opened. At this occasion the opera Scipione affricano by Francesco Cavalli was performed, and Stradella wrote the intermezzo to be performed between the first and the second act, Su, su, si stampino. In 1674 he wrote the music for Vola, vola in altri petti ossia Il duello, a serenata in the Queen's honour. The text of the serenata performed here was connected to Queen Christina's foundation of an academy where scholars and artists met, for the first time in January 1656. It was later to become the Arcadian Academy, which was copied across Italy. It is likely that the Queen intended her script to be set to music which could be performed during a meeting of her academy. She commissioned Sebastiano Baldini, secretary to various cardinals and a seasoned librettist, with arranging her script in such a way that it was suitable for music. It seems that she was heavily involved in Baldini's work as manuscripts show her comments of approval and disapproval.

This serenata has survived in two different versions. One has been preserved in the National Library in Turin, the other at the Estense Library in Modena. The latter requires two sopranos in the roles of Damone and Clori and three additional singers - alto, tenor and bass - as three passers-by, debating the joys and sufferings of love. In the former version the number of passers-by has been extended to five, by adding two sopranos. That is the version followed here. There is something notable about the instrumental scoring. Stradellas serenata Vola, vola in altri petti ossia Il duello is the first datable work in history which makes use of the concerto grosso structure. The Turin manuscript of La forza delle stelle divides the instrumental ensemble into two concertinos and one concerto grosso, the Modena manuscript has just one concertino. This could well reflect the different performing conditions; the use of two concertinos is probably due to the different location of the two main characters on the one hand and the five passers-by on the other. Because of the different circumstances in a studio recording the instrumental scoring of the latter is used here. To preserve some spatial distinction the concertino and the concerto grosso are separated.

The serenata is divided into three sections each of which is introduced by a sinfonia. In the first section the two lovers, Damone and Clori, exchange their feelings for each other. The second section is devoted to the above-mentioned dispute, and the last is a kind of conclusion: the two lovers react to what they have just heard, and the passers-by conclude - as expressed by the bass - that "in loving man suffers both pain and grief! Ah, Cupid's empire is a dire labyrinth!" The work is ends with a five-part chorus.

The work is composed of recitatives, duets and terzets. Most recitatives are of the secco genre, but often they end with a more lyrical line, repeated a couple of times, which the liner-notes refer to as recitativo arioso. (I don't know if this is an official term; it doesn't appear in New Grove as such.) Now and then Stradella also makes use of the recitativo accompagnato. The arias, duets and terzets are quite short, mostly under two minutes. The strings are heavily involved in these parts, and they do much more than just playing the ritornelli. The vocal parts are not virtuosic; that would also be at odds with the subject and the general tenor of this work. After all, this is not a heartrending drama, but rather a more or less academic dispute. That doesn't mean that it is not an attractive work. Stradella was considered one of the great composers of his time, and some of his works still very much appeal to modern performers and audiences, especially his oratorios San Giovanni Battista and La Susanna. Stradella is an interesting link between the stile rappresentativo of the first half of the 17th century and 18th-century opera with its dramatic and virtuosic arias.

Andrea De Carlo and his colleagues deliver a performance which is pretty much ideal. The singers have all nice and agile voices; they blend perfectly which is essential considering the number of duets and terzets. They all deliver stylish performances and avoid incessant vibrato; the text is always clearly audible. The two sopranos take the most important part, and I have greatly enjoyed their singing. I would probably have liked a stronger difference in character between them; it is not that easy to tell them apart. The instrumental parts are given excellent performances as well.

This is not a work that will make the headlines in music magazines or on review sites, but it is a quite enjoyable piece of music which enhances out knowledge of Stradella - most of whose oeuvre is still unexplored - and gives us also some insight into the role of Queen Christina in Roman music life of the late 17th century.

Johan van Veen


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