Notes and Editorial Reviews
Chamber Sonatas: Nos. 1–6
Erasmus Qrt; Isodoro Taccagni (hpd)
CONCERTO 2038 (2 CDs: 99:07)
Though primarily trained and employed as a keyboard musician, Agostino Steffani (1654–1728) concentrated much of his compositional output on vocal music. It was a good career move for an ambitious young composer of worth, especially in Italy, and Steffani accumulated a lengthy catalog of operas, sacred works, and chamber duets before his musical career phased out in favor of a diplomatic and administrative one.
So it isn’t surprising that the content of these so-called “chamber sonatas” of Agostino Steffani began life, not as chamber music, but as the connective orchestral music and dances drawn from his various operas, including
Henrico Leone, La superbia d’Alessandro, Le rivali concordi, I trionfi del fato
La libertà contenta
. It was a good way to draw additional income from works that tended to vanish after a season or two—not uncommon when new operas were in demand all the time, and the genre was regarded as the most exciting entertainment of the day.
Perhaps these sonatas even brought a bit of attention to Steffani’s operas. Judging from the orchestral music alone, that interest would be well deserved. These pieces, all miniatures lasting from less than half a minute to three-and-a-half minutes, are works of great melodic charm, and on occasion, surprising complexity. They are not unlike much of the folk-based material within the English virginal tradition in that respect, appealing themes concealing small contrapuntal details and rhythmic intricacies. Stylistically, the works are French in character, from their double-dotted overtures to rondeaus, bourrées, and menuets. Many dance types are present, and a dose of whimsical humor, too: a short but frenzied “Autre prélude” from the Sonata I, for instance, that sounds as though all the rests and varying note values have been removed from something much longer.
Steffani specified an instrumentation of two or three violins, an alto, and bass. He was insistent about the extra violins, remarking that it was “necessary to double the first violin unless it is marked Trio; because in the Trios there is counterpoint and when two low notes, one above the other, are found, one of the two violins must play the big ones, and the other, the smaller ones.” The Erasmus Quartet argues in the liner notes that this instruction allows them to perform the works as trios—two violins and a viola—with cello and harpsichord continuo. I don’t really see it, but I also don’t feel the subject is relevant. Arrangements and instrumental substitutions were common throughout the Baroque for practically everything musical, from switching the registers of operatic leads to changing pieces for recorder ensemble into trio sonatas. Dances became songs, and vice versa. The proper question shouldn’t be, “Is this proper?” but “Can we do this in a way that makes good aural sense, while keeping a proper sense of local style in mind?”
Whatever the concerns of the musicians, their performances here are spirited and technically adroit. A variety of tempos are employed and dance rhythms emphasized, avoiding any sense of monotony. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more instrumental diversity in a clever arrangement meant for a Baroque opera orchestra, but that’s no reflection on what the Erasmus Quartet has achieved. They keep it all entertaining for over an hour-and-a-half, and that’s saying quite a bit.
The engineering is another matter, and in its own way, the logical conclusion to an approach that has become fairly standard among early-music performances in recent years: take the vibrato out of the instruments and get rid of the wiriness that results by placing the musicians within a very resonant aural environment. (It’s certainly possible to produce an attractive vibratoless tone without resorting to large ambient spaces, as Sergiu Luca proved on recordings 30 years ago, but some authentic-performance players aren’t interested in taking the time to learn how.) This has consequences, however. When I first listened to this album, I was struck by the sound of a full string orchestra with an unusually bright, narrow peak in the upper treble range. Double-checking the jewel box confirmed that I was listening to a trio with bass and keyboard continuo. You get that sonic inflation if you cover a thin tone with a lot of room echo, and I suspect that is what has happened, here. Even so, some of the unpleasant wiriness does occasionally seep through, as in the “Air grave” of the Sonata II.
The liner notes are best described as curious. You know you’re dealing with a decidedly opinionated writer or editor when clear, factual reporting suddenly gives way to this description of the leading Venetian academy, most influential among those in the 17th-century Italian states: “The Accademia degli Incogniti was a club of intellectual libertines who dissembled under the guise of praise of a lie, a bitter, insufferable, philosophical skepticism for all established authority.” There’s also a lengthy, bizarre attack on a plethora of unnamed modern critics who regard these chamber sonatas as French rather than
Italian, which they must be because Steffani was Italian. It would appear we have a super-patriot on our hands.
But the sound is tolerable, if unusual, and the liner notes are at least good, barking mad fun. The music is a delight, and would make a nice addition to any early-music ensemble’s 17th-century dance repertoire. Recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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