Johan van Veen
, November 2006
Attilio Ariosti, an Italian composer of the generation of Alessandro Scarlatti, was born in Bologna, and ordained as a priest. His first compositions were oratorios, but after composing his first opera in 1697 he concentrated on writing music for the theatre. A year before he had entered the service of the Duke of Mantua, who sent him to Berlin to the court of Sophie Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg. He was appointed 'maître de musique' and became Sophie Charlotte's favourite musician. Later on he worked at the imperial court in Vienna, where he was held in high esteem by Joseph I. He worked as one of Joseph I’s diplomats in Italy, and after Joseph's death entered the service of the Duke of Anjou, the future French king Louis XV. His output is rather limited in comparison to that of some of his more famous contemporaries. This is almost certainly down to his many activities as a diplomat, but also as a music teacher and an interpreter; he was a singer and played the keyboard, the cello and the viola d'amore.
The last stage of his life was played out in England, where he arrived in July 1716. He performed in public on the viola d'amore, the instrument for which he also composed six 'Lessons', published in London in 1724; recently recorded by Thomas Georgi, BIS CD-1535. His first opera in England was Tito Manlio, premiered in 1717. It made such an impression that the Royal Academy of Music commissioned another opera from Ariosti. From 1722 to 1728 he was one of the composers employed by the Royal Academy, alongside Handel and Bononcini. He died in London in 1729.
The six Lessons for viola d'amore were published in one volume alongside the six cantatas recorded on this disc. In the booklet Darja Großheide writes: "The present cantatas form a sonnet sequence, ranging from 'La Rosa' (The Rose) to 'Il Naufragio' (The Shipwreck) and the final 'La Gelosia' (Jealousy). This has suggested the title 'The Flowering and Fading of Love'". She doesn't give any evidence that Ariosti himself presented these cantatas as a cycle. And at first sight it seems that some of the sonnets have nothing to do with love. But there are several reasons to support Ms Großheide's view.
First of all, only the first cantata starts with an instrumental introduction, and it is fairly plausible to consider it a kind of overture to the whole series of cantatas. Secondly, one person appears in several cantatas: the nymph Nice (Nysa), the object of both the affection and the disdain of the protagonist. And a closer look at the texts reveals that, even when they are not specifically about love, they are closely connected to that subject: several images are used metaphorically to depict love and all the tribulations connected to it.
The first cantata is about a rose - a symbol of love - which is spurned by Nysa and Chloris. The recitative describes how she rises again and becomes the mistress of all the flowers and warns offenders off with her sharp thorns. The second cantata talks about the feelings of the protagonist who has fallen in love and tries to convince a shepherdess that in love joy can be found. In the third cantata another image of nature is used: the elm. The tree laments the unfaithfulness of its friend the vine. The protagonist, whose identity is now revealed as the shepherd Fileno (Phylenus), compares his own fate with that of the elm, and invites the tree to "unite in grief over that cruel and thankless heart, the inconstancy of her love, her perfidiousness".
The fourth cantata marks a turning point, which could well be the reason Ariosti scored the next three cantatas for alto. The title expresses its content: 'Freedom acquired through love'. The love of Phylenus for the unfaithful Lysa made him her prisoner. But he has freed himself from the "bonds of love": "I take away from you the pleasure of my torment". The last aria describes how love brings destruction and becomes "the tyrant of every heart".
In the fifth cantata another image is used to depict the breakdown of love: a shipwreck. The first aria describes a storm at sea, with crashing waves, thunder and the absence of sunshine. The last aria says: "My wrecked ship, I see you break apart, and can but weep for your destiny." Love breaks apart on the waves of the sea, which symbolise the inconstancy of the lover.
The last cantata marks the return to the beginning: the protagonist has not really overcome his love for Nysa. Otherwise he would not feel that she, "who faithlessly seeks her delight in the arms of another, is the cause of my bitterness and misery". "Cruel Jealousy" has entered his heart and broken it for ever. In the second recitative Jealousy is characterised as a "rapacious harpy". "That another is happy with my beloved is an affliction far more cruel than death".
These cantatas make one understand that Ariosti was successful as a composer of operas; there is plenty of drama here. Not only the vocal parts but the instrumental parts as well depict the feelings expressed in the texts. It is impressive how the two melody instruments - originally two violins, here flute and violin - and the basso continuo illustrate the storm at sea in the first aria of Cantata No. 5. They also perfectly express the unhappy lover's feelings in his lament in Cantata No. 3.
These are very nice cantatas, and the performers fully explore their expressive qualities. The soprano and contralto have beautiful voices, which are very pleasant to listen to, and vividly communicate the feelings of the protagonist. The recitatives are sung with some rhythmic freedom, but the singers could have taken more liberties in this respect. I also think they are a little too economical with ornamentation. The instrumentalists give fine performances, showing great sensitivity for the way Ariosti has illustrated the text in his music.
The addition of the two trio sonatas by Locatelli and Vivaldi is a little surprising and not very satisfying. Without them the playing time of this disc had been about 63 minutes, which is not too bad. But if the need was felt to add something, why wasn't another cantata from Ariosti's oeuvre taken rather than two instrumental works by composers who didn't have any connection to Ariosti and one of whom even belongs to another generation? Both pieces are given very lively performances, but they have been recorded before, whereas Ariosti is an unknown quantity who deserves to be better known.
The booklet omits the lyrics of the cantatas - they can be downloaded from the Naxos website. The exact address is given in the booklet.