Arias for Senesino

Decca 475 6569
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2004.
Released in 2005.

  • Handel: 
    • 'Bel contento' (from Flavio - 1723)
    • 'Dove sei' (from Rodelinda - 1725)
    • 'Aure, deh, per pietà' (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto - 1724)
    • 'Al lampo dell' armi' (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto - 1724)
    • 'Cara sposa' (from Rinaldo - 1731)
  • Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751):
    • 'Stelle ingrate' (from Astarto - 1708)
    • 'Selvagge amenità' (from Engelberta - 1708)
  • Antonio Lotti (c.1667-1740):
    • 'Discordi pensier' (from Teofane - 1719)
    • 'Fosti caro agl'occchi miei' (from Gli odi delusi dal sangue - 1718)
  • Alessandro Scarlatti ((1660-1725): Del ciel sui giri (from Carlo re d'Allemagna - 1716)
  • Nicola Porpora (1686-1768): 'Va' per le vene il sangue' (from Il trionfo di Camilla - 1740)

Andreas Scholl, countertenor
Accademia Bizantina (on period instruments)
Director: Ottavio Dantone

It is a quirk of the classical record collector to regard a particular musician of signifiance and to talk about periods in their recording career. For example, serious Mahler buffs mull over the differences between Bernstein’s CBS era recordings (nowadays swallowed into the Sony empire) and the later years when Bernstein recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. Maybe it is difficult to identify an equivalent for the comparatively young early music movement, but Andreas Scholl’s decision to sign an exclusive contract with Decca after making his reputation with Harmonia mundi (France) presents us with a similar situation where it is perfectly possible to look back nostalgically on Scholl’s ‘Harmonia mundi period’ compared to the very different character of his patchy work for Decca.

The smooth-toned German countertenor returned to form with last year’s Arcadia (a collection of chamber cantatas by Italian baroque composers). Arias for Senesino is in some respects a follow up to Arcadia, featuring the same period-instrument band and music director and a similar attempt to mix music by different Italian (or Italianate) composers. It is difficult to capture an impression of the great castrato Senesino in the span of only one disc. Senesino is certainly best remembered as Handel’s star castrato during the 1720s and, after a short break during which Handel attempted to continue without him, the early 1730s. It is not possible to ignore the importance of Handel in such a recital.

Senesino’s fame as a dramatic singer with a particular talent for accompanied recitatives probably explains the selections of ‘Pompe vane di morte! ... Dove sei, amato bene’ (Rodelinda) and ‘Dall’ondoso periglio ... Aure, deh per pietà’ (Giulio Cesare). But those scenes contain very similar dramatic moods and musical styles, and Scholl has recorded both scenes before. The interpretations have matured a little bit, with some more awareness of text than before, but the purity and sustain of the vocal line seems to have been subsequently sacrificed. While it is always nice to hear decent performances of these scenes, one wonders why at least one of them could not have been supplanted by a comparably extended scene from one of the early 1730s operas (Poro, Ezio, Sosarme or Orlando). It was also during the 1730s that Senesino took part in Handel’s first public performances of English oratorios, so it seems a missed opportunity to convey Senesino’s versatility by including something from the 1732 revision of Esther or Deborah (1733). Furthermore, after that Senesino continued to sing in London for the Opera of the Nobility - but none of that repertoire is included. It is also a shame that nothing from the operas Ariosti and Bononcini composed for the Royal Academy of Music’s heyday in the early 1720s is included. Although Decca and Scholl ought not be expected to cover Senesino’s entire career in less than 80 minutes, it is difficult to avoid concluding that in some ways this disc is a missed opportunity.

The only aria included here that Senesino sang during the 1730s is ‘Cara sposa’, performed in Handel’s 1731 revival of Rinaldo. But ‘Cara sposa’ was not composed for Senesino and it tells us nothing at all about him. It also expresses a very similar dramatic sentiment to ‘Dove sei’ and ‘Aure, deh per pietà’ (grieving over the perceived loss of a loved one). The 1731 revival of Rinaldo featured a new extended scene that Handel created especially for Senesino which could have been included instead, but ‘Cara sposa’ will no doubt get more airplay on radio and attract more casual buyers. I cannot blame Decca for wanting to do good business, but neither can I help feeling disappointed by the unimaginative selection of Senesino’s extensive and varied repertoire for London. It undersells the versatility of both Senesino and Handel. It does not do much to enhance any impression of Scholl’s versatility either. The Handel performances are decent without really offering anything particularly important. Scholl’s mesa di voce at end of ‘Dove sei’ is a nice moment, but his open vowell sounds are surprisingly in ‘Cara sposa’, which is is further spoiled by Ottavio Dantone’s determination to chop Handel’s string writing up into very short-breathed phrases, as if he is desperate to prevent the accompaniment from sounding over-familiar. The richly contrapuntal string writing must surely imply longer sustained phrases which most effectively illustrate the dramatic sentiment of the libretto text.

For a more fulfilling aspect of this disc one must sadly turn away from Handel, but it is good to discover stunning repertoire by Albioni, Lotti, Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti. These represent the early and last years of Senesino’s career. Scholl and Dantone regularly hit their best form in the Italian repertoire. Lotti’s ‘Discordi pensieri’ is probably an aria that Handel heard Senesino performing when he visited Dresden in 1719, and its sweetly lyrical mood makes it easy to appreciate why Handel might have been impressed to engage Senesino for London at the earliest opportunity (the leader of Accademia Bizantina contributes a sweet violin solo). Alessandro Scarlatti’s ‘Del ciel sui giri’ shows off the heroic side of Senesino (and Scholl’s too) with its brilliant dramatic thrust enriched by horns.  Porpora’s Il Trionfo di Camilla at Naples in 1740 was Senesino’s last known public performance, so it is appropriate that the recital ends with ‘Va per le vene il sangue’ – arguably the finest and most convincingly dramatic track on the disc.

The concept of basing a recital disc on a historic performer is a perfectly valid and potentially compelling way to further our appreciation of the music. But it must be done with more care than it has been done here. Nicholas McGegan and Drew Minter’s Arias for Senesino (Harmonia mundi, USA) is restricted to Handel, but at least it manages to transmit a balanced impression of Senesino’s gifts and makes an effort to explore Handel’s repertoire. But I do not want to feel ungrateful for this recital’s good qualities. One cannot be churlish about this disc if it brings Handel some new friends, but I cannot help wishing it had delivered something of more substance. Scholl’s many admirers will love it regardless of the programme, while those fascinated by Italian baroque opera will be desperate to hear some of the less familiar repertoire performed to such a high technical standard.

© David Vickers - September 2005

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