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GRAMOPHONE (03/2017)
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Reviewer: Alexandra Coghlan

According to the 17th-century intellectual Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, the composer Carlo Francesco Cesarini was the equal of Stradella, Bononcini and Alessandro Scarlatti, producing music of outstanding quality. History, however, has reduced him from an equal to a footnote – barely represented in Grove, let alone the recording catalogue. Now, for the first time, contemporary listeners can make up their own minds thanks to this disc of Cesarini’s solo cantatas – premiere recordings all. Making a strong case for Cesarini’s quality is the composer’s librettist and patron, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. A supporter of Corelli, Bononcini and Handel, Pamphili’s ear for musical quality is borne out by the distinctive melodic personality of these chamber cantatas. All secular, they each set the longings and laments of the unrequited lover, mostly expressed in the charged verses of Pamphili himself.

Lively with dance rhythms and unfettered by the formality of da capo conventions, the arias unfold with ingenuous, folk-like simplicity, occasionally even featuring catchy little refrains – somewhere between popular song and opera. Jealousy storms and rages in the plunging intervals of ‘E di Tantalo i sospiri’ (from Fili, no’l niego, io dissi), while summer breezes play in the fluttering vocal decorations of ‘So che giammai’ (from Oh dell’Adria reina) and a lover coaxes in flirtatious syncopations in ‘E’il mio timore’ (also from Fili, no’l niego, io dissi). The framing recitatives are more sophisticated affairs, their drama condensed into concise, rhetorical outpourings, often coloured with telling gestures from the continuo cello.

Led from the harpsichord by Giorgio Tabacco, the musicians of L’Astrée deliver unaffected performances that recognise the delicacy of these simple works and never overstate their musical case. Soprano Stéphanie Varnerin also keeps things understated, but her off-the-breath delivery does have its drawbacks, preferring to skim the musical surface rather than risk a more muscular, operatic delivery. The effect is pleasantly intimate, casual even, but perhaps more suited to a concert setting than to a recording. Could Cesarini yet find a place alongside Stradella and Scarlatti in the repertoire? It’s too early to tell, but let’s hope others follow L’Astrée’s lead and give us a fuller picture of this idiosyncratic composer.

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