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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


Alessandro Scarlatti’s secular vocal works—his operas, chamber serenatas, cantatas and occasional pieces—continue to be seldom performed and recorded. Excerpted arias from these works, however, are relatively popular fare. That’s exactly what we get on this release, in 17 arias that showcase soprano Elizabeth Watts, and Laurence Cummings leading his ensemble, The English Concert.

It’s a good program, built out of sensible choices that create an impression of emotional, textural, and structural variety. There are bravura pieces, where the soprano is in some instances twinned with a solo trumpet; and quieter, contemplative selections, Christmas pastorale arias, and numerous reflections based on nature. Despair, joy, jealousy, courage, love, rage, and contemplative melancholy are put on display in succession. Though most of the selections are short, two to three minutes in length, a few lengthier ones are interpolated to good effect.

I haven’t reviewed any release featuring Elizabeth Watts since Arne’s Artaxerxes (Linn 358; Fanfare 34:6) four years ago. At the time, I felt her Mandane was interpretatively on target, with a fine if not sumptuous voice, and strong but not perfect coloratura in difficult passages. Here she ambitiously challenges herself in nearly every selection. “Sussurrando in venticello” from Tigrane, “Mentr’io godo” from Le Santissima Vergine del Rosario, and “A questo nuovo affanno” from Eraclea reveal fine phrasing, a range of color, and excellent breath control. The accompanied recitative, “O vane speme!” and its subsequent aria “Cara tomba” (Mitridate Eupatore) demonstrate how well she bows the voice, and mirrors the expressive range of her character without resorting to any modern histrionics. The rapid figures in the dazzling “Torbido, irato, e nero” (Erminia) are usually tossed off not just with panache, but a sense of vivid involvement, rather than the emotional withdrawal one sometimes encounters when coloratura takes center stage. Only a couple of the trumpet-and-soprano fireworks pieces, such as the secular cantata A battaglia, pensieri, reveal a slight sense of dis-ease, an inability to make the voice move quite as fast as could be wished, and a trill that’s more the beat of her vibrato than the genuine article. Even so, neither she nor Cummings compromises with a slower pace. If she sounds far less comfortable, for example, landing on the high B in “D’amor l’accesa face” (Venere, Amore e Ragione), nonetheless, she tries for and manages it.

Cummings and The English Concert are more than just background accompaniment here. Scarlatti, especially later in his career, crafted lengthy orchestral introductions to his arias, and used his instruments with the expectation of first-rate performers. Trumpeter Mark Bennett’s silver tone and agile runs are an especial pleasure. I’ve no stylistic qualms with anything on this disc, though the surprisingly slow tempo and delicate treatment accorded “Io non son di quei campioni” ( La Satira) should be mentioned. It’s a buffo number sung by a servant, and the short, bright phrases with low string accompaniment follow that pattern. Presumably its serious treatment was done both to show off Watts’s superior gifts for phrasing at a more leisurely tempo, and perhaps to challenge modern notions of how these parts are invariably regarded.

The engineering is close and well balanced, if with too lengthy a decay in louder passages. (Baroque operas, as we all know, were given originally in resonant churches just like All Hallows in Gospel Oak, London, so as to make comprehension more difficult.) With good side lengths, full texts and translations, this comes solidly recommended.

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