Album Review: ‘Antonio Caldara: Brutus, Cantatas for Bass’

Exploring the underrated Baroque composer Antonio Caldara
December 16, 2018 Updated: December 21, 2018

Despite a significant body of work, perhaps over 3,400 compositions, the works of composer Antonio Caldara remain very much undiscovered territory, with only occasional discs appearing rather than a consistent exploration as with the oeuvre of some of his contemporaries.

A new disc from Pan Classics presents six of Caldara’s cantatas for bass voice and continuo, performed by Sergio Foresti and Ensemble Stile Galante, with Agnieszka Oszanca on cello, Gabriele Palomba on theorbo, and Andrea Friggi on harpsichord. It is directed by Stefano Aresi.

The CD booklet article suggests that one reason for the lack of diffusion of Caldara’s music today is that his career was almost entirely confined to working for a series of noble and imperial families, culminating in his service to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna from 1716 to 1736. In this context, much of Caldara’s repertoire was performed once, albeit in grand circumstances, and then the manuscripts disappeared into archives, without the dissemination of copies that helped to make music known during the period.

On this disc, the cantatas come from an 18th-century manuscript, which survives in Bologna and seems to have been created for a particular bass singer. (The manuscript also includes music by Antonio and Giovanni Bononcini.) One of Caldara’s employers, Emperor Charles VI, had a preference for low voices, so Caldara wrote a lot of solo cantatas for this voice and dedicated a volume of 24 cantatas to the emperor in 1730. Yet only one of the cantatas on this disc, “Il Dario,” can be linked to a work written for the emperor.

As Caldara wrote around 350 secular cantatas, you cannot help feeling that there is still a lot of work to be done in the archives.

These are all continuo cantatas, for voice accompanied by keyboard, cello, and theorbo—intimate works designed to be performed in relatively intimate surroundings.

Only two of the cantatas fit into the popular Arcadian pastoral genre often used in cantatas. The others identify the bass soloist with a powerful mythological or heroic historic figure: Darius, Polyphemus, Samson, and Brutus. We can see a parallel with cantatas by composers such as Handel, where the subjects tend to be either pastoral or a protagonist (usually female) under great emotional stress.

The result is a series of highly imaginative works, which gives the singer opportunities to exhibit a whole variety of emotions. And Caldara’s responses to the texts are highly interesting, with “Bruto a’ Romani” being almost a set of political speeches using a lot of arioso elements, that is, vocal music that is more melodic than recitative but is less formal than an aria.

And again in “Il Polifemo,” Caldara uses a lot of arioso in the mix. These cantatas give us the flavor of a very particular composer, and it would be lovely to hear a greater selection of his works.

While they are classified as being for the bass voice, some of them sound quite baritonal in quality. Sergio Foresti has an interesting and rather grainy-textured voice that is highly expressive but which doesn’t seem to quite capture the full range of the music. Listening to the whole disc is not ideal, but dipping in and sampling a single cantata is a great experience.

Foresti is well-supported by the players from Stile Galante.

This is a very important and very welcome disc. If perhaps it is not quite ideal, then it is still a valuable contribution to the slowly expanding Caldara repertoire on disc.

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, edited, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.

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