Performance Wednesday, March 6, 2013 | 7:30 PM

Ensemble Matheus

Zankel Hall
Together with its powerful leader, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Ensemble Matheus performs the Baroque repertoire it specializes in with white-hot energy. The ensemble is, as Stephen Brookes of The Washington Post put it, “aggressive, vibrant, and focused to an absolutely electrifying pitch.”
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The Program

Overture and "Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fù," from Serse 

In April 1738, when his opera Serse (Xerxes) was introduced at London's King's Theatre, George Frideric Handel's once-flourishing career as an operatic composer was on the decline, while the field of sacred oratorio was becoming more and more alluring. Since the success of his Alcina in 1735, none of his operas had captivated London audiences, which seemed to have become bored with opera in the Italian language; Serse was no exceptionit ran for only five performances. It continued in obscurity until the recent Handel operatic revival except for one magnificent piece that became a beloved organ and orchestral staple known as "Handel's Largo."

In fact, that "Largo" wasn't an instrumental piece, nor was it intended to be performed at such a stately tempo; it was a love song, "Ombra mai fù," performed by the title character, King Xerxes of ancient Persia. It was not sung to a human being, but to a plane tree in his palace gardens that shielded him from the sun's rays, and it was written in a considerably quicker Larghetto tempo. Moreover, it was actually a parody of a romantic aria, for Serse is partly a comic opera in which Xerxes is sent up as an outrageously pompous monarch given to over-the-top expressions of his loves and rages. Indeed, the critics of the day excoriated Serse because of its flouting of the conventions of opera seria.

Handel, a shameless borrower of his own and other composers' music (which he virtually always vastly improved), recast some of Serse's musical numbers from an earlier opera to the same text by his one-time rival Giovanni Battista Bononcini; the libretto was written nearly a century earlier in 1654 by Nicolò Minati, and revised in the 18th century by Silvio Stampiglia. A fictional story about a historical figure, it involves Xerxes in a crazy love plot of brothers and sisters competing for the same person and an inept servant out of Italian Neapolitan comedy who complicates the situation by carrying messages to the wrong recipient.

"Ombra mai fù"and its graceful introductory recitative, "Frondi tenere"immediately follows the overture as the opera's first number. In Serse, Handel often dispensed with the lengthy da capo aria, and this is a relatively brief aria in a single section. Its long legato lines place great demands on a singer's breath control and the smooth emission of tone.

We also hear the opera's Overture, which follows the high-Baroque formula of a slow, stately opening followed by a quicker, more contrapuntally lively section, here in the style of a gigue; it gives no hint of the ironic approach Handel adopts for the opera itself.

Janet E. Bedell


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

"Gelosia, tu già rendi l'alma mia," from Ottone in Villa; "Zeffiretti che sussurate," from Ercole su'l Termodonte; "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto" from Catone in Utica; "Siam navi all'onde algenti," from L'Olimpiade

For decades, Antonio Vivaldi's concertos have filled the airwaves and concert halls, but until the recent Baroque opera revival, his prowess as an opera composer had been almost forgotten. The Venetian master was a latecomer to the operatic world: His first opera, Ottone in Villa, did not appear until 1713, when he was already 28 with an established reputation for his instrumental music. He claimed to have written 94 operas, but was notorious for exaggerating his achievements; nonetheless, 50 of his librettos and 21 of his scores survive. They reveal the vivid, high-strung quality we know from his concertos and an expert understanding of how to show off a virtuoso singer to best advantage.

Vivaldi's vocal music could also be enchantingly delicate, as we hear in "Zeffiretti, che sussurate," which is sung by Hippolyta, sister of the Queen of the Amazons, to her absent lover, Theseus, in Ercole su'l Termodonte, Vivaldi's opera that mesmerized Rome in 1723. Since conservative Rome at that time did not permit female singers on the public stage, this roleas in fact were all the Vivaldi arias we will hearwas written for a male castrato soprano. Ercole is drawn from mythologyspecifically, the ninth labor of Hercules, in which he must win the weapons of the fierce Queen Antiope. In this utterly charming da capo aria, two violins and two pulsating harpsichords conjure the sounds of nature as Hippolyta begs the "whispering little breezes" to carry her words of love to Theseus; the music is filled with echo effects that suggest her words traveling away on the wind. The aria's middle section shifts to a lilting siciliano rhythm for a more ardent expression of her longing.

"Gelosia, tu già rendi l'alma mia" comes from Ottone in Villa, Vivaldi's first opera. Like most operas of this period, it is set in classical times: the Emperor Otho (Ottone) is dallying at his country villa with his mistress Cleonilla; Caius, Cleonilla's former lover, accidentally overhears her expressing her dislike for him. The furious orchestral ritornello sets the mood perfectly for this brief da capo aria in which Caius's jealous rage finds vent in wild coloratura, while the slower, chromatically twisting B section reveals his self-pity.

The ravishingly beautiful aria "Se mai senti spirarti sul volto" seems an astonishing choice for such a virile character as Julius Caesar, but is indeed given to him in Catone in Utica (1737), an opera from late in Vivaldi's career. In its libretto, crafted by the prolific Pietro Metastasio, the Roman senator Cato refuses to accept Caesar's rule after his defeat of Pompey, and plots against him. Caesar, however, has fallen in love with Cato's daughter, Marzia, and she pleads with him to make peace with her father. He agrees and expresses his love in this gorgeous da capo aria, which compares the soft breezes blowing around her face with his ardent sighs (the violin parts filled with sighing gestures). Notice also how Vivaldi elongates and ornaments the word langue, making it truly "languish."

Imagery of a storm at sea fills many instrumental and vocal pieces by this composer, who lived in a city often menaced by them. Usuallyas in "Siam navi all'onde algenti" from L'Olimpiade, which premiered in Venice in 1734this theme represents the raging of human passions rather than the elements. Set to another Metastasio libretto, L'Olimpiade tells the story of two young men in ancient Greece, Megacles and Licidas, who compete fiercely for Olympic glory and the hand of the beautiful Aristaea. Licidas's tutor Amyntas warns him about the dangers of the "folly" of love: "Our affections are raging winds; every pleasure is a reef, all life is a sea." A spectacularly tempestuous orchestral part swirls around the singer, who delivers the warning with dramatic vehemence. This bravura da capo aria requires a huge range and the most brilliant coloratura technique, especially used for the word mare ("sea"), which foams like storm-roiled white caps.

Janet E. Bedell


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and Cello, from L'estro armonico, Op. 3, No. 11; Concerto in G Minor for Two Cellos, RV 531

The Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, Cello, Strings, and Continuo was probably one of Vivaldi's earliest creations, dating from the first years of the 18th century. Between 1712 and 1713, a series of 12 stunning concertos, called L'estro armonico (The Harmonious Fancy), was published by the firm of Roger in Amsterdam. Scholars presume that these were not composed as a continuous set, but were selected by the composer as some of his finest and most innovative pieces to spread his fame throughout Europe. And indeed, they succeeded handsomely in making him renowned outside Italy. Even J. S. Bach copied six of them for his own use and rearranged them for harpsichord.

The Concerto in D Minor, the 11th in the set, is not a true solo concerto, but rather follows the pattern of the Baroque concerto grosso (like Bach's "Brandenburg" concertos), in which a small ensemble of soloists is featured. In the first movement, instead of the usual opening orchestral ritornello  of the standard Vivaldi concerto, the two violin soloists leap into action immediately with a fast, brilliant canon in which the second violin closely chases the first. The cello soloist then introduces himself independently. Only after all this does the orchestra enter for a brief chordal transitional passage in a slower tempo. Then the cello soloist leads off a marvelous fugue (a relative rarity in Vivaldi's music) that mingles soloists and the full ensemble in scintillating counterpoint. In the slow second movement, a solemn full-ensemble ritornello frames the solo music. Only the first violin soloist is on display here in a poignant aria that features beautiful chromatic shadings in its swaying siciliano melody. The finale focuses on the solo ensemble in brilliant fast figurations.

The Concerto in G Minor, RV 531, is the only one Vivaldi created for two cellos. It is an adventurous work for its era, in which Vivaldi dares to showcase instruments usually relegated to subordinate continuo work. The Allegro first movement pushes the full ensemble to the sidelines, omitting the customary opening ritornello. Instead, the two cellos immediately enter in close imitation, and when the ensemble belatedly appears, it simply echoes the soloists. The cello parts bristle with fast figurations, showing off the cellists' agility, both singly and together.

Remaining in G minor and again emphasizing imitation between the two cellos, the Largo is a stately duet with a strongly vocal character. Only a subdued basso continuo provides accompaniment. The closing Allegro finally uses the customary Vivaldian formula of an opening and recurring ritornello for the ensemble interspersed with freer solo episodes. This sharply profiled ritornello is energized by syncopation, a favorite Vivaldian rhythmic devise. Midway through, there is an arresting tremolo passage-traded between the cellos and the ensemble's violins-that strikingly contrasts low and high, darkness and softly shimmering light.

Janet E. Bedell


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Concerto in G Major for Cello

The Neapolitan Nicola Antonio Porpora is known primarily today as the greatest vocal pedagogue of the 18th century, whose pupils included the legendary castrato soprano Farinelli. But he was also one of the major opera composers of the first half of that century, as well as a prolific creator of oratorios and sacred music. At times, he was a formidable rival to both Vivaldi and Handel, especially when he moved to London in the 1730s to lead the competing Opera of the Nobility. Though he was born and died in Naples, Porpora was a restless man who took important positions throughout Europe over his long career, including in Vienna, Dresden, and throughout Italy. In the 1750s, he was back in Vienna, where the young Joseph Haydn became his pupil and valet; Haydn credited him with teaching him "the true foundations of composition."

Porpora wrote far less instrumental music, but the Cello Concerto in G Major shows it to be of exceptional quality. Indeed, this concerto is a phenomenal showcase for the instrument, for here the composer treats the cello as though it were a virtuoso singer schooled in all the advanced techniques he taught his vocal pupils. It must execute trills and fioritura as ably as Farinelli himself.

The concerto is in four movements rather than the customary three favored by Vivaldi, and opens unusually with an Adagio first movement. This shows Porpora's gift for writing beautiful, elegantly ornamented melodies as well as his fondness for employing rich counterpoint and counter melodies. In contrast to Vivaldi's approach, the roles of soloist and ensemble are smoothly integrated.

Also displaying his love for counterpoint, the Allegro second movement is a vivacious fugue: a challenging form to use in a concerto, where the soloist must stand out from the orchestra. The fugue subject is launched by a dashing trill. A mood of profound melancholy colors the magnificent Largo third movement, in which the solo cello is frequently juxtaposed against countermelodies in the ensemble cellos and at times gains a duet partner there. Here Porpora wonderfully exploits the cello's plangent, almost human voice. The final Allegro is an infectious dance in triple meter whose melodic lines are filled with leaping gestures. To intensify the excitement, near the end Porpora boosts the speed to presto.

Janet E. Bedell


© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This performance is part of Baroque Unlimited.

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