Please Wait...


by Luca


“New York – February 06, 2017 – A very interesting record operation: two CDs dedicated to the “Cantate à ‘solo” (“Solo Cantatas”) and Duets by Agostino Steffani (1654 – 1728) have been remastered and collected in a single CD (Centaurus Music Int.). The new sound is clear and bright, it gives an increased feeling of space and breath.
Excellent the singers (Luca Casagrande, Maria Carla Curia and Loretta Liberato), with their refined “expanded” voices and a charming “natural vibrato”. Moreover, these are technically rigorous voices and feature a taste and a sense of style almost perfect. This make them particularly suitable for the late Baroque singing. In addition, the musicality of the three singers allows them to face successful the extremely difficult Steffani’s cantatas and duets.”
(Magda Levi)

“The key to an understanding of Steffani’s music is the fact that he was an excellent singer and linguist. All his surviving works are for voices, and all are informed by a strong sense of ‘vocality’ that must have become second-nature to him. His writing for voices may be well known for its virtuosity, but it also displays, in recitative and aria, an acute sensitivity to words, an exceptional capacity to express emotion and, in his operas, a striking ability to delineate and distinguish between characters. Mattheson said that Steffani thought long and hard about his opera librettos before composing any of the music. His works represent one of the high points of the bel canto style of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The cornerstone of Steffani’s output is his chamber duets. They cover most of his creative career, and their supple melody, elegant counterpoint and perfect formal balance epitomize his style, which may be compared (not unfavourably) with that of Stradella, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti and the young Händel. Steffani composed most of his duets by late 1702, when he began to revise them, but at least two are later. Four were written for Sophie Charlotte, one to a text of her own; other poets include Bartolomeo d’Ariberti, Brigida Bianchi, Anastasio Guidi, ‘Abbate Paglia’, Francesco Palmieri and, most important, Ortensio Mauro. The texts are concerned principally with unrequited love and seem typical of the Arcadian verse of the contemporary Italian chamber cantata. The duets are for various pairs of voices, of which the commonest are SA, ST and SB, with continuo. They may have up to six movements, solos as well as duets. Over half of the works are in closed forms (e.g. da capo, rondo and strophic-rondo) typical of the 17th-century cantata; the remainder are in open forms (e.g. AB, ABC, ABCD etc.) that seem closer to the Renaissance madrigal. Paradoxically, these are generally later in date: a growing preference for open forms is evident in Steffani’s revisions. The most obvious type of revision affecting form is the omission of movements and sections, especially repeats and solos. These omissions allowed Steffani to expand the remaining duet movements, and this he did by exploring more thoroughly the contrapuntal potential of the material (often modifying it for the purpose). The forms of the revised versions are a direct result of his use of double counterpoint, stretto and other fugal procedures, of which he demonstrates an effortless mastery.
This mastery is evident also in his sacred music, a category that includes his earliest datable compositions. Psalmodia vespertina (1674) is scored for antiphonal choirs and is mainly homophonic in texture, but the contemporary pieces in Cambridge (Cfm, Mu MS94) are far more varied in scoring, form and technique: Sperate in Deo (SSATB and organ), for example, includes duets for two sopranos and recitatives for tenor and bass, and ends with a five-part fugue. The motets of 1685 are for various trios of voices (SSB, SAT, SAB, STB, ATB) with continuo but may also be performed as duets, any voice being omitted; since they are predominantly imitative in texture, this represents a considerable tour de force. Qui diligit Mariam (1727) earned an enthusiastic critique from J.E. Galliard (in a letter to Riva), and Steffani’s Stabat mater is a masterly expression of his religious fervour.
The operas indicate most clearly the extent to which he assimilated the French style. Most of his overtures are French, and most of his operas had ballets as entr’actes (devised, in Munich, by Melchior d’Ardespin and François Rodier). Dance metres such as the minuet and gavotte are frequently used for arias. The basic orchestral requirements are four-part (sometimes five-part) strings, two ‘flutes’ (i.e. recorders), two oboes, bassoon and continuo, with the occasional addition of trumpets and drums. Alarico il Baltha requires two piffari and Niobe four viols; Amor vien dal destino includes an ensemble for four chalumeaux, two bassoons and two theorbos, and an obbligato for lute. A high proportion of the arias – about half – are accompanied by instruments, the remainder by continuo alone; some scenes have strings (one has trumpets and drums) without continuo.
Both types of aria exhibit Steffani’s predilection for duet textures: in continuo arias the bass often imitates the voice, while in orchestral arias obbligatos are often for pairs of instruments. Although binary and ABB‘ structures are common, the majority of his arias are in ternary or da capo form; ostinato basses, numerous in his earlier works, recede as his career progresses. His full-length Hanover operas also include an exceptionally high proportion of vocal duets, apart from sextets (La superbia d’Alessandro) and a quartet (Le rivali concordi). These six works provided an important stimulus for the development of opera in northern Germany. They were translated into German by Gottlieb Fiedler and staged in Hamburg between 1695 and 1699; performances elsewhere followed, and overture-suites from them were published (as sonate da camera) by Roger in Amsterdam. It seems fitting that no fewer than four of Steffani’s operas (Alarico, Henrico Leone, Arminio and Tassilone) should be based not on standard classical or mythological subjects but on episodes from German history.
Despite the widespread influence of his operas, Steffani’s reputation rests largely on his chamber duets. Handel ‘borrowed’ from his operas and duets (of which he owned a book in 1706/7), and from his other works. But Steffani’s duets, like Corelli’s trio sonatas, were also taken as models by other composers (e.g. Keiser, Schürmann and Telemann), used assolfeggi by leading opera singers and praised by such figures as Mattheson, Hawkins, Burney, Padre Martini and E.T.A. Hoffmann; in England his works were given sacred English words and used as anthems. By these and other means Steffani’s influence extended throughout the 18th century and beyond.”