La Serenissima performs Vivaldi's Elvira cantatas alongside two newly reconstructed 'Graz' sonatas.
With the Vivaldi revival entering its second century, we are finally becoming better acquainted with the man and his music. Naturally his concertos remain his most potent selling point, both on record and in concert, but thanks to the modern recording industry, his sacred music and operas are forcing a fresh appraisal of this extraordinary Venetian.
Still awaiting thorough exploration, however, are his forty-odd cantatas for solo soprano and alto, an aspect of his output that has largely been neglected by scholars and performers alike, yet one which contains some of his finest and most inspired music. It would appear that Vivaldi first started writing cantatas for the Mantuan court whilst holding the secular post of Maestro di Cappella di Camera. The fame achieved through the publication of his concertos titled L’estro armonico (1711) soon enabled him to make his operatic debut in the provincial town of Vicenza with Ottone in Villa (RV729), the success of which led to various commissions for Venetian houses between the years 1714 and 1718. Unsurprisingly the Mantuan court were keen to acquire the services of such a promising young composer and soon he was producing works such as Teuzzone (RV736) and Tito Manlio (RV738) at the Teatro Arciducale (also known as the Teatro Comico) in the carnival season of 1718-19.
Vivaldi’s patron in Mantua was Landgrave Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt (1671-1736), a military man who had won his spurs fighting for the English against the French in the Netherlands in 1691-92. He was evidently a man of exquisite and expensive taste and was eventually recalled in 1735 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI in favour of a candidate with smaller expense claims!
Twelve of Vivaldi’s Mantuan cantatas survive, some of which appear to have been part of a cycle of possibly twelve works. They were probably written for the court’s elite inner circle, some members of which appear in the cantatas sporting Arcadian pseudonyms, a popular practice amongst contemporary Arcadian communities. Precedence had already been set by Vivaldi’s Serenata a quattro voci (RV692) where Daliso (who appears in cantatas RV652 and RV665) represents Philip himself, Tirsi (who appears in RV649 and 659) represents Margherita Pavesi Furlani and Eurilla (who appears in RV649) represents Philip’s daughter Theodora.
The most prolific name however is that of Elvira, the object of three cantatas. Possibly conceived as a set, these works form a little story. In Tremori al braccio (RV799) the lover, (whose name we later learn to be Fileno) trembles at his inability to confess his love to Elvira, only overcoming his reticence in the finale (though not without reservations). In the second work Elvira, anima mia (RV654), Fileno bears the sad tidings to Elvira that he must leave for a while and asks for one last kiss before he leaves. In the final work, Lungi dal vago volto (RV680), the returning Fileno spies Elvira in the distance and he finally reaches her in the happy concluding aria.
Not long ago the performance of these three cantatas would have been impossible: Tremori al braccio was discovered as recently as 1999 by Oliver Fourés in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. It provides a marvellous opening to the trilogy: the three trilled quavers depicting Fileno’s trembling arms at the opening are a masterstroke and the harmonic structure of the opening recitative is inspired, as are those of its compatriot works.
Housed in the Diözesanarchiv, Graz, are five sonatas by Vivaldi for violin and violonzello (sic). These works have hitherto been neglected mainly on account of their missing bass parts. Three survive elsewhere in slightly altered forms; the fast movements of the first sonata (RV4) survive in the sonata dedicated to Johann Georg Pisendel (RV2), the fourth sonata (RV7) shares three movements with a sonata extant in both Udine and Cividale del Friuli (RV7a) and the fifth sonata (RV17) shares three movements with the ninth Manchester sonata (RV17a). The second and third sonatas are as yet unknown in other sources hence the reconstruction of Vivaldian bass parts for the purposes of this performance.
Although the Manchester sonatas were probably presented to Cardinal Ottoboni in 1726, at least five of these twelve works were written earlier including that which survives in Graz. One sonata was probably penned as early as 1716/7, conceived for Pisendel at the same time as RV2 (see above). This evidence tends to point to a compositional date for the Graz set as 1716-1720, similar to that of the Elvira cantatas which also bear some startling thematic similarities.
The received wisdom of recent academic research tends to suggest that the most popular accompaniment for the baroque violin sonata would have been either harpsichord or cello. Although the title of these sonatas only specifies the cello, we have opted for the more decadent combination of cello, harpsichord and guitar or theorbo – a more lavish yet still historically plausible alternative.
The final work due for discussion is the sole surviving sonata by Vivaldi for violin and obbligato cello, a combination he also used in three concertos. Unlike the violin sonatas, this work adopts Vivaldi’s standard three-movement concerto layout and even uses a simplified version of ritornello form in the first movement before reverting to the more standard binary form for the second and third movements. Whilst it is unsurprising for Vivaldi to introduce concerto elements into a sonata, the three movement sonata had already been pre-empted by the Venetian trio sonata of the 1660s-1690s, examples of which Vivaldi must surely have known.
Adrian Chandler © 2006