Alessandro Scarlatti’s fine Christmas cantata O di Betlemme altera
may have been the result of a commission from an Italian noble, for there seems to have been a tradition, led by the Pope, of ecclesiastical households commissioning ‘a virtuous entertainment in music … a cantata in Italian about the Nativity of the Child Jesus’. This work would have been performed as a prelude to ‘a most abundant supper’, which was served between first Vespers of the Nativity and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Scarlatti’s graceful cantata starts in traditional form with an elegant Introduzione whose second section introduces pastoral, Christmas bagpipe drones, much in the style of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, the ‘pifa’ of Handel’s Messiah
and Part 2 of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. After an introductory recitative comes a jaunty aria, ‘Dal bel seno’, full of opportunities on its da capo for the soloist to show her skill at ornamentation. The second aria, ‘L’autor d’ogni mio bene’, is glorious, with solo violin and viola accompanied by ‘Violoncello e Leuto’ (playing in an especially high tessitura) providing a shimmering, atmospheric accompaniment to a delicious melody. The final movement completes the delightfully pastoral scene, with a lilting melody accompanied by orchestral drones. Here is one of the most charming of all baroque representations of the shepherds at the manger, worshipping the little baby Jesus.
from notes by Robert King © 1996