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The Consort

Colin Timms

Summer 2009, Vol. 65

Tomaso Albinoni
Cantata Amarissime pene for soprano and continuo
Edition HH, HH149.FSP, Bicester, 2008 (pbk 9.95)
ISMN 979 708059 03 5

Albinoni (1671-1751) is probably best known today for a piece he did not write - the Adagio in G minor by his biographer, Giazotto - and for his concertos, especially those in op.7 (1715) and op.9 (1722) involving oboe, which deserve their high reputation. A Venetian amateur, in the sense that he did not make his living as a musician, the composer also wrote much secular vocal music, both operas and chamber cantatas. The latter are relatively youthful works, dating from the 1690s and early 1700s; twelve were published as his op.4 in 1702 with a dedication to Ferdinando Maria De' Medici, uncle of the famous patron-prince. They thus belong to a 'classic' phase in the history of the genre, when the text of the solo cantata, influenced by the Arcadian movement, became crystallised as recitative - aria - recitative - aria, and the resources of tonality and counterpoint were ripe for exploitation.

Although cast in this standard form and concerned with a conventional theme (unrequited love), Amarissime pene is a beautiful cantata in which Albinoni's feeling for a vocal line reflects his early experience as a singer. It survives in a number of sources, but this edition is based on an important manuscript copy in Berlin. Like Michael Talbot's previous cantata editions for the same publisher, this one is presented as a score (vocal line, bass line and continuo realisation) and two parts (voice and bass line only) - one part for the singer, the other for the cellist (or other continuo player). The score volume provides an introduction to the composer, the source and the piece, with a discussion of editorial methods and questions relating to performance, including a transcription of the Italian text in poetical layout, together with line-by-line, non-singing prose translations into English and German. The edition both adheres to the highest standards of scholarship and is intended for use in performance.

Helpful features include the last page-turn in the continuo part, but other features seem less than totally practical. The key of the cantata as a whole is C minor, but the original signature of two flats is retained. There are arguments for and against this policy, of course, and in most movements the result is acceptable, but the first aria, which is in F minor, requires the addition of many editorial accidentals. Similarly, one can understand an editor's reluctance to litter the vocal line with appoggiaturas or other ornaments, but advice on this topic could have appeared in the introduction, which is concerned mainly with the realisation of the continuo. Although it is good to be reminded that 'opinions varied in the early 18th century about the desirability of playing chords in recitative with short "attacks"', it should also be said that chords could not have sounded for as long as they often are notated. This raises the question as to what the semibreves and minims in a recitative bass line actually mean: maybe they carry no implication at all for performance, but show the duration of a chord's validity.

Opinions also vary in the 21st century on whether an editor should provide a continuo realisation or add bass figures that are not in the source. If the figures in the source do not convey the correct harmony when interpreted according to current understanding of bass figures, the editor must surely do something: non-intervention is not an option. Bass figures are not merely performance instructions: they are also a way of notating harmony, and the harmony notated by the figured bass must tally with that on the staves.

It is debatable, however, whether an editor needs to provide both a realisation and additional figures. Talbot writes that the harpsichordist may ignore one or the other, but that is more easily said than done. The singer and the cellist may be grateful for the extra figures in their parts, where there is no realisation, but the harpsichordist could probably manage with one or the other.

Edition HH is to be commended for publishing Italian chamber cantatas, and Michael Talbot for editing them. Amarissime pene is at least the thirteenth example by Albinoni to have appeared in this series (which also includes the four by Benedetto Vinaccesi reviewed in this journal in summer 2005). It is to be hoped that the Albinoni canon will be completed - and followed by cantatas from some of his excellent Italian contemporaries.

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