Written by Anne E. Johnson

For a composer not celebrating a round-numbered anniversary of his birth or death, Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) sure is getting a lot of attention from recording studios in 2017. Recent releases include both sacred and profane, and both vocal and instrumental works.

In the late 16th through 18th centuries, there was no more respected place for a composer to get his training than San Marco in Venice. Young Caldara sang and studied there with the great Giovanni Legrenzi (who probably also taught Vivaldi a few years later). Caldara’s best known today for his vocal music; no surprise, given his training.

In his role of maestro di cappella at courts in Mantua, Rome, and Vienna, his duties usually focused on sacred music. He’d have to produce new music for every church service, plus special occasions like coronations or weddings.

There are two new recordings of motets. On Caldara: Motetti a due e tre voci, Op. 4 (Pan Classics PC10362) Thomas C. Boysen conducts the United Continuo Ensemble. The 12 motets in Op. 4 were written in Rome, where Caldara replaced Handel at the court of the Marquis Francesco Ruspoli.

The liner notes describe the pieces as “antiquated for their time.” True enough. “Laboravi in gemitu meo” might be mistaken for the style of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), whose use of dissonance was so intense and bizarre that historians compare his compositions to “Mannerist” paintings, such as the freakish fruit-faced portraits by Arcimboldo. In fact, Gesualdo did set the same motet text, some 110 years before Caldara. Here’s the earlier version:


And here’s Caldara:


Caldara had most likely studied Gesualdo’s music while in Venice. One way to be sure you’re hearing Caldara is the use of organ as continuo. Thanks to the slow tempos and an elastic phrasing in the voices that’s almost like sighing, the recording has a melancholic but calming effect. Boyer’s group is excellently trained, with singers who can hold their own on one person per part.

When Caldara was called to write old-fashioned counterpoint, he was the best in the business (if you don’t count that young J.S. Bach fella starting to make a name for himself). This was true his whole career, even in a late work like the Missa dolorosa (Sorrowful Mass). The piece was written for Habsburg Emperor Charles VI, who was crazy for counterpoint.

In a recording (Brilliant Classics 95482) by Ensemble La Silva, directed by Nanneke Schaap, this Mass proves Caldara still had the old-school touch, the ability to use counterpoint for great emotional impact. The opening tracks comprise the Ordinary, or those words used in every Mass. (The other texts, the Propers, change day by day.) In one way, Caldara keeps up with the times: typical of the 18th century, the five Ordinary texts are split into many short movements.

The Gloria thus becomes six movements. In the short “Qui tollis,” Caldara sports a more up-to-date style. It’s also interesting to hear a string ensemble provide the continuo support rather than organ. Unfortunately, the performers don’t have a strong leader in Schaap, and as a result the rhythm and ensemble can be messy, and the vibrato oddly warbling:


The collection also includes ten motets. The performances suffer from the same ragged edges as the Mass does, not to mention some painful intonation in the voices. Here is “Ego sum panis vivus” for soprano, countertenor, and continuo:


Before Emperor Charles VI held that lofty title, he was less-lofty King Charles III of Spain. Caldara impressed with a cantata for the king’s 1708 wedding in Barcelona. These deep Spanish ties explain the material on the CD set The Cervantes Operas (Glossa GCD 923104). The two operas in question, inspired by sections from the two volumes of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, are Don Chisciotte in Corte della Duchessa (1727) and Sancio Panza Governatore dell’isola Barattaria (1733). Caldara, with librettist G.C. Pasquini, wrote them for the Habsburgs in Vienna.

La Ritirata, under the direction of Josetxu Obregón, chose this moment to capture the rare repertoire because 2016 marked the 400th anniversay of Cervante’s death. The recording includes arias from both operas and some instrumental dances by Caldara’s colleague in Vienna, Nicola Matteis.

Bass João Fernandes brings bluster and humor as Diego, strict father of the story’s love interest, Lucinda, in the aria “Per tanti obbligazioni Signir” from Sancio Panza:


On other tracks, soprano María Espada distinguishes herself with an impressive command of the era’s fluttering ornamentation, and tenor Emiliano González Toro provides a strong hero’s voice. The precise ensemble playing of the period instruments is most notable for the swift-tongued recorders of Tamar Lalo and Guillermo Peñalver (the latter of whom also plays traverso, an early version of the modern flute).

Although it’s not devoted entirely to the works of Caldara, The Italian Job (Avie AV2371) must be included here. First, it has the best classical album title of the year so far. The subtitle, Baroque Instrumental Music from the Italian States, prepares you for works by Albinoni, Corelli, Tartini, Torelli, and Vivaldi as well. And while those other composers are known for their non-vocal offerings, Caldara is not, so this is a rare treat. Most important, this innovative performance truly captures late 17th-century style.

The group La Serenissima, directed by violinist Adrian Chandler, exudes the pulsing, frenetic energy that makes middle Baroque music rock. While these works are of their time, they also look backward, as Caldara’s music always does. In this allegro from the Sinfonia in C for 2 Oboes, 2 Bassoons, 2 Trumpets, Timpani, Violin, Strings and Continuo, the use of instrumentation as texture seems to borrow from Monteverdi’s playbook from three generations before:


If there’s one thing we can learn from Caldara in all these recordings, it’s that you really can make a living by keeping the past alive.

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