Strozzi Cantatas and Songs
This is not the first recording to focus on the music of Barbara Strozzi, but it is surely the most compelling yet released, and a powerful advocate for its still little regarded composer—one of the few women before the nineteenth century to make a mark on what had traditionally been a man's world. As this nicely varied anthology of cantatas and songs reveals, Strozzi's most immediate debt was to the opera composers of her native Venice: the Monteverdi of Poppea and Ulisse, and her own teacher, Francesco Cavalli. But it was the privacy of the palazzo rather than the public stage for which she wrote; and indeed, most if not all of the works she published must have been first performed before invited audiences by Strozzi herself. How evocative this recording is of those Venetian social gatherings and music parties in the 1650s at which Barbara stepped forward and performed her own works.
Love is the dominant theme; but the poetry largely steers a middle course by expressing general sentiments rather than the woman's point of view (or, for that matter, the man's). As for the music, at its weakest it is still charming, and at its best—as in the rousing Amor, non dormir piu—it is easily on a level with Cavalli himself. With so little Italian music of the period available for study, let alone in the performer's repertoire, it's difficult to know quite what place Strozzi occupies in the pantheon; but to judge from the quality revealed here, she is certainly not to be overlooked.
The performances are striking. Glenda Simpson's voice, strong and tense rather than soothingly feminine, projects a forceful personality, and so well does she cope with Strozzi's angular lines and demanding passage-work that one readily forgives her the occasional lapse of tonal beauty or wavering in the tuning. Despite the chamber scale of the pieces, Simpson underplays the potential for intimacy and instead adopts a theatrical presence that commands attention and respect. The accompaniments, shared among harpsichord, chittarone, guitar and bass viol, are no less characterful, and several of the longer cantatas are attractively prefaced by short instrumental toccatas, either improvised or taken from contemporary sources. Recordings of early baroque cantatas are rare, even disregarding the curiosity value of Strozzi herself, this is one of the most appealing and commendable collections of them currently available.'