The historical-instrument ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria under violinist/conductor Gunar Letzbor has specialized in neglected repertory of the eighteenth century, and few composers fit their aims better than Antonio Caldara, a Venetian trained in the grand tradition at St. Mark's cathedral. He had a distinguished career that took him to Mantua, (perhaps) to the then-Austrian court at Barcelona, to Rome, and finally to Vienna itself, where he became vice-kapellmeister under emperor Charles VI. As with other composers in this milieu, most of his production was vocal. The 12 Sinfonie a quattro recorded here are very brief specimens of the kind of sinfonia that served as a curtain raiser for an opera or oratorio, the genre from which the independent symphony ultimately evolved. In this case the sinfonias are taken from oratorios, named in the subtitles of each work. They consist of three or four movements, many of them extremely short but not excluding counterpoint and even little fugal finales. The tone is restrained, in keeping with the religious subject matter, and the texture is pretty constant aside from a few violin solos. Combine that with the technically smooth but rather deadpan readings from Letzbor, a disciple of Reinhard Goebel and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the result, at least for the general listener, is a very subdued hour of music in a program that would unlikely have been performed in its own time. The booklet notes by one Dagmar Glüxam (in German, French, Italian, and English) are aimed at specialists, containing such puzzlers as this: "Caldara's alleged stay in Barcelona, which must have occurred the same year as the invitation of Charles III, has been called into question by the latest research." They seem to raise the possibility that larger forces (more than one instrument per string part, plus an oboe and/or bassoon); such an interpretation might have done the music good, but the forces here make up a quartet of strings plus an organ-and-archlute continuo. For the average listener the disc may be a long slog, although it will certainly fill a gap on collection shelves.
Share this page