Interesting, off-the-beaten-path items like Antonio Caldara's Il Giuoco del quadriglio (The Card Game) are great attention-getters. After all, who with even a passing interest in early music wouldn't be curious about a chamber opera from the 1730s consisting of nothing but contentious women playing cards? But if there's magic to be found in the piece -- a beauty, energy, or comedy to make it something of more than academic interest -- you are unlikely to find it in this recording, which is hampered by cautious vocalism and a lack of expressive imagination. All involved, from conductor Stephen Alltop, to the Queen's Chamber Band, to the quartet of singers headlined by soprano Julianne Baird, seem to have their white gloves on, treating this nearly 300-year-old work like a fragile artifact rather than a robust, living thing. So, while the recording is capable, it is also boring, leaving the ear free to notice unflattering things, like the singers' inexpert Italian, instead of the witty repartee.
The Queen's Band recovers nicely for its performance of Caldara's Sonata da Camera, Op. 2, which it delivers with style and elegance, and welcome verve. The composer's stylistic ties to Vivaldi are clearly audible. The rest of the recording is filled out by two solo cantatas, one for soprano (sung by Baird) and one for contralto (Patrice Djerejian). Baird's Lungi dal' idol mio is finely nuanced and laced with affect in the way only someone well steeped in this music can accomplish. The too-distant-by-half miking is disappointing, though, allowing a lot of the soprano's softer singing to fall out of focus; you get the sense that she expected a more intimate representation. Djerejian doesn't come across well. Her wooly, uneven voice is distracting, and its limitations seem to dictate her expressive choices rather than the other way around. In the end, this is an interesting, but uneven program that leaves a lot of music on the table.