Orfeo(s): Italian & French Cantatas / Sunhae Im, soprano; Berlin Early Music Academy


Harmonia Mundi’s collection of cantatas on the story of Orfeo is exactly what I want from new recordings of early music. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and Sunhae Im are exemplary in their playing and singing; the audio engineering and sound quality are deeply satisfying; and the perspectives of several composers on one character provide historical insight not available elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous Orfeo is Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo from 1607, but each of these pieces was written about 100 years later. The prevailing music styles changed significantly over this time, moving toward a much more familiar classical tonality and set of musical-dramatic conventions.

First is Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Orfeo (c.1735), for soprano, strings, and basso continuo. This cantata consists of two pairs of recitative and aria, briefly recounting the story of Eurydice’s fate in hell and Orfeo’s determination to rescue her, no matter the cost. Some passages sound positively Mozartian, but occasional chromaticism sets Pergolesi’s music apart from the merely generic. Written approximately one year before his death at the age of twenty-six, this short cantata is yet another tantalizing hint at what could have been.

Louis Nicolas Clérambault’s Orphée (1710) is a cantata for soprano and chamber orchestra, a more expansive instrumentation than Pergolesi’s contribution. Although it is roughly as long as the previous cantata, Clérambault’s is divided into four pairs of recitative and aria. It does not cover any more of the plot, but it certainly feels more restless and anxious, less willing to dwell on any one moment. Constant trading back-and-forth between singer and ensemble lends mobility and vitality to the music, sometimes at the expense of a sense of depth and reflection. This cantata is from the French composer’s earliest published collection, but represents the height of his dramatic writing.

Alessandro Scarlatti is known for his remarkably prolific output, numbering around 100 operas and 800 cantatas. (He is not to be confused with his son Domenico, who is famous for his 555 keyboard sonatas.) Amidst this ocean of music is his cantata L’Orfeo, which is likely the earliest of the pieces featured here, though its exact date is uncertain. It shows a remarkable penchant for harmonic exploration and a personal style recognized by his contemporaries. During his career, Scarlatti enjoyed very comfortable, high-paid positions that allowed him indulgences, musical and otherwise. With this flexibility came music that looked both backward and forward, combining the sounds of older music with an expressive mindset that was relatively new. The light, floating aria at the heart of the cantata, Sordo il tronco, is a perfect example of the musical freedom this comfort afforded. In a tranquil F major, Orfeo reflects on the power his song has over nature and even the creatures of Hell.

The final cantata is by Jean-Philippe Rameau, composer and music theorist. His cantata, unsurprisingly titled Orphée, is for soprano and “symphony”—in this case strings, continuo, and flute. Of the works here, his is the only to narrate the ending of the story, Orfeo’s glance back at Eurydice that costs her eternity in the underworld. The other cantatas refer to this tragic conclusion, but Rameau describes it in detail in recitative. The final aria, though, is a cheerful recitation of the lesson we all ought to learn from Orfeo’s mistake. It resembles the closing choruses of many Enlightenement-era operas that served as opportunities for a moral or ethical takeaway from the tale. Here Rameau, through the story of Orfeo, warns us to be patient: “Many a man would be happy today had he not desired his happiness too soon.”

Handel: Agrippina - Poppea / Sunhae Im