Max Emanuel Cencic: "Rokoko: Opera Arias by Hasse"
With Armonia Atenea, Petrou. Texts and translations. Decca 478 6418
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783), once a footnote in articles on his wife, diva Faustina Bordoni, or on his rival (and fellow Saxon) Georg Frideric Handel, seems to be back with a vengeance, at least in the recording studio. Valer Sabadus, Franco Fagioli, Philippe Jaroussky and Bejun Mehta are only some of the countertenors including him on recent releases. With the bracing, accomplished Rokoko, Max Emanuel Cencic joins in with the first prominent all-Hasse collection since that of mezzo Vivica Genaux, a major figure in this composer's twenty-first-century reevaluation.
Hasse's catalogue seems pretty inexhaustible, in number if not always in sheer melodic inspiration: seven of the eleven arias here are world-premiere recordings. The titles of the works give a sense of the largely Classical subject matter — Arminio, Il Cantico de' Tre Fanciulli, Ipermestra, L'Olimpiade, Siroe, Re di Persia, La Spartana Generosa, Tigrane, Tito Vespasiano and Il Trionfo di Clelia. Unsurprisingly, most of the librettos are Metastasio's. Not so Il Cantico de' Tre Fanciulli: despite the album's subtitle, this is actually an oratorio from 1774, late in Hasse's career. (This Baroque composer overlapped with and met Mozart.) Though he has a good line in energetic orchestral introductions to martial and stormy up-tempo arias, to my taste Hasse's slower vocal settings — such as the late oratorio's A section, Siroe's "La sorte mia tiranna"and Ipermestra's "Ma rendi pur contento," both among the album's novelties — offer more compelling melodic material.
Cencic, a complete Baroque virtuoso with a notably attractive timbre, is ready for any challenge — long legato arcs or yards of flashy, expressively hurled coloratura. Sometimes he breathes in unorthodox places or decorates period endings with long-held high notes; I doubt the latter will disturb many of his fans, new or old.Conductor George Petrou has recently placed himself among the go-to conductors for Baroque repertory, and his ensemble Armonia Atenea, twenty-five strong, offers Cencic worthily alert and enjoyable support throughout, with expert continuo playing.
The packaging — color scheme, typesetting and above all Cencic's nouveau dandy wardrobe and hair treatment — has a jaunty 1990s air, as if this were a Chris Isaak Halloween album. But after all, we are often told that Hasse's great protégés were the rock stars of the eighteenth-century. Three tracks of fourteen (eight minutes of sixty-four) get devoted to a Hasse mandolin concerto, with Theodoros Kitsos — who also plays theorbo on the disc — the adept soloist. Hasse obviously wrote many more arias, but unlike in some Baroque discs, this inclusion seems — due to the repetitiousness of Hasse's compositional procedure — less like padding and more a welcome break from vocalism, however brilliant.
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