With the recording of Andromeda liberata – their debut on Archiv Produktion – Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra have scored a real coup. This is a newly rediscovered, full-concert-length work that languished in obscurity for some 275 years. Usually it’s in attics, boxrooms or junkrooms that sensational finds like this one are made. But in the case of Andromeda liberata it was the venerable archive of the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello in Venice where, in April 2002, the French musicologist Olivier Fourés happened upon the manuscript of an anonymous, early 18thcentury serenata.
When a discovery of the magnitude of Andromeda liberata takes place, the reaction is rather like a volcanic eruption. Regarding the work’s authorship, the scholarly world is, at least for the time being, divided in its opinion. Fourés has been able to prove beyond doubt that the aria “Sovvente il sole” was written by Antonio Vivaldi and, on the basis of various indications, he has suggested the possibility that the entire work may have been composed by Vivaldi. Nevertheless there is mounting evidence that points to a composite score, a “pasticcio”, bringing together pieces by different composers. The renowned Vivaldi specialist Michael Talbot has found unmistakable signs that some of Vivaldi’s leading Italian contemporaries – for example, Giovanni Porta and Tomaso Albinoni – were involved in the composition. The pasticcio was a popular form in Baroque music, and an extraordinarily practical one, because it allowed already existing musical pieces to be recycled by assembling them in new combinations.
As for the question, “Was it Vivaldi or not?”, the Venice Baroque Orchestra has followed that debate only insofar as it serves the interests of their thrilling recording, about to be issued on Archiv Produktion. Andrea Marcon, the orchestra’s founder and director, considers Vivaldi’s authorship to be entirely plausible, but his and his musicians’ overriding concern has been that of making this exciting, sparkling score accessible to a wider audience. The Baroque sound world here finds ideally sympathetic exponents: the Venice Baroque Orchestra is made up of outstanding instrumentalists who have specialized in the interpretation of early music. After hearing them in concert one London critic declared that it was like hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the very first time. Now, in this recording, posterity actually will be hearing Andromeda liberata for the very first time in over 275 years.
For that we owe a debt of gratitude to musicologist Olivier Fourés. With the meticulousness of a detective, he tracked down the historical facts behind its genesis. The trail led to Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who returned to his native Venice on 21 July 1726 after 14 years of political banishment. Ottoboni was a great music lover, and numerous concerts were organized in his honour during the summer and autumn of 1726. It was at one of these concerts that the serenata entitled Andromeda liberata received its first performance.
The questions raised by this spectacular discovery are as fascinating as the serenata itself, the plot of which derives from the Greek myth of Andromeda’s marriage to Perseus. The fair Andromeda is the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, rulers of Ethiopia. Queen Cassiopeia arouses the indignation of the sea-nymphs by boasting that she is more beautiful than they. Revenge comes swiftly: the sea-god Poseidon sends a sea-monster to ravage Ethiopia. In his despair the king asks the oracle how he can save his country, and is told that the only way is to sacrifice his daughter. The young woman is left naked and chained to a rock to be devoured by the sea-monster. Looking down, the young Perseus beholds the princess and promptly falls in love with her. Having obtained from the royal couple a promise of their daughter’s hand in marriage, the young hero slays the monster and releases Andromeda. The serenata opens at this moment. When Perseus declares his passion for her, Andromeda admits that she loves a certain Daliso (an invented character in the composition). After various vicissitudes, the story ends happily with the wedding of Andromeda and Perseus.
Why should this of all subjects have been chosen for musical setting to celebrate Ottoboni’s return? A number of symbolic parallels with political overtones can be drawn. The young Perseus serving as redeemer represents Cardinal Ottoboni, while Andromeda embodies the suffering city of Venice. The antagonist Daliso could stand for the diplomatic hurdles that Ottoboni needed to overcome in order to return to his beloved native city.
Andromeda liberata is both a magnificent musical piece of Venice and yet another enigma of this city, which to this day has lost none of its mysterious allure. In the hands of Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra the work opens a window into the Baroque era – the orchestra’s artistic director is a fierce advocate of emotionally charged music making, even, and especially, when the music is Baroque: “Without your own emotion and understanding, you are far from the real Baroque. Of course, there’s not only one valid interpretation: anyone who believes that idea is absolutely wrong. Even after our years of experience in the field, there is still so much to learn!” And although there is no end to learning, nor any definitive solution yet to the puzzle of Andromeda liberata’s authorship, there is one thing that can safely be said: this recording with the Venice Baroque Orchestra is the invitation to an exhilarating musical journey to “La Serenissima”.