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Antonio Maria BONONCINI (1677 - 1726): La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista

Aldona Bartnik (Salomè), Bozena Bujnicka (Erodiade), soprano; Joanna Dobrakowska (Angelo), mezzo-soprano; Ewa Marciniec (San Giovanni Battista), contralto; Jaromir Nosek (Erode), bass
Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Andrzej Kosendiak

rec: Jan 22 - 24, 2018, Wroclaw, Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music (main hall)
CD Accord - ACD256-2 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.31'30")
Liner-notes: E/PL; lyrics - translations: E/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Zbigniew Pilch, Mikolaj Zgolka, Kamila Guz, Adam Pastuszka, Violetgta Szopa-Tomczyk, Malgorzata Malke, violin; Piotr Chrupek, Michal Mazur, viola; Jaroslaw Thiel, Bartosz Kokoszka, cello; Stanislaw Smolka, double bass; Henryk Kasperczak, lute; Aleksandra Rupocinska, harpsichord; Marta Niedzwiecka, harpsichord, organ

Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677 - 1726) was the younger and lesser-known brother of Giovanni Bononcini (1670 - 1747). He was one of a number of Italian composers who were active at the imperial court in Vienna, and introduced the newest trends in Italian music to the Austrian capital. His brother also did belong to this group of composers, as well as Marc'Antonio Ziani and Attilio Ariosti.

It took Antonio quite some time to escape from the shadow of his brother who made special impression with his operas. Antonio devoted many of his compositions to emperor Joseph's brother Charles, who lived in Barcelona as he claimed the Spanish throne, which suggests he acted as Kapellmeister to Charles. When Joseph died in 1713, Charles succeeded him as Emperor Charles VI. What perhaps was expected, didn't happen: neither Giovanni nor Antonio received any appointment at the court. In 1721 Antonio was appointed maestro di cappella at Modena, where he stayed until his death.

Despite being appreciated in Vienna, Antonio was less famous than his elder brother. It is interesting to note that someone like Francesco Geminiani rated him higher than Giovanni because he was "much beyond his brother in point of depth and knowledge". Among the features of his style are the important role of couterpoint and the amount of expression, which is achieved with harmonic and melodic means. The oratorio La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista bears witness to that.

It received its first performance in 1709 in Vienna. The libretto is from the pen of Giovanni Domenico Filippesci. The work is divided into two parts, as was the custom in oratorios of the time. The subject was well-known, and today the best-known treatment of it is Alessandro Stradella's San Giovanni Battista. There are quite some differences between them. First, Filippesci starts with a scene in which Herodes and Herodias express their mutual love. However, this is troubled by the fact that John the Baptist tells Herodes that their love is sinful, as Herodias is the wife of Herodes's brother. This causes the anger of Herodias and makes her want the Baptist to die. This fact is only mentioned in Stradella's oratorio. The ending is also different. An oratorio usually closed with a chorus, expressing the work's moral. However, Stradella's oratorio ends with a duet of Herodes and his daughter (called Heriodiade la figlia, in Bononcini's work Salomè), in which they react differently to John the Baptist's death: Herodes with sadness, Salome with joy. That is different here: when Salome asks for "the Baptist's head", Herodes replies: "Is that all you ask for? Obedient and ready, go, loyal Ministers, to the known prison and fetch me now the Baptist's head. Let it be carried out at once, let Salome be pleased and let him die". After an aria by Herodias, she and her daughter sing a short duet, celebrating their victory. The oratorio does end with a chorus, and here we have the moral: "Perishes the just and he lives still as his death is life. The godless one lives, and he is already dead as death is the life he enjoys".

Both oratorios include a role for an angel, but in Bononcini's work, that role has more weight; he has to sing some of the most demanding arias. The arias of all the characters are mostly accompanied by basso continuo alone, but some close with a ritornello of the strings. Among the arias with full string accompaniment are 'Preziosa è quella morte', sung by the angel at the close of the first part, John the Baptist's main aria 'Bacio l'ombre' (in f minor), and the angel's aria in the second part, 'Tardi diviene all'ira'. Notable is Herodes's aria 'Nulla si nieghi', which includes two obbligato cello parts. As both Giovanni and Antonio had been educated as cellists, it is assumed that the brothers played these parts during the first performance.

This aria follows a remarkable moment in this oratorio. When Salome sings an aria to please Herodes, he intervenes shortly after she has started to sing the B part of her aria. This not only has a dramatic effect, but it was also quite unusual at the time. It is one of the aspects which confirms Antonio Maria Bononcini's specific qualities, which makes him stand out among his peers.

Unfortunately, the dramatic effect of this scene does not fully come off here, and that is largely due to Jaromir Nosek's interpretation. There is little wrong with his singing from a stylistic point of view, but his account of the role of Herodes is rather subdued. His performance lacks involvement and as a result the role of Herodes is rather bland. And as this role is pretty important, this really damages the impression of this recording as a whole. Ewa Marciniec does justice to the seriousness and depth of the part of John the Baptist. Bozena Bujnicka does well as the loving wife of Herodes, and does not fail to highlight the sharp and nasty edges of her character. Aldona Bartnik has a lovely voice, which is well suited to portray the girl Salome. Joanna Dobrakowska is mentioned as being a mezzo-soprano, but she has a strong low register, which she needs for the role of the angel. It allows her to emphasize the weight of this part. Unfortunately, she uses quite some vibrato, more than Marciniec and Bujnicka, who are certainly not free from that either, but are able to reduce it to acceptable proportions. Having said that, the two choruses, sung by the soloists, suffer from it.

The instrumental score is nicely executed by the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra, which I have encountered before and which has always made a good impression. That is confirmed here with some colourful and differentiated playing.

On balance, I am happy that this fine work has been released in a new recording (it is not the first), as it deserves more attention than it has received to date. It is just a shame that it can't entirely satisfy for stylistic and dramatic reasons.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Aldona Bartnik
Bozena Bujnicka
Jaromir Nosek
Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra

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