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LEOPOLD I (1640 - 1705): Il Sagrifizio d'Abramo, Miserere

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: April 22 - 24, 2016, Thedinghausen-Lunsen, Kirche Sankt Damian und Cosman
CPO - 555 115-2 (ę 2020) (76'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
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Il Sagrifizio d'Abramo; Miserere per la settimana santa

Nele Gram▀, Margaret Hunter, Monika Mauch, Marie Luise Werneburg, soprano; Marnix De Cat, alto; Mirko Ludwig, Julian Podger, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass
Gebhard David, Anna Schall, mute cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, sackbut; Veronika Skuplik, Franciska Hajdu, violin; Juliane Laake, Julia Vet÷, Marthe Perl, Christian Heim, Dßvid Budai, viola da gamba; Frauke Hess, viola da gamba, lirone; Margit Schulthei▀, harp; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; J÷rg Jacobi, harpsichord, organ

In the course of the 17th century, the Italian style quickly disseminated across Europe. Part of it was also the genre of the oratorio, whose development had been crucially influenced by Giacomo Carissimi. One of the centres of music making in the Italian fashion was Vienna, where the emperors were so much under the spell of the Italian style that most of the musicians of their chapel were from Italy. They were not only great music lovers, they also acted as performers and even as composers. One of them was Leopold I, to whom the ensemble Weser-Renaissance Bremen devoted a series of concerts during the season 2015/16. Part of that were also the two works made available on disc now.

Oratorios were usually performed during Lent, not only for spiritual reasons - as this was a season of repentence - but also as an alternative to opera, since opera performances were forbidden during Lent and music theatres were closed. Oratorio performances offered not only an alternative way to spend the time for audiences, but also could make use of singers who were otherwise engaged in opera. At the imperial court in Vienna a particular tradition had come into existence: the performance of so-called sepolcri. Such sacred dramas, connected in one way or another to the Passion and death of Christ, were performed at Thursdays during Lent. A more extended form of sepolcro was then performed at Good Friday. For such an occasion Leopold I composed his first oratorio, Il Sagrifizio d'Abramo, to be performed at Good Friday 1660.

Sepolcri are not comparable with the oratorio Passions written by German Protestant composers. It is not the text of the Gospels which is set to music. The text is rather free poetry, and could deal with any subject, provided it could be connected to the Passion of Christ. The author of the libretto which Leopold set to music was a certain Conte Caldana, about whom nothing is known. The libretto is divided into two parts. The first, which opens with a sinfonia for the strings, is about Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. He is confronted by two allegorical figures, Obedience (Ubidienza) and Humanity (HumanitÓ), who represent two different answers to God's request. It lends the first half of this part the character of a morality play, comparable with a piece like Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo. In the second half, we hear a dialogue between Abraham and his son Isaac. The latter tries to prevent being sacrificed, and here we find the first reference to the Passion of Christ, when he says: "Ah father, if you be willing, remove this bitter cup far away from your faint-hearted son". A little later, he again refers to Jesus: "The spirit is surely willing, but the flesh, being weak, does not recognize the merit". The first part ends when an angel intervenes and prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son. The closing trio of the angel, Abraham and Isaac says: "No one shall fulfill the fate of Isaac unless it be Jesus."

The second part is about the need of penitence, which is acting as one of the main characters. After a short sinfonia, this time for the muted cornetts, he urges the audience: "Let us hasten to the blood-drenched hills, O penitent souls, to the crosses, to the heavy-laden, to the deserts, to the tombs. (...) The Old Testament was the shadow of the New; the sorrowful preparation of Isaac, who remained alive, was the image of Christ, who died and was laid in the grave". J÷rg Jacobi, who prepared the score for this recording, states in his liner-notes that this oratorio is "the first libretto to describe the figure of Isaac as a prefiguration of Christ". At the end of his solo, Penitence urges the sinners to show their remorse by weeping tears. We then hear a Chorus of Sinners: "Onward, onward, let us weep, let us lament our feelings with contrite hearts". And that is what four sinners (STTB) do in four solo episodes, each followed by a ritornello of cornetts and sackbut. Only the fourth solo, for the bass, is followed by another Chorus of Sinners, after which we hear a ritornello, which leads to a further solo of Penitence. The work then ends with a 'madrigal': "We offer ourselves to our only compassionate God, no less ready than Abraham to weep in sorrow from the depths of our bowels".

Leopold may have been a dilettante, as a non-professional composer was called at the time in Italy, but with this oratorio he created a very fine and highly expressive work, which should receive the attention of all those who look for less conventional repertoire for Passiontide. The solos are written in monodic style, but there are also some lyrical episodes, in which the singers are accompanied by instruments. The monodic episodes require a declamatory way of singing, and considerable freedom in the treatment of the rhythm. Julian Podger is impressive in the role of Abraham, not only stylistically, but also in the communication of the affetti of that part. Margaret Hunter, Nele Gram▀ and Monika Mauch are his perfect partners in the first part, whereas Marnix De Cat does an excellent job as Penitence in the second. All in all, this is a superb performance of a very interesting and musically compelling oratorio.

Traditionally the seven penitential psalms are sung during Lent. The fourth is Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus. The fact that the third sinner in the oratorio refers to the seventh verse of this Psalm - "Purge me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall soon be made whiter than snow" - is a further reason to include here a setting of this Psalm from the pen of Leopold. It is one of two settings, which are notable for various reasons, as Jacobi explains in the liner-notes. In this particular case it is the instrumental scoring for a consort of viols, a kind of ensemble that was already obsolete on the continent at the time this work was written. However, the Viennese emperors were known for having a rather conservative musical taste (music for viol consort was still played in Vienna around 1700), and for their strong preference of counterpoint. That is demonstrated in the instrumental accompaniment, but also in the tutti in this Miserere, which ends - not unexpectedly - with a fugal section. The vocal scoring is for four voices, and the score specifically indicates that ripieno voices should be omitted. The work has a clear structure: it is divided into four sections, each of which has four solo episodes for the respective voices, mostly called aria, sometimes recitativo, and a chorus at the end. It is a relatively uncomplicated, but again quite expressive piece, which fully deserves its place among the many settings of this Psalm

This disc is a revealing demonstration of the qualties of Leopold I as a composer. More of his oeuvre is available on disc, which confirms the general picture of someone who knew what he had to do to create an expressive piece of music. The performances here leave nothing to be desired. I have already given my verdict on the performance of the oratorio, and the Miserere gets a performance which is just as good.

In short, this is a marvellous disc, one of the best vocal productions which have crossed my path recently.

Johan van Veen (ę 2021)

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