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Johann Gottlieb NAUMANN (1741 - 1801): La Passione di Gesù Cristo, azione sacra in due parti

Monica Bragadin (Maddalena), mezzosoprano; Raffaele Giordani (Giovanni), Makoto Sakurada (Pietro), tenor; Alfredo Grandini (Giuseppe), bass
Coro La Stagione Armonica; Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto
Dir: Sergio Balestracci

rec: Nov 6/7, 2006 (live), Padova, Auditorium Pollini
CPO - 777 365-2 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (2.00'04")

The oratorio La Passione di Gesù Cristo is based on one of the most popular librettos of the 18th century, written by the famous librettist Pietro Metastasio. It was one of seven libretti Metastasio had written between 1730 and 1740 for the imperial court in Vienna. Five of them were meant to be performed during Holy Week, as in the subjects - mostly from the Old Testament - a connection was made to the Passion of Christ. This particular oratorio was set by several composers, like Myslivecek, Paisiello and Salieri. Johann Gottlieb Naumann's setting dates from 1768.

Naumann was the main musical figure in Dresden between Hasse and Weber. He was born in Blasewitz, near Dresden, and received his first musical education at the Kreuzschule in Dresden. At the age of 16 he travelled to Italy where he received musical lessons from Giuseppe Tartini and 'Padre' Giovanni Battista Martini. He also came into contact with Johann Adolf Hasse in 1762, who was in Venice at the time. In the same year his first dramatic work was performed in Venice, the intermezzo Il tesoro insidiato. On Hasse's recommendation he was appointed second church composer in Dresden in 1764. The next year he became church and chamber composer and in 1776 Kapellmeister. He regularly travelled abroad: in the mid-60's and early 70's he went to Italy, and from 1777 to 1786 he spent some time in Sweden, where his opera Cora was performed at the inauguration of the new opera house in Stockholm. Before returning to Dresden, where he became Oberkapellmeister in 1786, he was in Copenhagen. There he played a leading role in the reform of the court chapel and the court opera.

In his libretto Metastasio completely avoids the biblical narration of the Passion story and the participation of Jesus. He rather concentrates on depicting Jesus' agony in a very theatrical fashion. The story of the Passion is told by three of the four characters in retrospective: Mary Magdalene, John and Joseph of Arimathea. They were all present at some of the events leading to the death and burial of Jesus. The fourth character is Peter, who wasn't present at either of them, as he fled from the courtroom while Jesus was interrogated. It is Peter whom we meet at the beginning of the first part, desperately asking himself: "Where am I? Where am I going? Who guides my steps? After my failing I can find no more peace". The first part is then devoted to the other three protagonists telling Peter what has happened since he left the scene. In the second part the four characters talk about the coming resurrection and they look forward to the way the Jewish people will suffer the revenge for Jesus' death: "What terrible vengeance awaits you, faithless Jerusalem!"

There is not much direct text expression in the vocal parts here - it is mainly the orchestra which expresses the events as they are told by the protagonists. For instance, Peter's unrest as expressed in his aria 'Giacché mi tremi in seno' ("Since you tremble in my breast") is depicted by short motifs and a repetition of notes. And in the aria of Mary of Magdalen in Part 2, 'A' passi erranti' ("To our wandering footsteps the path is obscure") the footsteps are illustrated by short accents and staccato playing. She has also one of the most moving arias in the first part, 'Potea quel pianto' which reflects upon the tears of Mary, mother of Christ, at the cross, and which is full of Seufzer (sighing figures).

The oratorio contains two musically remarkable arias. First another aria by Mary of Magdalen, 'Vorrei dirti il mio dolore', with a virtuoso solo part for the violin. At the end of the dacapo it is the violin which plays a cadenza. The booklet doesn't tell whether this was written-out by the composer - or merely indicated. It is very long and rather virtuosic - but it certainly fits with the overall character of the violin part in this aria. Its counterpart is the last aria in the oratorio, 'Se a librarsi in mezzo all'onde', sung by Peter, who is accompanied by a solo bassoon - another virtuoso part. Both arias are by far the longest in the oratorio: up to 12 minutes. It is evidence of the quality of Naumann's composition that neither these two nor the other arias - also mostly of considerable length - are ever becoming tiresome or boring. Although this oratorio is not dramatic in the operatic sense of the word, the music is captivating and keeps the listener's attention.

That is also due to the performers. We hear four splendid singers here, who all meet the considerable technical demands of Naumann's music. Monica Bragadin (Maddalena), Raffaele Giordani (Giovanni) and Alfredo Grandini (Giuseppe) are all native Italian speakers, and that clearly helps, in particular in the recitatives which sound completely natural, fortunately also with the necessary rhythmic freedom. Makoto Sakurada (Pietro) does a pretty good job in this respect too, but it is clear that he is not a native Italian speaker: his Italian is just less fluent. The choir doesn't have that much to do, but sings well. The orchestra is probably a bit small in size and sometimes I had liked it to be a little more powerful and dynamic. But its overall performances are good and it realises the ebbs and flows of the score very well. The two soloists, Alessandro Ciccolini (violin) and Aligi Voltan (bassoon), give splendid accounts of their technically demanding parts mentioned above.

Unfortunately CPO has made a bit of a mess of the booklet. The libretto printed here is the same as in the booklet of CPO's recording of Paisiello's setting. But there are several differences: the terzetto 'All'idea di quelle pene' in Part 1 is omitted by Naumann, and in his setting the chorus 'Quanto costa il tuo delitto' (Part 1) isn't repeated after Peter's recitative 'Maddalena, Giovanni' as in Paisiello's setting. As a result the numbering of the tracks in the libretto is wrong. In addition the B-part of the same chorus isn't printed, and this chorus and the recitative 'Ma qual dolente stuolo' are printed in the wrong order. The tracklist is alright, but CPO should take more care of the printing of the lyrics in its booklets. (After all, it's not the first time I have noticed printing errors in the company's booklets.)

This is another recording of music by Johann Gottlieb Naumann which shows what an excellent composer he has been. It is a most fortunate development that the interest in his oeuvre is growing. Hopefully this will result in additional recordings of the same quality as the one reviewed here.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

La Stagione Armonica
Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto

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