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Josef MYSLIVECEK (1737 - 1781): La Passione di nostro Signore Gesu Cristo

Sophie Kartäuser (Maddalena), Jörg Waschinski (Pietro), soprano; Yvonne Berg (Giovanni), contralto; Andreas Karasiak (Giuseppe d'Arimatea), tenor
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: April 13 - 18, 2004, Cologne, Studio DeutschlandRadio
Capriccio - 71 025-26 (2 CDs) (© 2005) (1.42'30")

Pietro Metastasio is a household name to anyone who knows something about opera, in particular opera in the 18th century. He was the most prolific writer of opera libretti in his time, and it will be very hard to find a composer who never has used one of them. Far less known is the fact that Metastasio also wrote libretti for oratorios. One of them is La Passione di nostro Signore Gesu Christo, which was set to music by a number of composers, among them Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri and Josef Myslivecek.

Myslivecek was born in Bohemia and after being trained as a master baker he soon turned to music. At first he concentrated on playing the violin, but in November 1763 he went to Venice to take lessons from Giovanni Battista Pescetti, especially in writing recitatives. As a result he started to compose operas. His breakthrough as an opera composer came when the Teatro di S. Carlo in Naples commissioned him to write an opera. Il Bellerofonte was first performed in January 1767. By 1770 he had come to such fame that Leopold Mozart, travelling through Italy with his son Wolfgang, paid him a visit, which resulted in a friendship which lasted for a number of years. Towards the end of the 1770s his glory faded and he didn't enjoy as much success as before. In addition to that his health deteriorated, and he became increasingly socially isolated. He died in 1781 and was buried in Lucina.

Myslivecek was mainly known for his operas, but some of his oratorios were also very popular. One of the most famous was Abramo e Isacco, as Mozart reported in a letter: "all Munich is talking about his oratorio Abramo e Isacco, which he has produced here". It isn't known for sure when Myslivecek wrote the Passion oratorio on Mestastasio's text - which was written in 1730 and first set to music by Antonio Caldara -, nor when it was first performed. But it also became very popular as the numerous performances in German and Italian churches in the 1770s and 1780s show.

The text isn't a narrative of the passion and death of Jesus as reported in the gospels, but rather a retrospective by his disciples and friends. In the first part Peter, who wasn't present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, attempts to put together the whole story by asking eye witnesses for their accounts: John, Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea. The second part concentrates on the expectation of Jesus's resurrection and the fate of those who have made him suffer and die.
There is no action like in an opera, but there is interaction, in particular in the questions by Peter and the answers given by the other protagonists. This dialogue has the form of recitatives, mostly secco, some accompagnato. The arias are mostly of the da capo type, and dominated by coloratura, which seem regularly out of touch with the text of the arias. One shouldn't expect a lot of text expression here, but rather the creation of a plaintive mood, often more supported by the orchestral part than the vocal line. It shows the shift in the way religious subjects were approached in the second half of the 18th century.

I have to admit that I find this approach and its musical effect hard to swallow. Therefore I am a bit in two minds about this oratorio. On the one hand Myslivecek's music is mostly original and effective, and it is easy to understand why he was such a celebrated opera composer. And I sincerely hope that his operatic output will be extensively explored in the near future. But to me there is too large a rift between the music and the content of the oratorio. It would have made a stronger impact if there had been a stricter connection between text and music.

The performance is generally good, although it has some flaws. The musically most impressive part is that of Peter, and the performance of the male soprano Jörg Waschinski is equally impressive. The strongly emotional character of this part is very well realised. There are a number of male sopranos active in the field of early music, but not everyone of them is really convincing. Often they are too much concerned about their technique, in order to make sure they hit every high note accurately. Not so here: Jörg Waschinski's technique is impeccable, and as a result he can pay full attention to the interpretation of his part. In comparison Sophie Karthäuser is a little disappointing: I sometimes feel a lack of real commitment, and I think she uses too much vibrato. The contralto Yvonne Berg's voice is something I have to get used to, but her performance is alright. Andreas Karasiak has a nice voice, but could do more with it, as his interpretation is a little blank sometimes. The anger expressed in the recitative 'Qual terribil vendeta', for instance, doesn't really come through.
The chorus is doing a good job, as is the orchestra, although sometimes I could imagine stronger dynamic contrasts. But otherwise the playing is energetic and colourful.

Despite its shortcomings I would recommend this recording, as it presents an example of a genre which has been neglected too long: the Roman-Catholic passion oratorio in the second half of the 18th century. Spering has already recorded Salieri's setting of the same libretto, and hopefully more settings are to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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