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Bernardo PASQUINI (1637 - 1710): La sete di Christo

Francesca Aspromonte (La Vergine), soprano; Luca Cervoni (Giuseppe d'Armatea), Francisco FernŠndez-Rueda (San Giovanni), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Nicodemo), bass
Concerto Romano
Dir: Alessandro Quarta

rec: Feb 7 -10, 2015, Rome, Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra (Sala Accademica)
Christophorus - CHR 77398 (© 2015) (66'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Paolo Perrone, Gabriele Politi, violin; Pietro Meldolesi, viola; Marco Ceccato, cello; Giovanni Battista Graziado, bassoon; Matteo Coticoni, violone; Giangiacomo Pinardi, archlute; Andrea Damiani, theorbo; Michele Vannelli, harpsichord; Andrea Buccarella, organ

Bernardo Pasquini was educated as a keyboard player and developed into the most prominent Italian composer of keyboard music between Frescobaldi and Domenico Scarlatti. He settled in Rome around 1650 and remained there for the rest of his life. By that time Frescobaldi had already died but Pasquini carefully studied and copied his works. After holding various posts as organist of several churches he became keyboard player at the court of Prince Giambattista Borghese. Previously he had also enjoyed close contacts with Queen Christina of Sweden and the cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili. Pasquini participated in many performances of secular music in Rome, regularly working with Arcangelo Corelli. He was a sought-after keyboard teacher; among his students were Zipoli and possibly Domenico Scarlatti, but also foreigners such as Johann Philipp Krieger and Georg Muffat.

Keyboard music is the best-known part of his output and is fairly well represented on disc. However, his oeuvre comprises vocal works as well and so far these have been given relatively little attention, partly due in all probability to the fact that most of them were never published. Pasquini is known to have written eighteen operas, twelve of which have survived. Seven of his thirteen oratorios have come down to us. As far as I know only his first oratorio Caino e Abele has been recorded and in 2012 Brilliant Classics released a disc with Passion cantatas. That makes the release of the present disc particularly important.

The title La sete di Christo means "the thirst of Christ", and that indicates that this oratorio was written for Passiontide. Although Pasquini worked in Rome it was first performed in 1689 in Modena, according to New Grove. Unfortunately the liner-notes don't provide us with any information about the reasons why it was written or the circumstances of the performance. It seems possible that it was performed at one of the many congregazioni which existed across Italy. In these congregations it was common practice to perform oratorios during Lent.

In Germany it was tradition to compose Passion oratorios on the text of one of the gospels; this tradition lasted until the early decades of the 18th century. In Italy such oratorios were very rare; I know only one such piece from the 17th century (Alessandro Scarlatti, Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem). Composers usually took a libretto which focuses on the way various characters in the story reflect on the events and their meaning. The Italian libretto of La sete di Christo was written by NicolÚ Minato. He introduces four characters: Mary the mother of Jesus (La Vergine), and three disciples: St John, Joseph of Arimathias - who donated his own prepared tomb for Jesus' burial - and Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin. These characters also appear in librettos of the 18th century, for instance by Metastasio, but there they meet after Jesus' death. Here they meet at the foot of the cross when Jesus is still suffering.

The oratorio is divided into two parts. After a short instrumental sinfonia Mary expresses the pain of seeing her son on the cross, "full of wounds, ah, wasting away". The three disciples react to her pain, individually and together. They wonder what Jesus did to deserve this fate: "What did the good Jesus do to you, then, ungrateful people?" John refers to God liberating his people from Egypt. They also describe in their own words what happens at Golgotha: "The sun is darkening in the noonday sky", "The core of the earth is quaking". Mary and John then ask Joseph of Arimathias and Nicodemus who they are: "Who are you, who - whilst the Jewish people are raging against the innocent Christ - shed compassionate tears?" They reveal that they are "[disciples] of Christ, secretly, out of fear of the boundless hate of the Pharisees".

The second part opens with the Voice of Christ (Voce di Christo) who says: "I thirst!" This is the heart of the oratorio: this word - "sitio" - is the only in Latin, and the voice of Christ is not accompanied. Alessandro Quarta, in his liner-notes, states that these two features "are of the greatest rhetorical and metaphorical significance: the fact that Jesus expresses himself here in the 'original language' of the Gospel and moreover, is faithful to the classical canon of Christian singing (namely a cappella, as in Gregorian chant or vocal polyphony), brings the listener into direct contact with the Holy Scriptures and distances the authenticity of Christ's word from all the dramaturgical arrangements surrounding it". The subject of 'water' is then the thread of the second part: this image is used in various ways. "There is no water for the one who gave water to the world", "But it is you, isn't it Lord, whose spirit walked over water?" Mary says: "If only I could at least give you my tears". Joseph refers to Samson being thirsty (Judges 15) and Mary reminds the audience of Hagar and Ishmael being thirsty during their stay in the desert (Genesis 16). The oratorio ends with a recitative in which Mary refers to her Son dying, the curtain of the temple being torn and the graves opening up, and an aria in which she expresses her deep sorrow for the death of Jesus: "Weep, Mary, water and blood, pale tears; my son, my God, my soul, cry Mary".

As was common at the time the oratorio is a sequence of recitatives, ariosos and arias. The latter are rather short and only some have a da capo which is not always a literal repetition. There are also a number duets and trios, more than usual in oratorios of the time. In most oratorios the strings confine themselves to playing the ritornellos in the arias but here the two violins and the viola often actively participate in the arias, actually accompanying the singers. They also share in the expression of the text. Pasquini makes use of modulations, harmonic progressions and chromaticism to depict the text. One of the highlights is John's aria 'Tutto piaghe' (part 1) which is full of sighing figures: "Full of wounds, streaming with blood, this is how the true Creator of life perishes". Very effective are the short pauses in the vocal part on the words "Jesus breathes his last" in the aria which ends the first part. In the second part Joseph's aria 'Se potesse il pianto mio' is particularly expressive and so is the closing aria by Mary.

This recording makes clear that Pasquini was a very good composer of vocal music and that this part of his output deserves more attention. La sete di Christo is a good addition to the repertoire for Passiontide. Everyone looking for something beyond the obvious - such as Bach's Passions, Handel's Messiah and the many settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah - should consider this work. It is served well by Concerto Romano; under the direction of Alessandro Quarta this oratorio receives a fully idiomatic performance. It is not dramatic but focuses on the expression of the emotions of the four characters and that comes perfectly across in the interpretations of the four singers. The small instrumental ensemble also contributes to this oratorio making a lasting impression.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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