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"Jewish Baroque Music"

Ensemble Salomone Rossi
Dir: Simonetta Heger

rec: [no date], Ravere (Brescia), Oratorio di S. Maria
Concerto - CD 2009 (© 2008) (54'06")

Avraham CÁCERES (1st half 17th C): Hamesiah; Hiski Hizki; Le El Helim; Carlo GROSSI (1634-1688): Cantata ebraica; George Frideric HANDEL: Esther, oratorio (HWV 50): Shall we of servitude complain?, chorus; Turn not, o Queen, aria; Christian Joseph LIDARTI (1730-1793): Befi yesarim; Boj beshalom; Ester, oratorio (exc); Hamesiah; Salomone ROSSI (c1567-1628): En Kelohenu; Gagliarda Andreasina; Gagliarda Venturino; Mizmor le Todà; Shir hammaalot; Sinfonia a 4; Sinfonia a 5

Caterina Trogu Roehrich, soprano; Renata Stefani, mezzosoprano; Luigi Pagliarini, tenor; Davide Benetti, bass; Lydia Cevidalli, Elena Marazzi, violin; Fabio Bellofiore, Eugenio Silvestri, viola; Claudio Frigerio, cello; Simonetta Heger, harpsichord

This disc sheds light on an aspect of European music history which has been largely ignored. Only the music of Salomone Rossi, himself a Jew, has been paid attention to. His collection Shir ha Shiŕm li-Shloṃ, from which the vocal items on this disc are taken, has been recorded several times in the past. But the name of Avraham Cáceres, for instance, doesn't appear in New Grove.

Cáceres was a Jewish composer who lived in Amsterdam in the first half of the 17th century. Amsterdam was called "Jerusalem of the North", according to the booklet, but in fact Amsterdam's nickname was "Jerusalem of the West". The reason for this was the large Jewish community which lived in Amsterdam. Most music on this disc has been found in the library of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. The programme opens with two pieces by Cáceres, Hiski Hizki for four voices and instruments, and Hamesiah for two voices, two violins playing unisono and bc. Later in the programme we hear a cantata for two voices and bc, Le El Elim. What these pieces are about is a mystery to me, as the booklet contains neither any lyrics, not even in translation, nor a synopsis of the content of the various items.

Interestingly music on Jewish texts was also composed by non-Jewish composers. One of them was Carlo Grossi, a bass singer and composer who held several positions in various cities, among them Venice, and was (honorary) maestro di cappella to the Duke of Mantua. To Duke Ferdinando Carlo II of Mantua he dedicated his collection Il divertimento de' grandi op. 9, containing pieces for 2 to 4 voices and bc. It closes with the Cantata ebraica which is a dialogue between a solo voice and a chorus. This reflects Grossi's habit of incorporating dramatic elements into his sacred music.

The other non-Jewish composer who is prominently represented on this disc, is Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti, as he is called here. In fact his Christian names were Christian Joseph: he was born in Vienna, as his father had emigrated to Austria. Being a self-taught composer at first he took up lessons with Niccoḷ Jommelli and then made a career in Pisa. The liner notes don't tell anything about the various pieces by Lidarti on this disc - only that they are preserved in Amsterdam -, with the exception of the extracts from his oratorio Ester.

There is an interesting story behind this oratorio. The text is a Hebrew adaptation of the libretto of Handel's oratorio Esther. This, by the way, explains the extracts from this oratorio in the programme. The Hebrew version dates from 1774 and is also preserved in the library of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. A note on the libretto indicates that it was to be used for a performance of Handel's oratorio for the benefit of the Jewish congregation. Instead the libretto was set to music by Lidarti. No explanation is given as to how this libretto came into the hands of Lidarti. The fact that Lidarti's worklist in New Grove doesn't contain any of the pieces on this disc is further evidence how few music on Jewish texts has been explored.

The manuscript of Lidarti's oratorio is now in Cambridge and has been used for the extracts here as well as a complete live performance by the Ensemble Salomone Rossi in 2006. How interesting would a performance of Handel's music on this libretto be! Searching on the internet I found the review of a performance in the USA in 2002, directed by the harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El. It is a real shame that no CD recording of this version exists.

This disc offers excerpts from Lidarti's version, and they whet the appetite to hear the whole work. Strangely enough the two excerpts from Handel's version don't use the Hebrew text, but the common English text. Not that it is easy to hear what is sung: in the chorus the text is almost inaudible, and in the aria one can only hear the text with great difficulty.

As one may gather from my description, this is a most interesting disc which raises one's curiosity about the repertoire on Jewish texts. But unfortunately it is hard to recommend this disc for other reasons than the rarity of the repertoire. The performances are not really good and the recording certainly is pretty bad.

The playing of the instrumentalists is alright, but could be better, and especially more graceful and more relaxed. The instrumental pieces by Rossi, for instance, are too rigid and stiff. The soprano and the tenor have nice voices, but the mezzo is so-so. The bass has just one aria - from Handel's Esther, and that isn't something to get excited about. The tutti are by far the worst part of the recording. The microphones have been very close to the singers, and as a result there is no real ensemble here. The balance between the singers is highly unsatisfying, and so is the balance between the singers and the instruments. In Grossi's Cantata ebraica the tenor has been placed so much forward that there is no dialogue as the composer intended.

It is a terrible shame that such an interesting project is spoilt by largely unsatisfying interpretation, an unacceptable recording and the unforgiveable omission of the lyrics with translations. The quality of the repertoire requires a really first-rate performance. That is something we have to wait for, I'm afraid.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Salomone Rossi

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