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Alessandro STRADELLA (1639 - 1682): San Giovanni Battista, oratorio in 2 parts

Elena Cecchi Fedi (Heriodiade la madre), Anke Herrmann (Herodiade la figlia), soprano; Martín Oro (San Giovanni Battista), alto; Fredrik Akselberg (Consigliere), tenor; Antonio Abete (Herode), bass
Academia Montis Regalis
Dir: Alessandro de Marchi

rec: March 28 - 31, 2007, Mondovì, Oratorio Santa Croce (Sala Ghislieri)
Hyperion - CDA67617 (© 2008) (77'34")

Alessandro Stradella is one of the rare composers of the Italian 17th century who has never really been forgotten. The main reason wasn't a musical one, though. It was his adventurous life which ended in him being murdered which appealed to the imagination of later generations. The best-known composition which has Stradella's life as its subject is the opera by Friedrich von Flotow named after him. But it isn't just his life which made him being remembered. Stradella considered the oratorio San Giovanni Battista as his best work, and apparently he wasn't the only one: many copies of the score have been found all over Europe, and it seems it was even known in the 19th century. It was also the first work of Stradella which was performed in the 20th century, with Maria Callas in the role of Herodiade la figlia, better known as Salome. That was in 1949. Since then the approach of a piece like this has strongly changed, and several modern recordings are evidence of that.

It isn't only the musical and dramatical quality which makes this work important. It is also interesting from a historical point of view. It is one of the earliest oratorios in the vernacular - a so-called oratorio volgare - whereas the oratorios of the previous generation, especially those of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, were always written in Latin. It was performed as one of 14 oratorios by several composers in 1675, not in a church but in a concert venue. Stylistically it is very close to the contemporary opera, although oratorio performances were not staged. Oratorios were mostly performed during Lent, and as in that period opera performances were forbidden the stars of the opera sang the roles in the oratorios.

Stradella's oratorio is also interesting for musical reasons. The dacapo aria has hardly developed yet, and therefore the arias in this oratorio take various forms. There isn't a very strong contrast between recitative and aria yet as well: often the recitatives change into ariosos. Many recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra, which makes Stradella one of the first composers in history to write recitativi accompagnati. And then there is the orchestra: Stradella was probably the very first composer to apply the principle of the concerto grosso - and as Corelli was participating in the first performance it is quite possible that this has strongly influenced his own development as a composer. In this work the concertino consists of three parts. There is evidence that the concerto grosso during the first performance was pretty large in size: six violins, eight violas - split into two groups of four each - four cellos and double bass, with one or two additional keyboards.

There is a strong connection between text and music, and the vocal parts very closely follow the developements in the text. I like to mention one aria which striked me because here Stradella expresses the religious meaning of this oratorio. When Herod doesn't want to listen to his admonitions John the Baptist expresses in an aria that he prefers his own sufferings to the happiness of others - Herod in the first place, of course. In this aria Stradella twice uses the same chromatically descending figure, not on 'sufferings', as one may expect, but on 'felicità' (happiness) and later again on 'libertade' (freedom), instead of '(my) prison'. In doing so Stradella shows that Herod's happiness and freedom are false. This is underlined by the cheerful character of the passage where John the Baptist states that torments bring happiness to his soul.

Like I said this is not the first recording of this oratorio. The best-known to date are those directed by Marc Minkowski and Michael Schneider. Both are fine recordings in their own way. This new production has one advantage over the others: the size of the orchestra reflects the number of players in the first performance of 1675. And the Academia Montis Regalis delivers very good, dynamic and colourful performances. Unfortunately the cast is somewhat uneven in quality. I don't like the vibrato of both sopranos, which has a particularly negative effect in the ensembles where the voices don't blend very well. But I also think that their interpretations of the respective roles could have been better. Not that they are bad, but there is more in those roles than is delivered here. Martín Oro does pretty well as John the Baptist, creating a good contrast to the 'bad characters'. The star of the show is Antonio Abete who is giving a splendid account of the role of Herodes. Fredrik Akselberg is alright as Consigliore.

The only instrumental movement in Stradella's oratorio is the Sinfonia which opens the work. Alessandro de Marchi has added several movements from instrumental works of two colleagues of Stradella in Rome, Lelio Colista and Carlo Ambrogio Lonati. These are used to divide the first and second scene in the first part and as introduction to the second part. I don't think that is really necessary, but I don't see any problems here. But to use a movement by Colista to precede the Sinfonia is rather odd. And I am also less than happy with a movement by the same composer to illustrate John the Baptist's decapitation. Stradella must have his reasons not to set this to music, so why should a performer of the 21st century feel the need to spell it out?

What is most unfortunate is the decision to add another instrumental movement to the duet with which the oratorio ends. Stradella's ending is quite remarkable. In the programme notes to his recording the German conductor Michael Schneider writes: "A hasty glance at the end of the score could give the impression that some pages had been lost. The last duet in which Salome sings of her joy and Herod of his suffering ends with the question 'e perché?' ("and why?") on a dominant. There is no reconciling ritornello and no concluding tonic to give the impression of a real ending. Numerous even more glaring examples in other works by Stradella leave us in no doubt that this is what was intended". But then why does Alessandro de Marchi destroy this intention by adding an instrumental piece?

With all its merits - in particular the orchestral playing and the singing of Antonio Abete - this new production can't replace the two recordings I have mentioned before.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Academia Montis Regalis

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