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Giuseppe SARTI (1729 - 1802): Miserere

Natalia Krauter, soprano; Victoria Smolnikova, contralto; Feodor Ryzhkov, tenor; Sergei Aksenov, baritone
Chamber Choir of the State Academic Symphony Chapel of Russia; The 'Baroque Soloists' Ensemble
Dir: Andrei Spiridonov

rec: June 27, 2000 (live), Moscow, State Tsaritsyno Museum (Opera House)
Melodia - MEL CD 10 01032 (© 2008) (48'49")

As many other composers, Giuseppe Sarti was a celebrity in his own time, but has sunk into oblivion in modern times. His many operas are forgotten, and so are his religious works. This disc is a rarity as it brings one of the latter, recorded live in Moscow nine years ago.

Sarti was born in Faenza and received his first music lessons in Padua. At the age of ten he went to Bologna, where he became a pupil of the famous Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. From 1748 to 1752 he was organist of Faenza Cathedral; in 1752 he was appointed director of the Opera, for which he composed his first opera. In 1753 he visited Copenhagen in his capacity of director of an opera ensemble, and as a result he was appointed director of the court chapel in Copenhagen in 1755. Later on he became director of the Italian opera in the Danish capital. He remained active in Denmark in several capacities and with some interruptions until 1775.

In 1779 he was appointed maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral. With this appointment he reached the peak of his career. He composed many operas which were received very well all over Europe. He was also sought after as a teacher, one of his pupils being Luigi Cherubini. In 1784 he went to St Petersburg as the tsarina had appointed him director of the imperial chapel as the successor of Giovanni Paisiello. Here he brought the Italian opera to a higher level. He stayed in Russia until 1801, although he fell out of the grace of the tsarina for a while. He founded a conservatory which was modelled on Italian conservatories. On his way home in 1801 he visited one of his daughters in Berlin, where he also died.

Sarti has mainly become famous for his operas, both serious and comical. One of his admirers was Haydn who performed six of his operas in Esterháza. Sarti also wrote a number of sacred works in which he combines the dramatic style of opera with the traditional counterpoint. The setting of the Miserere performed on this disc is one of several in various scorings, but as the booklet doesn't give any information about this work I have not been able to figure out which of these is recorded here, or when and where is was written.

This work has strong operatic traits: the arias could well have been written for one of Sarti's operas. There are also a number of cadenzas, both in the vocal and in the obbligato instrumental parts. These obbligato parts appear in three arias; one is for violin, two for cello. The aspect of counterpoint is particularly present in the closing section, 'Benigne fac Domine', which contains no less than two fugues. The work doesn't have a doxology.

In this performance the work is also treated as an opera, and that is certainly right. Unfortunately the four soloists don't have much of a clue of how to perform an 18th-century dramatic work in a style which the composer would recognize. They sing Sarti the way the operas of Verdi are still mostly sung today. This means a pretty heavy vibrato and much more concentration on sound than on text. The most awful aspect of the performance is the bad diction of the soloists: most of the time it is almost impossible to hear what they are singing. The fact that the text of Psalm 50 (51) is not printed in the booklet doesn't help. The number of singers in the choir is not given but it sounds pretty large, and because of the use of vibrato the sound lacks transparency.

The best part of this performance is the playing of instrumental ensemble which I hadn't heard about but which makes a pretty good impression. One just wonders why the director, who apparently knows his ways in the historical performance practice, didn't attract other singers who have a better understanding of how to sing 18th-century repertoire.

All in all it is rather difficult to recommend this disc. But as Sarti's music is largely neglected today this is one of the rare opportunities to hear anything from his pen. So if one is able to gloss over the defects of the performance this disc offers a rare opportunity to get to know at least some of Sarti's music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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