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Pietro TORRI (c1660 - 1737): La Vanità del mondo

Barbara Schlick (Piacere), Ingrid Schmithüsen (Grazia), soprano; Derek Lee Ragin (Anima), alto; Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor; Michael Schopper (Mondo), bass
Musica antiqua Köln
Dir: Reinhard Goebel

rec: July 1988 (live), Fribourg (CH), Église du Collège Saint-Michel
Musique en Wallonie - MEW 1890 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.31'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alison Gangler, oboe; Reinhard Goebel, violin; Manfredo Kraemer, Florian Deuter, violin, viola; Phoebe Carrai, cello; Bibiane Lapointe, harpsichord; Thierry Maeder, organ

Another oratorio by a little-known Italian composer - what's new? Is this just one of so many oratorios written and performed in Italy? Yes and no. It is an oratorio, and written by an Italian composer. However, it is a little different from many oratorios from around 1700, and it was not written for a performance somewhere in Italy.

Pietro Torri is a largely unknown quantity: only a few pieces are included in anthologies, but it seems that not a single disc is devoted to his oeuvre. His output is not that large, and consists of operas, oratorios, secular cantatas, some sacred music and a few instrumental works. He is what musicologists like to call a 'minor composer', but the quality of his oratorio La Vanità del Mondo suggests that his oeuvre may include other fine works which are well worth being performed.

Torri led quite an eventful life, which was largely the result of his connection to Max Emanuel II, Elector of Bavaria, in Munich, who had to deal with the effects of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Torri was born around 1650 in Peschiera, at the south-coast of Lake Garda. His first documented position was that of organist at the court of the Margrave of Bayreuth in 1684. In 1689 he entered the service of Max Emanuel. In the next years he composed several operas and serenatas. In 1692 his employer became governor of the Spanish Netherlands, and moved to Brussels. Torri was given the position of maître de chapelle.

The Elector's son Joseph Ferdinand Leopold, born that same year, was considered the inheritant of the Spanish throne (more about that here, but this came to an end with the young Prince's death in 1699. Max Emanuel returned to Bavaria; in 1701 Torri was appointed director of chamber music, as the position of Kapellmeister was firmly in the hands of Giuseppe Antonio Bernabei.

The Elector had taken the side of France in the War of the Spanish Succession, and when he was defeated by the English at Höchstädt in 1704, he had to go into exile, and moved again to Brussels. When the English seized the city in 1706, he had to leave and spend the next years in several places, until he returned to Munich in 1715. All that time Torri had followed him; in Munich he was appointed Hofkapell-Director, and Hofkapellmeister in 1732, after the death of Bernabei.

La Vanità del Mondo was first performed in 1706 in Brussels. It is part of a genre which has its roots in the Middle Ages, known as the morality play. The first musical work of this kind was Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. Later specimens are Handel's oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and Mozart's Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. Such pieces are about an allegorical character who has to choose which path in life to follow. In La Vanità del Mondo it is the soul (Anima) who has the choice between the path of Virtue, which will lead to Heaven, and the worldly pleasures.

In the first part she is approached by Piacere (Pleasure) and the World (Mondo), who try to convince the soul that she was "born for pleasures, for empires and for the throne." The soul falls for their siren's song: "I, who was born for a kingdom and throne, am worthy to occupy a purple seat". She sums up her feelings in an expressive aria, 'Dolcezze cessate': "Sweetnesses, cease; delights, end; my heart already feels faint from an excess of pleasure. Already I languish, already I die!" Then Grace (Grazie) intervenes in the only accompanied recitative of this work: "Soul, oh how blindly you immerse yourself in the evil pleasures of vile filth, you for whom the Heavens reserve so vast an empire". The soul starts to doubt whether she has made the right choice: "Between the doubt-strewn paths of both Heaven and Earth my thought vacillates." The first part ends with a moving aria of the soul: "Help me, o Heavenly beings, to resist the assaults of evil vanity".

The second part opens with Pleasure and World, joining each other in a last attempt to bring Soul on their side. Pleasure is convinced that she will join them: "Yes, she will certainly be brought down by the sweet flashes despatched by the archery of two eyes". Grace replies with an aria on exactly the same music: "Yes, she will certainly resist the false flashes despatched by the archery of two eyes". Soul urges herself to make up her mind: "Pray, make your mind up, indolent Soul". Pleasure asks for the help of the "blindfolded god" (Cupid), but to no avail: "You attracted me, you deceived me, o wicked World, o false Pleasure". In the last aria Soul sings: "Caught by the snares of Pleasure, I rebelled against Heaven and God. Now I fly towards Heaven, released from my bonds, the servant and handmaiden of my God". The oratorio ends with a chorus: "All is fragile, all is inconstant in that which the World and Pleasure bestow".

As was common at the time, the oratorio consists of two parts which both open with a sinfonia. There are four characters; the choruses are for five voices, and here a tenor joins the soloists. That is to say: if the tutti are indeed performed with one voice per part. That seems to be the case, but the sound is somewhat bigger than one might expect, which is probably the effect of the acoustic of the venue where the live performance took place. The same goes for the ensemble: according to the booklet it consists of two violinists, one player of violin and viola, a cellist, an oboist and two keyboard players. However, in the sinfonias Musica antiqua Köln sounds like a larger ensemble.

It doesn't really matter. This is a very fine performance of music which is surprisingly ignored. The performers were top of the bill in their time, and don't actively participate in performances anymore, except Ingrid Schmithüsen. She delivers an exceptionally good performance of the part of Grazie. Barbara Schlick is one of the pioneers of baroque singing, and is still active as a teacher. Her stylish singing is a joy to listen to. Michael Schopper is a bit too light-weight here; especially in the 1990s he would deliver outstanding performances of a wide repertoire, ranging from early baroque to early romantic music. Unfortunately Derek Lee Ragin has never really made a career in early music; his sensitive performance of the role of Anima shows that this is highly regrettable. Musica antiqua Köln was always one of the best in the business, and this recording makes one regret once again that it was disbanded in 2006.

It has taken a long time for this live recording making it from the archive of the Swiss radio channel RTS/Espace 2 to disc. I am sure that the archives of classical channels are full of recordings which are well worth being brought to light again and released on disc. Maybe performers should take action and ask for recordings of performances, in which they were involved, to be released. This production deserves a whole-hearted welcome. It does not happen that often these days that I don't have any reason to complain about debatable contributions of vocal soloists. In this performance from 1988 they all act on the same stylistic wavelength. Those were the days...

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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