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Antonio BERTALI & Giacomo CARISSIMI: Oratorios

Ulrike Hofbauer, Kristine Jaunalksne, soprano; Ulrike Andersen, contralto; Alex Potter, alto; Robert Sellier, Manuel Warwitz, tenor; Manfred Bittner, Dominik Wörner, bass
Neue Hofkapelle München
Dir: Christoph Hammer

rec: Sept 9, 2009 (live), Brixen, Priesterseminar (Kirche)
ORF - CD 3088 (© 2009) (75'18")

Antonio BERTALI (1605-1669): Le strage de gl'innocenti, oratorio in 2 parts; Giacomo CARISSIMI (1605-1674): Dives malus (Historia divitis), oratorio

Daniel Deuter, Éva Posvanecz, violin; Patrick Sepec, cello; Ann Fahrni, violone; Sven Schwanberger, theorbo; Marie Bournisien, harp; Christoph Hammer, harpsichord, organ

The oratorio came into existence in Italy in the mid-17th century and soon developed into one of the main musical genres. In the first half of the 18th century most composers of opera also wrote oratorios. Stylistically there was often not that much difference between the two genres, and when no operas were performed during Lent the singers of the opera were involved in performances of oratorios.

The two oratorios on this disc are more or less from the same time, but are very different. Bertali's oratorio can be dated at 1665, but when Carissimi's oratorio was written is not known. Carissimi also composed a large number of motets, mostly to be performed by solo voices. A number of them contain dialogues, and that puts them close to the oratorios. The oratorios are ensemble pieces with mostly short solo sections to be sung by members of the ensemble. Dives malus, also known as Historia divitis as it is called in a Hamburg manuscript, is for eight voices which are divided into two groups. The story is based on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the gospel after St Luke. The text is a paraphrase, though, with dramatic elements like a dialogue between Lazarus and the demons from hell. They accuse him of enjoying his wealth without caring about the poor Lazarus. This dialogue is the centre of the first half. In the second half the rich man is in hell and here a dialogue develops between him and Abraham who is in heaven. The rich man asks Abraham to set him free. When Abraham refuses the rich man begs him to visit his brothers to warn them. Abraham again refuses: "If they hear neither Moses nor the prophets, they will never believe a man risen from the dead". The piece ends with a chorus, interspersed by solo episodes, in which the fate of the rich man is bemoaned and the audience is warned of what will happen to those "who delight in excess and who praise themselves worthlessly to the stars".

The story itself is told by a Historicus whose role is taken alternately by the two sopranos and one of the tenors. The rich man is sung by a tenor, Abraham by a bass. The singers are mostly supported by basso continuo alone; the two violins only play ritornellos. This oratorio is a highly expressive piece in which Carissimi has set the text in an evocative way which makes great impression. The tutti parts are powerful and incisive. The performance is quite good, although I had preferred some stronger dynamic contrasts now and then. Robert Sellier gives a splendid account of the role of the rich man. The choruses of the demons are especially well done. This recording makes clear once again that Carissimi is one of the most important composers of the 17th century, whose music doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Antonio Bertali worked the largest part of his life at the court of the Habsburgs in Vienna, since 1649 as Kapellmeister. He has written a large number of works, but unfortunately a large part has been lost. The oratorio La strage de gl'innocenti (The slaughter of the innocent children) is about Herodes murdering all children of two years old and younger in order to be sure that the new-born king - Jesus - is killed. Like in the case of Carissimi's oratorio the report in the gospel - this time after St Matthew - is paraphrased and extended in order to create a dramatic scene. Stylistically this piece is much closer to opera than Carissimi's oratorio. It is divided into two parts which both begin with a sinfonia for two violins and bc. In both parts the sinfonia is followed by an episode in which a Testo - comparable with the Historicus in Carissimi's oratorios - introduces the dialogues which follow. The first part concentrates on the deliberations between Herodes (bass) and three counsellors (alto, two tenors). In the second part we hear the reaction of three women to the killing of the children of Bethlehem. The first part ends with a chorus of ministers which encourages Herodes to take up arms. The second part closes with another five-part chorus, asking for revenge for the slaughter of the innocent children.

Whereas Carissimi's oratorio is an ensemble piece with solo episodes, this oratorio is a kind of sacred opera with solo roles and some additional choruses. The role of Herodes is particularly dramatic, and he expresses himself graphically. Dominik Wörner gives a brilliant account of this role. His voice has the depth and the power which is required to portray this rude character convincingly. In the second part the laments of the three women are highly expressive, in particular the trio 'Piangete occhi'. The voices of Ulrike Hofbauer, Kristine Jaunalksne and Ulrike Andersen blend perfectly, and they explore the deep sorrow of the women impressively. In this piece the violins regularly play tremolos, something which was often used in very emotional, and particularly sorrowful music. The players of the Neue Hofkapelle München play there parts immaculately.

These pieces are splendid yet strongly different examples of one of the most important musical genres of the baroque era. Early specimens of that genre, and certainly those by Bertali, are little known. This, and the quality of these recordings, are enough reason to strongly recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Neue Hofkapelle München

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