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"Passio Iberica"

Bárbara Barradas, Lucia Napoli, soprano; André Baleiro, baritonea
Divino Sospiro
Dir: Massimo Mazzeo

rec: April 2017, Lisbon, Igreja do Menino Deus
Pan Classics - PC 10401 (© 2019) (65'21")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francisco Javier GARCÍA FAJER (1730-1809): Siete palabras de Cristo en la cruz; José Joaquim DOS SANTOS (1747-1801): Stabat matera

Iskrena Yordanova, Jivka Kaltcheva, Elisa Bestetti, Paolo Perrone, Valeria Caponnetto, Lina Manrique, violin; Krishna Nigaraja, Maria Bocelli, Elzbieta Stonoga, Lucio Studer Ferreira, viola; Ana Raquel Pinheiro, Fernando Santiago Garcia, cello; Marta Vicente, double bass; José Carlos Araújo, harpsichord

Most music for Passiontide performed in our time was written during the renaissance and baroque periods. Only now and then pieces written after 1750 are performed, such as Haydn's Stabat mater and his Die sieben letzten Worte. Those are the only compositions for this period in the ecclesiastical year that he has written. We know nothing of this kind from Mozart's pen, and Beethoven only contributed his oratorio Christus am Ölberge. It seems that not much music for Passiontide was written by the main composers of the 19th century. That is partly due to the fact that they mostly did not occupy a position in which the composition of such music was part of their duties. Moreover, not a few composers had a rather problematic relationship with the Church or with the Christian faith as such.

That said, there is much more than one may think. Several coomposers of the late 18th century wrote Passion oratorios, and in Germany such works were still written in the 19th century. However, these are hardly known and in the genre of the oratorio they just can't compete with the main oratorios of the baroque era, like those by Johann Sebastian Bach or the several settings of the Brockes Passion. From that perspective any disc which includes music for Passiontidde from the classical period is most welcome. That certainly goes for the two works that are the subject of the present disc.

They bring us to the Iberian peninsula. That in itself is of importance, as baroque and classical music from Spain and Portugal are seldom performed and recorded, and most composers are hardly known, if at all. It seems likely that only very few music lovers will ever have heard of Francisco Javier García Fajer and José Joaquim dos Santos.

García Fajer received his musical training at Saragossa Cathedral, and then moved to Italy, where he probably studied at the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini. He stayed in Italy for a number of years, and composed oratorios and operas. Some of his works were performed across Italy and even above the Alps, which suggests that his music was appreciated. This surely was partly due to his adoption of the Neapolitan style, which had a great appeal in several parts of Europe, including the Iberian peninsula. In 1756 García Fajer returned to Spain and became maestro de capilla at Saragossa Cathedral. He held this position until his death, and composed only religious music.

Siete palabras de Cristo en la cruz (Seven words of Christ at the Cross) immediately reminds us of Haydn's cycle Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze. This was originally conceived as a series of seven sonatas for orchestra to be performed during a Good Friday service in Cadiz. "When applying music to Jesus' Seven Last Words on the Cross, García Fajer falls within a long devotional tradition linked to the ceremony of the Three Hours, a practice with origins in Lima in the late 17th century in which devotees would gather on Good Friday between noon and three o'clock to hear the sermon and meditate on the Last Words of Christ. In the early 18th century the Peruvian Jesuit Alonso Messia Bedoya began to interpolate music in this devotion, a custom that was widely disseminated through a printed book, particularly in Spain." (booklet)

Haydn's work found a wide dissemination across Spain, and the archive of Saragossa Cathedral also owns a copy of this work. It had a strong influence on Spanish composers; García Fajer is just one of them. Whereas Haydn's work is for orchestra (later Haydn turned it into an oratorio) and opens with one of the words from the Cross in Latin, which has to be recited, García Fajer's Siete palabras is a vocal work, scored for two sopranos and an ensemble of two violins, viola and bass. The text is in the Castilian dialect, and is a series of meditations on the event of Good Friday. In this respect, this work is comparable with the genre of the Passion oratorio. The text of the first word, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do", is a good example: "Since I have been Thy enemy, my Jesus, as I confess, pray for me, for thus surely I will receive pardon, surely I ask thy pardon".

Like in Haydn's work, the tempi are predominantly slow, and that begins with the instrumental introduction. The first section urges the faithful to come to Calvary. The word "come" is repeated several times, expressing its urgency. Every section is a mixture of lyrical and recitativic passages. García Fajer illustrates words and phrases through musical figures and an expressive use of harmony, including dissonances and chromaticism. Fast repeated figures, as a kind of tremolo, are an expression of tension. The heart of this work is the sixth word, "It is finished". It is full of expressive pauses, depicting the opening phrase: "With broken voice, my God speaks". A descending chromatic figure is then used to illustrate Jesus' fainting. The work closes in a surprising and highly expressive manner: on the last words, "If thou dost not correct thy life, in whose hands will it end?", the soprano sings without any instrumental accompaniment.

Numerous settings of the Stabat mater have been composed in the course of history. This poem, which is assumed to have been written by the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi in the early 14th century, was banned from the liturgy by the Council of Trent, but was given back its place in 1727 as a sequence of the Mass and an anthem of the Office of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady. The most famous setting from the 18th century is the one by Pergolesi, which became very popular soon after it had been written. It influenced many settings from later times, such as the one by Luigi Boccherini. Its influence is also noticeable in José Joaquim dos Santos' Stabat mater.

At the age of six, Dos Santos became a pupil at the Patriarchal Seminary in Lisbon, a music school linked to the Royal Chapel. In 1770 he was appointed Composer of the Patriarchal and in 1773 he became Master of the Royal Seminary. Dos Santos never visited Italy, but came in close contact with the Italian, and in particular the Neapolitan style, through colleagues, who had been in Italy (such as De Sousa Carvalho) and Italian composers, who worked in Portugal, such as David Perez. Moreover, Italian music found wide dissemination through the circulation of manuscripts.

Like Pergolesi's Stabat mater, Dos Santos' setting is divided into twelve sections. It is scored for two sopranos, bass and an ensemble of two violas and cello. In his compositions for Holy Week, Dos Santos usually omitted violins, and this practice can also be found in comparable works by other composers. It lends this piece an appropriate dark colour. It is not only its structure, which is similar to Pergolesi's Stabat mater, there are also melodic elements which are clearly inspired by the latter. And like Pergolesi, 'Fac ut ardeat cor meum' and the 'Amen' have a fugato texture. The opening section includes some marked dissonances, and at the end of 'Quis est homo', the figures in the strings illustrate the scourging of Jesus. Another example of text illustration are the figures on "inflammatus et accensus" (inflame and set on fire) in 'Fac me plagis'.

It seems to me that these two works are substantial additions to the Passiontide repertoire. They are well written and include a lot of expression. The scoring is comparable to that of Pergolesi's Stabat mater, which makes them all the more accessible to ensembles. These works could well serve as alternatives to better-known works. I am not entirely satisfied about the performances, though. The two sopranos use too much vibrato, which is very regrettable and which also damages the duets and trios. André Baleiro, who only participates in Dos Santos' Stabat mater, has a very fine voice, but his contributions are limited. The instrumental ensemble leaves nothing to be desired.

Despite my criticism, I recommend this disc because of the rarity and the quality of the repertoire, and the fact that the performances, although stylistically debatable, are certainly not devoid of expression.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Bárbara Barradas
Divino Sospiro

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