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Francesco FEO (1691 - 1761): St John Passion (Passio secundum Joannem)

Peggy Bélanger (Ancilla), soprano; Barbara Schmidt-Gaden (arias), mezzosoprano; Doron Schleifer (Evangelista), alto; Krystian Adam (Jesus), Davide Fior (Servus), Yasuharu Fukushima (Servus), Mirko Guadagnini (Pilatus), Felice Isola (Petrus), tenor
Coro da Camera di Varese, La Divina Armonia
Dir: Lorenzo Ghielmi

rec: March 28 - 30, 2009, Milan, Facoltŕ teologica dell'Italia settentrionale
Passacaille - 964 (© 2009) (61'05")

Stefano Barneschi, Isabella Bison, violin; Marco Bianchi, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Vanni Moretto, double bass; Margret Köll, harp; Lorenzo Ghielmi, Takashi Watanabe, harpsichord; Gianluca Capuano, organ

A title like 'St John Passion' suggests a composition from the renaissance or by a German composer of the 17th or the 18th century. But here we have a Passion from Italy, and from Naples, of all places, where religious music was under the influence of opera.

Francisco Feo was born in Naples and also died there. He received his first musical education at the Conservatorio di S. Maria della Pietŕ dei Turchini. Very quickly he started to make a name for himself as a composer of operas, and also contributed arias and scenes to operas by other composers. Feo was also active as a composer of sacred music, most of which was written between 1723 and 1743. He composed music in all then common genres, like oratorios, masses, vesper psalms, cantatas and lamentations. In 1791 the German theorist Johann Friedrich Reichardt considered him "one of the greatest of all composers of church music in Italy". In modern times Feo has been largely forgotten until recently when a Mass and a Psalm setting were recorded.

The performance and recording of Feo's Passio secundum Joannem is more or less a coincidence. The director, Lorenzo Ghielmi, was planning to perform the Stabat mater by Pergolesi. During his preparations the name of Francesco Feo turned up several times. He was a close friend of Pergolesi's and warned him against overstretching himself while composing his Stabat mater. Ghielmi searched after music by Feo, and found this Passion oratorio. It is one of three Passions by Feo; of his two St Matthew Passions only the turbae are extant.

Whereas Pergolesi's Stabat mater was meant to replace an older setting by Alessandro Scarlatti, Lorenzo Ghielmi believes Feo's Passion could be written to replace Scarlatti's St John Passion. And as at that time in Naples a setting of the Stabat mater and a Passion were often performed together, Ghielmi thinks these two works by Pergolesi and Feo could have been performed together as well. This seems plausible in the light of the strong similarity between these two works. One of them is that they are in the same key of f minor.

Feo's Passion which dates from 1744 is a remarkable work. It is more modern than Scarlatti's Passion, but the scoring is almost the same: five voices (SATTB) and an instrumental ensemble of two violins, viola and bass. Even more remarkable is that Feo, like Scarlatti, only uses the text of the Gospel, without any free poetic additions, like arias and duets.

The most important part is that of the Evangelist, which is scored for an alto - again like in Scarlatti's Passion. It is a mixture of recitative and arioso, in which the text is effectively translated into music. Especially notable are the fermates which frequently appear in the part of the Evangelist. They are taken here as an opportunity to add a cadenza. In an interview with the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell Ghielmi says that they more or less compensate for the lack of arias.

There are also many passages in which Feo makes use of harmonic means to express the text. The part of the Evangelist contains some striking examples. The words of Jesus are always accompanied by the strings. They also contribute to the depiction of particular events. Examples are the strong chords in the passages about the betrayal of Judas or the scourging of Jesus. The turbae are just as dramatic, mostly homophonic, and very powerful.

The Passio secundum Joannem is an impressive composition, and in my view a very important addition to the repertoire for Passiontide. The performance is of the highest order. The part of the Evangelist is given a splendid performance by Doron Schleifer, who has a beautiful and very agile voice, and sings his part with an impeccable technique. Krystian Adam is also impressive in the role of Jesus, and Mirko Guadagnini gives a very good account of the role of Pilate. The smaller roles are also well executed.

Ghielmi has added some short arias, two by Feo and one by his contemporary Gasparini. I don't see any reasons for that as I think Feo's Passion is good enough as it is. But these arias - which are relatively short - are nice to listen to, and Barbara Schmidt-Gaden sings them very well. The choir and the instrumental ensemble are also first-rate, and the scoring of the basso continuo, with harpsichord, organ, harp, with cello and violone, gives some colour to the foundation of the ensemble.

This Passion is something special, and so is the booklet of 84 pages. It contains the complete lyrics, with translations in English, German, French and Italian. There are concise liner notes by Lorenzo Ghielmi. I had liked them to be more extended and include the remarks about the performance which I referred to above. Also in the booklet are beautiful pictures from the Sacro Monte sopra Varese. They are from the five 'sorrowful mysteries' from the Mysteries of the Rosario, depicting the Passion of Christ. They do go well with the music by Feo.

In short, this is an exemplary production which can only be strongly recommended.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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