musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Franz Xaver RICHTER (1709 - 1789): La deposizione dalla croce di Gesů Cristo, Salvator nostro

Lenka Cafourková Duricová (Nicodemo), Katerina Knezíková (Maddalena), Philipp Mathmann (Giovanni), soprano; Piotr Olech (Simone Cireneo), alto; Jaroslav Brezina (Giuseppe d'Arimatea), tenor
Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Roman Válek

rec: May 17 - 20, 2016, Vranov u Brna, [Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary]
Supraphon - SU 4204-2 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.51'02")
Liner-notes: E/Cz; lyrics - translations: E/F/D/Cz
Cover & track-list

In recent years various discs with music by Franz Xaver Richter have landed on my desk. There is unmistakably a growing interest in his music. This probably is the result of a general tendency that the music written between the baroque and the classical periods is taken more seriously. Richter is one of the main representatives of the so-called 'Mannheim school' and one of many musicians and composers from Bohemia, who made a career outside their own region, such as Germany, Austria and Italy.

It is not exactly known where he was born. New Grove suggests Holešov, but according to the liner-notes in the booklet to the recording under review here that was rather the first place where he worked. He was educated as a bass singer and as a violinist. In these capacities he worked at several places in Germany, until he joined the court chapel in Mannheim in 1746. In 1769 he was appointed maître de chapelle in Strasbourg Cathedral; here he remained until his death in 1789.

Richter left a pretty large oeuvre, consisting of instrumental music - both orchestral and chamber music - as well as vocal music. His instrumental music dates from his Mannheim period, whereas most of his vocal works were written in Strasbourg. However, he already wrote vocal music in Mannheim, and that includes the oratorio La Deposizione dalla croce di Gesů Cristo. Mannheim was one of the few places in Germany, where Italian oratorios were performed. Passion oratorios, like the present one, were performed on Good Friday, following the church ceremonies. Richter's oratorio was written for a performance on Good Friday 1748, on 12 April.

The libretto is from the pen of Giovanni Claudio Pasquini (1695-1763), who from 1725 to 1742 was court poet in Vienna. In the latter year he stayed for a while in Mannheim, and then moved to Dresden, where he had been appointed a royal poet. The libretto of the present oratorio exists in two versions. The first was written for Johann Joseph Fux, whose setting was performed in Vienna in 1728. In Dresden Pasquini revised the oratorio for Johann Adolf Hasse. This version is also the subject of Richter's setting.

There is a clear connection between this oratorio and opera. The arias are not really different from opera arias, and that is hardly surprising, considering that Richter was an opera singer himself. The vocal scoring also reminds us of contemporary opera: with one exception, all roles are for high voices, either soprano or alto. It seems very likely that in Mannheim these parts were sung by castratos.

However, the content of the oratorio is not dramatic at all. The libretto is based on a few verses from chapter 19 of the Gospel of John, which tells about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, taking away and burying the body of Christ after his death at the cross. There is no real 'story' here; the oratorio is rather a contemplation on the events and an expression of the protagonists' own feelings of guilt and sinfulness. There are five of them: in addition to Joseph of Arimethea (tenor) and Nicodemus (soprano) these are Mary Magdelene (soprano), the disciple John (soprano) and Simon of Cyrene (alto). The latter does not appear in the gospel of John, but in the other three gospels he is mentioned as the man who was compelled by the Romans to carry the cross of Jesus. However, he was in no way involved in the events following Jesus' death; his inclusion here is a matter of poetic freedom.

He also is the only one who has just one aria to sing: 'Dovria bastarti, ingrato'. However, this is a remarkable aria which is different from the others. It is the only one preceded by an accompanied recitative; the other recitatives are all of the secco genre. His aria is also the only one, in which the horns participate; otherwise they only play in the introduzione and the three choruses. Last but not least, it is also the only aria which requires a fast tempo. These features reflect the text: "You, wicked heart, should content yourself with having inhumanly deformed Christ in the Body of the deceased Redeemer. Though in tiny sins you may harbour lofty wishing for evil, know that it prepares another Cross for the Creator".

In comparison the other arias - two for each of the four remaining characters - are more introspective, and as a result require rather quiet tempi, such as ŕ tempo giusto (in more than half of the arias), andante affettuoso or allegro non molto. The choruses, which open and close the first part and close the entire work, are marked alla breve. The orchestra comprises strings and oboes; the latter play colla parte with the strings in most of the arias. That is not specifically indicated in the score, but in John's aria 'Restň cieca di core' the score indicates senza oboe, from which we can conclude that oboes did participate in the other arias. The introduzione is the most pronounced expression of the orchestral style for which Mannheim had become famous. Otherwise this oratorio is not a typical product of the Mannheim school. In his choruses Richter is unblushingly old-fashioned by using counterpoint.

This oratorio is a most captivating work, and one has to admire Richter for his setting in purely Italian style. It is operatic, but not in such a way that the sacred character of the libretto is compromised. One also has to compliment Roman Válek and his singers and players for a nearly perfect performance. The most striking contributions come from Philipp Mathmann in the role of John. He is formally a male alto, but thanks to his wide tessitura he has no problem whatsoever to perform this soprano role. In fact, he is the best 'male soprano' I have heard since a very long time. There is not a hint of stress at the top of his range. He is really the star of this performance. Piotr Olech (Simon) makes the best of his only aria, and fully explores its dramatic character. Lenka Cafourková Duricová is excellent in the part of Nicodemus and Jaroslav Brezina delivers a fully convincing account of the part of Joseph of Arimathea. The only disappointing contribution comes from Katerina Kneziková, who is an opera singer and not a specialist in early music. That shows: her incessant vibrato, which fortunately is not very wide, is the only blot on this production.

However, overall this is an excellent performance, also thanks to the fine contributions of the choir and the orchestra. This production is a very meaningful and impressive addition to the discography of music for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Katerina Knezíková
Philipp Mathmann
Czech Ensemble Baroque

CD Reviews