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Giovanni Battista BASSANI (1647/50? - 1716): Giona

Laura Antonaz (Speranza), Margherita Rotondi (Obbedienza), soprano; Carlo Vistoli (Giona), alto; Raffaele Giordani (Atrebate), tenor; Mauro Borgioni (Testo), bass
Ensemble Les Nations
Dir: Maria Luisa Baldassari

rec: July 2014, Rontana Brisighella (Ravenna), Chiesa di S. Maria della Nativitą
Tactus - TC 640290 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (88'45")
Liner-notes: E/I; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gabriele Bellu, Gianadrea Guerra, violin; Laura Scipioni, Emanuele Marcante, viola; Nicola Brovelli, cello; Maurizio Less, lirone, violone; Maria Luisa Baldassari, harpsichord; Marina Scaioli, organ

Throughout music history several characters from the Bible have been the subject of cantatas and oratorios, such as Jephtha, David and Solomon. The prophet Jonah is not one of them. I know of only a few pieces which take him as the subject: the short oratorio Jonas by Giacomo Carissimi and the sacred cantata with the same title by the French composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. He is also the subject of the oratorio Giona by Giovanni Battista Bassani.

The dates of Bassani's birth and death show that he was a contemporary of Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). He has also been connected to Corelli: it was suggested that Bassani was the latter's teacher, although there is no evidence to support this claim. Today he is largely overshadowed by his more illustrious fellow composer and violinist. However, in his own time he was held in high esteem. His compositions circulated in manuscript across Europe. An anonymous poet called him and Corelli in one breath in an ode for Henry Purcell: "In thy performance we with wonder find Bassani's genius to Corelli Joyn'd". The reprints of Bassani's Sinfonie Op. 5 bears also witness to the appreciation of his music; they appeared in Bologna in 1688, in Antwerp in 1691 and in Amsterdam in 1708.

In 1677 Bassani, who was a pupil of, among others, Giovanni Legrenzi, became a member of the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna. Also educated as an organist, he worked in this capacity in various cities, like Ferrara and Modena. In the former city he was appointed maestro di cappella at the Accademia della Morte and at the Cathedral. In that year he also was proclaimed principe of the Accademia Filarmonica. During the last four years of his life Bassani acted as maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore and as teacher in Bergamo.

The largest part of Bassani's oeuvre consists of vocal works. He composed a considerable number of operas and oratorios and many other sacred and secular pieces. A large part was printed; the latest edition was published as op. 32 in 1710. Bassani composed thirteen oratorios on an Italian text; only four have been preserved. Giona dates from 1689 and was performed in Modena at the Oratorio di S. Carlo Rotondo which had been built in 1634 and was the seat of the congregation of the same name. It was one of no fewer than thirteen oratorios performed during Lent of that year. One of them was Bernardo Pasquini's La sete di Christo. Bassani's oratorio was not the only one about Jonah: a second - on a different text - was from the pen of Giovanni Battista Vitali. The text of Bassani's oratorio was written by the poet Ambrogio Ambrosini.

For those who are not familiar with the story of Jonah I quote the synopsis from the booklet. "[The] God of Israel orders Jonah to preach to the cruel, corrupt inhabitants of Nineveh. Revolting against this mission, Jonah boards a ship directed to Tarshish (...). During the crossing, the ship is hit by a storm and is about to sink because of the violence of the waves. Jonah's companions question him, and he admits that he has refused to obey God: so he must be thrown into the sea in order to stop the storm and save the ship. A large fish swallows him (...). He remains three days and three nights inside the fish, and from there he prays to God intensely, promising to fulfil his vow. In response to this, a divine order causes him to be cast, unharmed, on the beach. From there he walks to Nineveh, where he will preach and convert the inhabitants, including the king himself."

How exactly this story has been worked out by Ambrosini remains a bit of a mystery to those who don't understand Italian. The libretto which has to be downloaded from the Tactus site comes without any translation. It seems that the first part is about Jonah's attempt to escape to Tarshish, whereas the second is about the storm at sea and what follows it. Obviously this part is the most dramatic.

The oratorio has the common scoring of oratorios from the second half of the 17th century: five voices which also take care of the choruses, and a small instrumental ensemble, here also in five parts: two violins, two violas and bc. The strings open both parts with a sinfonia and also play the ritornellos in a number of arias. Some of these include an obbligato part for violin or cello. In some arias the soloist is accompanied by basso continuo alone.

All the arias have a dacapo; some consist of two stanzas which both have their own dacapo. The vocal parts are sometimes anything but easy which certainly reflects the standard of the musicians Bassani had at his disposal in Modena. The Testo is the smallest part in that it has only three arias but these are among the most virtuosic. That part is excellently sung by Mauro Borgioni. In comparison Giona has eight arias; the alto Carlo Vistoli has a rather dark voice which is pleasant to listen to but his diction is not the best and his performance is also marred by too much vibrato. The role of the helmsman Atrebate appears only in the second act; it is given a nice performance by Raffaele Giordani. The symbolic characters Obbedienza (obedience) and Speranza (hope) are scored for soprano; they also sing the few duets. Laura Antonaz and Margherita Rotondi are a perfect match. They both sing their respective parts very well and their voices are just different enough to tell them apart. The playing of the strings is good, but sometimes a little insecure. The obbligato cello part in the aria 'Non si fidi di brieve sereno' (CD 2, track 17) is particularly nice.

Obviously I can't tell how the singers deal with their respective roles from a dramatic point of view, because of a lack of translation. That also makes it hard to fully appreciate this oratorio. It is a big shame that most Tactus discs omit English translations, especially as they often include unknown repertoire whose lyrics are mostly not available from other sources. This doesn't help to promote an oratorio like Bassani's Giona which musically is very attractive and which receives an overall convincing interpretation here.

The latter is the reason that I urge anyone who likes Italian vocal music of the baroque era to investigate this production and enjoy at least the music.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Les Nations

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