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Simon MAYR (1763–1845)
David in spelunca Engaddi (David in the Cave of Engedi) - Oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra (1795)
Merit Ostermann (mezzo) – David, shepherd, son of Jesse from Bethlehem; Cornelia Horak (soprano) – Saul, first king of Israel; Ai Ichibara (soprano) – Michol/Michal, his daughter; Sibylla Duffe (soprano) – Jonathas/Jonathan, his son; Phalti, adviser to the king; Claudia Schneider (soprano) – Abner, commander of the King’s army
Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble/Franz Hauk (harpsichord)
rec. Assam Church of Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, Germany, 25-27 September 2006
Latin libretto, English and German translations, at www.naxos.com/libretti/570366.htm
NAXOS 8.570366-67 [43:40 + 50:43]
Experience Classicsonline


The German-born, Italian-trained Simon Mayr is little known today but about a year and a half ago I had for review another Naxos issue with two of his cantatas written in the 1820s. There I also gave a thumbnail biography to which I refer readers. He is not in the class of Rossini or Donizetti, who were his juniors by about a generation – Donizetti was actually his pupil. His music has however a distant similarity with theirs but he is at the same time influenced by the Viennese school of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. This gives his compositions a certain individuality, even though some of the arias here seem to be almost copied from Mozart.

The oratorio David in spelunca Engaddi is from his relative youth and is the last of four such works that he wrote for the Ospitale dei Mendicanti in Venice. The texts were by Giuseppe Maria Foppa, with whom he also collaborated in several operas. This particular libretto has survived in two languages: one in Latin, printed for the performance at the Ospitale and one in Italian. There are also various version of the musical score, one – in Mayr’s hand – with female chorus. There are also sketches and a copy with the chorus scored for mixed voices. Franz Hauk has based this recording on the original autograph but added the sinfonia that opens part two, from the other copy and arranged the final chorus for female voices, since the chorus was missing from the autograph. The Ospitale dei Mendicanti was intended for girls showing musical talent. There they were obliged to undertake ten years of training in the choir. This also explains why all the solo parts are for female voices. It feels initially a bit strange to have King Saul sung by a soprano but the convention of the day was different from our time. Vivaldi half a century earlier also had only women at his disposal and baroque opera featured castrati for male roles. For more variation of sound it wouldn’t have come amiss top have had a couple of lower voices but as so often one gets used to it.

The Biblical story is taken from Samuel I, xvi-xxiv. Samuel has anointed David King of Israel. Saul is tormented by an evil spirit and David plays his harp to calm him. David defeats the Philistine, Goliath, in combat and presents Saul with his head. Saul retains David as a member of his household and makes him his chief warrior. Jonathan, Saul’s son, becomes friendly with David. The people’s love of David makes Saul jealous and suspicious. David falls in love with Saul’s younger daughter Michal. Saul then demands the foreskins of a hundred Philistines, thinking that, in attempting this feat, David will be caught by the enemy. David however delivers the required quantity and gets Michal as his wife. Saul’s anger increases and he plans to kill David but Jonathan helps David to flee. Eventually he reaches the mountains of Engedi where Saul catches up with him. Saul falls asleep and David finds him but instead of killing him he cuts a piece from Saul’s robe and then wakes him up by playing his harp. When Saul sees that his life has been spared they are reconciled and the chorus sings: O joyful happy day … all are joined in peace and love.

Being an oratorio it has to be said that Mayr’s version displays little in the way of sacred feeling. There is much overt operatic drama and rather showy virtuosity, and since the chorus has fairly little to do the impression of secular music is further emphasised. True, Handel’s oratorios, also dealing with mainly Old Testament subjects, are also operatic in a way but the important choruses still lend them a veneer of solemnity. This is, however, more a description of the approach than criticism. I found the music very attractive throughout and the drama unfolds without too many preliminaries. The oratorio is in two parts and the structure is quite simple: a sinfonia opens each part, there are recitatives and arias sandwiched with a few ensembles and a couple of duets in between. The recitatives are mostly accompagnato - with orchestra - and they are surprisingly expressive. Melodically and dramatically there are riches in the musical numbers and just as with the cantatas I became really fond of this oratorio and will certainly want to hear more of Simon Mayr.

A distinctive Mayr fingerprint is his habit of featuring solo instruments and groups of instruments, not only in the purely instrumental sections but also quite often as obbligato to the singing. In the sinfonia to Part one we hear some charming woodwind; in David’s pastoral first aria (CD 1 tr. 8) we hear an English horn; the long sinfonia to Part two has a prominent part for harp and Saul’s arioso (CD 2 tr. 18) also features the harp. The oratorio opens with festive music acclaiming David having defeated Goliath and in the final chorus the festive mood returns.

The performance is spirited and full of life. David in spelunca Engaddi was performed in the Assam Church in Ingolstadt on 24 September 2006 and then recorded in the same venue over the following three days. This is a method that has very often proved to be the closest to the ideal recording situation: the participants are well prepared and deeply involved, inspired by contact with an audience. They have all experienced the continuity of the work and are in the same environment. Where the live recording can often be marred by external noises and occasional mistakes by the musicians, in this case there are possibilities of mopping up defects through a second take. The chorus and orchestra, certainly well rehearsed by the enthusiastic Franz Hauk are splendid and the young soloists are truly inspired. Claudia Schneider is a dramatically intense Abner in his only aria (CD 1 tr. 6), which is one of the best things here, Merit Ostermann’s David goes through numerous moods and feelings and is at his/her finest in the trio in Par two (CD 2 tr. 11) and in the noble aria a bit later (CD 2 tr. 15). Saul is brilliantly portrayed by Cornelia Horak, who has some really virtuoso moments. In the aria (CD 1 tr 11) the coloratura is breathtaking as is the aria in Part two with a very Mozartean first half and a stunningly dramatic second. Jonathan is sung by the bright, glittering and agile Sibylla Duffe who also doubles as the King’s advisor Phalti (CD 2 tr 9), where she glitters even more. The only singer who actually performs as a woman is the Japanese soprano Ai Ichihara as Michal. Her recitative and aria (CD 2 tr. 3-4), where she pleads for her beloved is lyrical and beautiful – another high-spot.

The recording cannot be faulted. There are a total of 46 cue-points on the two discs which facilitates when one wants to return to one’s favourite moments. There are also good notes and a synopsis. The libretto with translations is available on the internet but to get it on paper the printer needs 28 sheets. The stories about Saul and David have been hot stuff for several composers. Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote an opera in 1688, David et Jonathas, Handel wrote the oratorio Saul in 1739, Carl Nielsen wrote the opera Saul og David in 1902 and Honegger composed his dramatic psalm Le roi David in 1921. Now Simon Mayr’s David in spelunca Engaddi can be added to that list and, though less illustrious than the other names, Mayr need not feel ashamed in their company. Lovers of Italian opera from the latter half of the 18th century and the early 19th century should ponder a purchase. They will be richly awarded.

Göran Forsling 

 

 


 


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