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Johann Simon MAYR (1763 - 1845)
La Passione, oratorio for solo, choir and orchestra (1794)
Stabat Mater in C Minor for four voices and orchestra
Maria Jette (Soprano)
Claudia Schneider (Contralto)
Hartmut Schröder (Tenor)
Robert Merwald (Bass)
Vokalensemble Ingolstadt
Georgisches Kammerorchester Ingolstadt
Franz Hauk, director and harpsichord
Recorded at Asam Kirche "Maria de Victoria" Ingolstadt on 7, 9, 10 April 2001
GUILD GMCD 7251/52 [72.15+67.03]
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If Johann Simon Mayr (or Giovanni Simone Mayr, as he became known in Italy) is known at all today, it is as the teacher of Donizetti. One or two of his operas, such as 'Medea in Corinto' have become a little better known thanks to their CD recordings. It might come as a surprise to find that Mayr wrote a considerable quantity of liturgical music. He was a devout Catholic and founded a music school which was closely linked to the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. He composed sacred music for all occasions and was still composing it in the year of his death.

1794, the year of composition of 'La Passione', also saw the first performance of Mayr's opera 'Saffo'. This was a great success, allowing the composer to develop his voice in Italian opera. 'La Passione' is one of a group of early oratorios, written whilst Mayr was associated with the Ospedali dei Mendicanti, one of the four music conservatories in Venice concerned with orphans. Though he wrote oratorios for the Ospedali, 'La Passione' was written for another church, so Mayr was not limited to girls voices and could introduce greater dramatic scope. The text, by an unknown author, draws on Metastasio's 'Passione' and is typical of the oratorios produced by the counter-reformation, consisting of a series of meditations on the sacred events, centred on the Virginís response to her Sonís sufferings and her consequent agony as a mother.

'La Passione' is in two parts. Part 1, on the way to Calvary, opens with a sinfonia followed by the opening chorus. From then on Mayr dramatises the text via a sequence of recitatives (mainly accompanied) and arias. Part 2, at the foot of the Cross, follows a similar pattern and finishes with a final chorus. The key word here is dramatises. This is a dramatic, almost operatic work. Not for Mayr the quiet contemplation of the more Germanic oratorios. The opening sinfonia is surprisingly cheerful and would not come amiss as the overture to an opera buffo; evidently this is meant to suggest Victory over Death. The following chorus is also very operatic, intermingling chorus with solo interjections. Mayr's style hovers between the world familiar to Mozart and Haydn and the style that was to become the early 19th Century Italian opera.

The soprano Maria Jette sings the role of Mary the Mother of Christ, around whom the action centres. Contralto Claudia Schneider sings Mary Magdalene, tenor Hartmut Schröder sings St. John and bass-baritone Robert Merwald sings Joseph of Arimathea. Neither Christ nor Evangelist appear at all, though Christ's words from the cross are reported in the recitative. The narrative moves along with a series of accompanied recitatives for each of the characters. These contain some of the most dramatic moments in the work and I felt that the performers did not nearly make enough of them. St. John's recitative at the end of part one 'Why does not my heart break at the sight of such barbaric cruelty? Who has witnessed such a frightful spectacle?' is finely played and sung but lacks the dramatic impetus needed by the words. This is not meditatively deep music, Mayr gives the text impetus by dramatising it and using word painting. Too frequently the performers seem to give it too little light and shade, content to skim over the surface of this attractive work.

And attractive it is too. Mayr had significant melodic gifts and all the soloists perform their arias attractively and finely. Maria Jette sings affectingly, displaying a fine upper register but she tends to be rhythmically four-square, I could have wished for greater flexibility from her. Claudia Schneider has an attractive deep toned voice, not without a hint of unsteadiness and at times she seemed uncomfortable with the fioriture. Hartmut Schröder's tenor is an attractive instrument but his bright tone tends to be unvarying and can be a little wearying. In Part 2, the drama intensifies and the soloists respond to this, except for Hartmut Schröder who seems to value beauty of line more than the drama implicit in the words.

The orchestra, Georgisches Kammerorchester Ingolstadt, under Franz Hauk play the music capably if without much subtlety and Hauk's speeds tend to be on the safe side. He seems to mistake slowness for emotion, Maria's cavatina 'Fra líorror deímalií seems in danger of grinding to a halt. I would love to hear this music in a more responsive performance played on original instruments. Luckily there is not too much secco recitative as the harpsichord used on the recording has a distinctly clangy tone.

The second work is a Stabat Mater. An apt companion as the texts of the two works are both quite similar in tone. The Stabat Mater is labelled no. 5 but there is no trace of any of the 4 preceding works (if they existed at all). It is a charming work and has the advantage that there are no passages of recitative, simply a sequence of arias and ensembles. Music in an over-wrought style to match the words is not for Mayr, he writes with almost classical poise. Though the work opens and closes with substantial four-part ensembles, these are performed here by the soloists alone with no choral contribution, evidently Mayr performed the work in this form as well as performing it with a chorus. Having the chorus parts sung by soloists has the advantage of making the piece sound more homogeneous but the final chorus does rather cry out for a real choral sound. In the chorus numbers the soloists blend beautifully, creating a really effective ensemble.

Guild are to be congratulated on issuing these recordings of Mayr's sacred music. The performances by the Ingolstadt forces are quite creditable and make a good introduction to Mayr's music of this period. Perhaps one of our period instrument groups will now take up the challenge and give us some more.

Robert Hugill

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