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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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I was greatly taken by Guild’s earlier Mayr release, that of the Mass in C minor which Franz Hauk and his Ingolstadt forces recorded at the same time as this new release of La Passione and the Stabat Mater. The Mass was a product of cultural cross-pollination between the Italian and German schools with strong Haydnesque influences and echoes of Mozart’s last liturgical works. To this Mayr added some theatrical spice and indeed borrowings from his own pupil, Donizetti, to create a work of depth but lyrical persuasiveness. La Passione was written in 1794 a year which also saw the first performance of his opera Soffo ossia I riti d’Apollo Leucadio. As befits his cosmopolitan instincts La Passione is a Venetian oratorio written to a text by an unknown author. A two-part structure, penitential and devotional, the first centres around Calvary and the second at the foot of the Cross. The meditative nature of the oratorio and the concentration on the suffering of Mary marks it out as a product of the Roman counter-Reformation and distinct from the works of the Lutheran Bach.

As is consonant with Mayr’s other large-scale choral works he is here animated by a sense of theatrical involvement. In the Mass the sense of seething operatic impress occasionally threatened to break the bounds of liturgical conformity. Here too it is not always easy to reconcile the contemplative with the dramatic, not least in those cases of apparent displacement between what is being sung and the music Mayr chooses to use to invoke it. Thus the very opening Sinfonia, a bright and bubbly piece of operatic dynamism, is in the notes glossed as representing the triumph of Light over Darkness. Well, maybe but its almost lurid optimism, its sense of having being absorbed from another medium is palpable. It sets up a false premise at least, one that the Passion struggles not always successfully to accommodate.

There are of course many things to admire. The simplicity of St John’s Aria Ah Non cercar pietosa with its divisi strings and pert woodwinds is one of many until, at least, one reads the words which are deeply at odds with the elfin innocence of the music. Or the quasi-operatic refinement of Mary Magdalene’s aria Ecco come il giusto muore. Then there are precise yet compelling little moments of colour and refinement, dramatically telling such as the affecting string line that punctuates Mary’s disconsolate recitative Dove sono? Or the way in which Joseph’s recitative that relates details of the crucifixion is supported by baleful trombones and rugged string writing – there is an amplitude of expression in these myriad details that show Mayr’s mind working on consistently pictorial-dramatic lines. Mayr delays Mary’s aria for some time, her expression previously transmitted by recitative alone. When she is given the aria, Nell’ aspro mio tormento it is rather sturdy and operatic, despite the registral leaps that are perhaps meant to suggest her agitated state of mind (Maria Jette is rather taxed by some of the higher notes). Nevertheless there is in the context a spectacularly jolly duet for Mary and Magdalene, Nel veder traffito, to end the first part.

The second part, at the foot of the Cross, replicates the linear curve of Mayr’s schema. There is a splendidly incisive and galvanising orchestral introduction to the recitative Che vedo with much opportunity to point the differing responses of those gathered from the visceral, visual despair of Magdalene to Mary’s reflective and internalised anguish. In Joseph’s remarkably effective recitative Quel terribil vendetta for example his vocal line is accompanied by a sinuously winding oboe and tremolando strings, reflecting and amplifying his thoughts. The quartet of singers cope relatively well with the various demands placed on them if not always with either technical or tonal resources varied enough to enrich the music still further.

The companion work is the Stabat Mater, which was probably composed in Venice or in Bergamo by about 1802. This is an essentially traditional setting but as ever with Mayr he is always adept at insinuating little stylistic quirks into the line. There is a buoyant violin obbligato in the Eja Mater with its own quite extensive cadenza and the Fac me tecum which opens beautifully and sustains impetus. The Virgo virginum is a verdant and entwining duet full of expressive plangency and the Christe, cum sit hinc commanding and assured. In fact the whole work is suffused with a clarity and a concision that serves only to increase its compact success.

Notes are up to the usual Mayr-Guild standard (i.e. very good) but something has gone awry with the tracking and booklet text, which doesn’t marry up. One minute you expect a recitative from Joseph and the next you get an aria from Magdalene. A small liability but a liability nonetheless. I can’t pretend that La Passione is a blazing masterpiece – it struck me as inferior to the Mass in C – but in its intriguing, stylistically various way, it affords many moments of genuine pleasure.

Jonathan Woolf



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