Don’t be put off by
the title. This fascinating work is
not just a Christmas Oratorio; it is
much more. In fact Christmas hardly
gets a look in. Oh yes, there is a brief
mention of the Christ-child and there
are some Shepherds who get entangled
in a titanic struggle with Satan, but
there is little more. This is a Christmas
Oratorio for the more sceptical 21st
century world. So why has it not appeared
before and who is this obscure composer.
If you look at his
dates you will immediately think of
a composer who may have a little of
Haydn in him and possibly some Beethoven,
but it may well be more helpful to realize
that he is a contemporary of Weber.
His orchestral writing is powerful,
colourful and is quickly able to set
a scene, as at the very beginning.
was an Italian musician but he was born
in what is now the heart of industrial
Poland, Gdansk. He quickly drew attention
to himself as a promising composer with
a symphony, an opera and a cantata even
featuring on the same bill as Beethoven
in 1795 when the latter played his 1st
The extensive and indispensable
booklet notes by Norbert Bolin outline
his life. They give us a close look
at the cantata blow-by-blow as it were.
The libretto is discussed and we are
also given a challenging short essay
on ‘A time for crises for the Oratorio’,
i.e. the period between 1740-1790 -
a time when opera was strongly finding
The full and correct
title for this seventy-five minute drama
is ‘La Celebre nativita del Redentore
cantata ossia Oratorio Parole di Signi’
with libretto by Luigi Prividali.
An outline of the extraordinary
plot is as follows. The overture is
dispensed with (quite an innovation
this) after less than two minutes in
favour of a choral introduction, or
to be more precise a chorus of shepherds
who are to feature regularly. They tell
us of a desolate landscape and frozen
wastes, or unhappy humanity awaiting
its saviour. One is reminded that the
season of Advent is a penitential period
of waiting and fasting. The shepherds
are confronted by Satan and comforted
by ‘Amor Divino’. But it is John the
Baptist who has to confront Satan in
scene 3 in a sequence of powerful, Beethovenian
strength. This sets the pattern for
the work. The philosophical concept
is that the world is dark and sinful
where Satan can be powerful. God’s arrival
in the incarnation of his son Jesus
pushes Satan and his Angels into powerlessness
if mankind will allow him to.
This battle, which
is more psychological than physical,
culminates in a grand scene, played
out by Satan and his chorus of demons
with his exaltation "Up, courage,
to arms". But Satan is defeated
so that the Divine angel can confidently
sing "Now the maker of the world
has descended to redeem his people".
In the final chorus of angels, ‘Divine
love’, ‘The Angel of Glory’ and St.
John join together in ‘Heaven is the
Victor". Life has become a theatre
of war between good and evil, fought
in the human soul and in human society.
The performance captures
perfectly the full drama. The forward
recording and excellent balance enhance
the overall impression.
The soloists are at
full throttle throughout. Each has a
high spot. St. John the Baptist is quite
a challenging role. Cartellieri demands
a wide range and a versatile voice,
exemplified excellently by Andreas Karasiak
in his scene with Satan. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
as Satan is especially effective in
his scene with the demons. His recitatives
tumble by quickly and angrily and this
makes a fine foil to the detached gentility
of the recits of there other characters.
Cartellieri’s musical characterization
is impressive for Satan throughout.
The chorus work here and throughout
is focused and with clear diction. The
demons have an element of roughness
without the tuning being disturbed.
The ‘Angel of Glory’
is a light but not timorous tenor in
the hands of the lyrical Ray M. Wade.
Listen especially to the Italianate
way he tackles the aria ‘Gloria in cielo
al vero Deo’ with its timpani and trumpet
accompaniment. Remarkably this aria
is preceded by a delightful fanfare
introduction and a mini Oboe concerto.
The main aria for Katerina Beranova
as ‘L’amor Divino’ is ‘Del verbo incarnato’
for which there is another delightful
touch: the delicate introduction of
three unaccompanied flutes as she descends
to man, as it were. Her voice is clean,
clear and lacks unnecessary vibrato,
with an effortless head voice which
I, for one applaud.
So, to sum up. This
is something of a rare work, and although
an oratorio its subject matter and its
treatment are unique. The composer is
certainly of the second rank but in
this piece has flashes of genius. The
performance is excellent and gives the
work every opportunity both vocally
and instrumentally to shine.
To all concerned in
the project, congratulations. I suspect
however that the general musical public
may well pass it by, unless there is
a chance in the near future of a live
and high profile performance, for example
at the Edinburgh Festival or a Prom
Concert. The work certainly deserves
a wider audience.