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Johann Simon MAYR (1763 – 1845)
Sisara (1793) [93.36]
Sisara – Vanessa Barkowski (mezzo-soprano)
Jahel – Talia Or (soprano)
Debbora, Thamar – Stefanie Braun (soprano)
Barac, Elcana – Petra van der Mieden (soprano)
Abra, Dina – Claudia Schneider (soprano)
Simon Mayr Choir
Accademia I Filarmonici di Verona/Franz Hauk
Recorded Asam Kirche Maria de Victoria Ingolstadt, 9-12 September 2004
GUILD GMCD7288/89 [48.44 + 44.52]

 

 

Mayr’s main claim to fame is that he was Donizetti’s teacher. Though renowned for his operas (Opera Rara released Medea in Corinto some years ago) he had a career in sacred music in parallel to his operatic vocation, spending most of his working life at the Basilica of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Before the Bergamo appointment he lived and worked in Venice where his first opera, Saffo, was premiered and where he wrote a number of oratorios. Guild have already issued a recording of Mayr’s La Passione which was written at this period (review of the recording). They have followed this up with this recording of Sisara, written in 1793, the year before La Passione. Sisara was written for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, one of the four music conservatories in Venice concerned with orphans, so Mayr restricted himself to just female voices.

Like the Guild recording of La Passione this recording is directed by Franz Hauk. Both were recorded at the Asam Kirche in Ingoldstadt, but for these discs Hauk is working with a new group, the Academia I Filarmonici di Verona.

The plot tells the Biblical story of Jael (Jahel in this version) and Sisara, from the Book of Judges (chapter 4). The Israelites are subjects of the King of Canaan; Jahel pretends to be in love with Sisara the commander of the King of Canaan’s forces. She lures Sisara to her tent and kills him - driving a tent-peg through his heart. The rather similar story of Judith and Holofernes had already been the subject of a Venetian oratorio, written by Vivaldi for the Ospedale dei Pieta and similarly scored for female voices. Both are strangely gruesome stories for female educational institutions.

Mayr was just seven years younger than Mozart and Sisara is notable for its Mozartian cast. Time and again his inventive orchestration recalls Mozart, for example in the prominent wind parts in Jahel’s aria Quercus annos elata in Act 1. The recitatives are generally accompanied and there are a number of extended ariosos. Sisara’s Act 1 recitative Qualis sit locus iste has a most attractive Gluckian accompaniment. It must be admitted though, that the vocal lines rarely match the imagination of these ritornelli. But amongst the other notable features is a pair of charming, brief duets separated by a short recitative, a delightful device. Act 1 closes with an almost operatic ensemble for Jael, Sisara, Thamar and Dina.

A notable moment in Act 2 is the strikingly orchestrated arioso for Sisara, Quod Silentium as he lies troubled, trying to sleep. The dirty deed is done in a quite short, rather understated recitative; dramatic verisimilitude does not seem to have been Mayr’s intention. The oratorio concludes with celebratory arias for Jahel and for the prophetess Debbora and a final chorus.

The singers are all quite adequate, giving creditable performances, and make a well balanced cast. Vanessa Barkowski as Sisara is the only mezzo; all the other singers are sopranos and three of them double up on roles, so that unless you are paying attention to the libretto it can be difficult to follow. Mayr’s vocal writing, whilst not outstandingly virtuoso, includes some notable coloratura sections. All manage these decently though with a little bit of smudging.

The small choir of upper voices has very little to do. The Accademia I Filarmonici di Verona is a small group, comprising just twenty instrumentalists. They respond energetically to some of Hauk’s crisper tempi, but the strings are not without hints of untidiness. As the strings do not use vibrato, I could have wished for the refulgence of tone that a few extra players would have brought. The wind players respond well to the opportunities afforded them by Mayr’s orchestration.

It is enterprising of Guild to offer us another of Mayr’s early oratorios and this creditable recording helps us get a more balanced view of Mayr as a composer. But he wrote sacred music right up until his death in 1845 and it would be useful if more of these mature works could be released from the archives.

Robert Hugill



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