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Simon MAYR (1763-1845)
L'Armonia -
dramatic cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra (1825) [44:06];
Cantata sopra la morte di Beethoven per soli, coro ed orchestra (Cantata for the Death of Beethoven for soloists, chorus and orchestra) (1827) [15:24]
Talia Or (soprano); Altin Piriu (tenor); Nikolay Borchev (bass);
Simon Mayr Choir
Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra/Franz Hauk
rec. Asamkirche Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, 15-18 September 2005
NAXOS 8.557958 [59:30]


Simon Mayr was one of those composers who created quite a stir in their lifetime but since then have fallen more or less into oblivion.

He was born in Mendorf in Bavaria, close to Ingolstadt, where these recordings were made. He first studied theology at the University of Ingolstadt and later in Italy, where he took music lessons. In 1802 he moved to Bergamo, where he was appointed maestro di cappella at the Cathedral, a post he held until his death. He did much to make Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven known in Italy. There are also influences from them in his own compositions, even though his style is essentially Italian. One of his pupils was Gaetano Donizetti.

As a composer he was enormously prolific, leaving behind around six hundred sacred works and nearly seventy operas. The record catalogues can't boast much, I'm afraid, but at least Opera Rara have several things, not least in the '100 Years of Italian Opera' series but also a complete opera, arguably his masterpiece, Medea in Corinto (1813), which I seem to remember also existed in a recording during the LP era.

He has one leg firmly rooted in the Viennese tradition and the other influenced by the music in his new homeland. His music has a certain formal kinship with the former and melodic directness, sometimes verging on the banal, that shows the provenance of the latter. Though hardly on the level of Rossini and Donizetti his music has appeal and displays an intimate knowledge of the possibilities of the human voice. The orchestral and choral writing is highly professional and very often more than that. His choral writing has both power and lyrical bloom and as an experienced opera composer he knows how to make use of the orchestral palette. It is however the solo singing that shows his forte, and no wonder: he had behind him more than three score operas when these two cantatas were composed.

Considering that he was well over sixty at the time of composition, there is a remarkable freshness about the music, especially L'Armonia, which is laid out in mainly short numbers that succeed each other without pause. This may have something to do with the occasion for the composition. On 1 and 2 July 1825 Emperor Franz I with companions visited Bergamo and the grand finale was a visit to the Ricciardi Theatre where this dramatic cantata was performed to the illustrious company in a staged production with set designs by "the extremely talented" Sanquirico. This was in fact Mayr's last composition for theatre and it was a great success. Reportedly even the Emperor and his wife praised him so highly that Mayr went home that evening with tears of joy in his eyes.

We need not go into a detailed outline of the story but the message is the harmony of the spheres and the drama is populated with bards, soldiers and people, each group with a leader. All this results in joyous and lively music as befits a festive occasion like this, but there are contrasts as well. The opening chords have more than a casual likeness to Die Zauberflöte overture and the ladies' chorus Scendi dei cantici, alma custode! (tr. 12), which was the most appreciated number at the premiere, is light and airy. There are other moments of contemplation and repose, but elsewhere the soloists indulge in dramatic recitatives and the solos and ensembles are distinctly operatic with quite a lot of florid singing. Without bothering much about the text I had an entertaining three-quarters of an hour, enjoying good choral singing, the excellent playing of the Georgian Chamber Orchestra, which I admired greatly a number of years ago while they were still stationed in Tblisi. Then they were a string ensemble; here they are amended by wind, timpani and even a harp, which has a lot of solo work to do.

The vocal soloists shine in their far from easy solos and ensembles. And very good they are, these three young singers. Nikolay Borchev from White Russia is the owner of an agile and lyrical bass with attractive timbre, full of character. He is expressive in the recitatives and he sings elegantly and with gusto in the two arias that follow suit in the first scene. He should be an asset in any Rossinian baritone or bass role. Albanian tenor Altin Piriu also has a natural aptitude for florid singing and can be both lyrically mellifluous and powerfully temperamental, best demonstrated in long marital aria with chorus A combater ci chiama la tromba (tr. 5). The soprano, Israeli born Talia Or, matches her male colleagues in technical accomplishment and feeling. A splendid trio indeed.

The other cantata, written for the death of Beethoven, so much admired by Mayr, is more sombre. It is nevertheless vital music, more a tribute to the great master than a dirge, written - la maniere de Beethoven and quoting several of his works, the most well-known being the Pastoral Symphony. It is well-crafted music and the performance is on the same high level, but when I want to return to this disc it is primarily for the L'Armonia cantata, much of which has already started to stick in my memory.

Simon Mayr may have been a parenthesis in musical history, but his was a not inconsiderable talent and lovers of the Viennese classics and/or early 19th century opera with an interest in some byways of the period will find much to enjoy here. Having heard very little of Mayr before, I took a chance when this disc was on the latest 'request list' - something I definitely don't regret. While writing this I have the finale of the cantata in my headphones and - gosh! - I like it more and more.

Göran Forsling 

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