Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740–1816) Passio di San Giovanni
Monika Mauch (sopranos); Jörg Schneider (baritone);
Vocalconsort Berlin, L'Arte del Mondo/Werner Ehrhardt
rec. live, April 2006, Trinitatiskirche, Cologne, Germany. DDD CAPRICCIO 60133 [58:08]
Giovanni Paisiello was one of the most admired composers of opera
in the second half of the 18th century. His reputation was mainly
based on his comic operas which he composed while working in
Naples. Although not born in Naples, he considered himself a
Neapolitan, having studied at the Conservatorio di S Onofri.
Paisiello's career can be divided into three stages. In the
first he concentrated on composing comic operas, mainly for
Naples. The next stage started when he was invited by the Russian
tsarina Catherine II to become her maestro di cappella. There
he composed some operas as well, but as Catherine wasn't really
interested in music and only kept her chapel as a matter of
prestige, he found time to compose other kinds of music as well,
in particular keyboard works for his pupils at court. He stayed
in St Petersburg until 1783, when he returned to Naples. In
the last stage of his career his attention shifted from comic
opera to opera seria and to religious music. At this time he
also had to deal with the effects of the French Revolution.
Twice the king of Naples had to flee because of a French invasion.
On both occasions Paisiello stayed in the city and worked for
the new regime. After a while the kingdom was restored but Paisiello
got away with his affiliation with the new regime as he took
advantage of a general amnesty by King Ferdinando.
The Passion according to St John as recorded here is a rather simple
work. The Passions written by Italian composers are in no way
comparable to the Passions which were written in Germany. This
was the direct result of the reforms of the Council of Trent
(1545-1563) which ordered settings of the Passion story to be
simple, using only the text of the Gospels without any free
poetic addition. So this Passion isn't much different from the
Passions written in the renaissance. It is also part of a tradition
in Naples, performing the St John Passion on Good Friday. The
best-known example is Alessandro Scarlatti's St John Passion,
written about 100 years earlier.
The vocal parts are written for sopranos and basses only. One soprano
acts as 'Testo' (Evangelist), whereas the second soprano sings
the words of Christ. The third main role is that of Pilate which
is given to a bass. The turbae are sung by a vocal ensemble,
whose members also perform the smaller roles, like that of Peter.
The instrumental ensemble is very small as well: just two violins
and basso continuo.
The whole text is set in the form of accompanied recitatives, although
the music is fluent and often arioso-like. Only sometimes Paisiello
turns towards a speech-like secco recitative, in which the singer
is either unaccompanied or supported by the basso continuo only.
This is one way in which Paisiello differentiates in his treatment
of the recitative. Other means are variations in rhythm and
speed. The orchestra sometimes gets the role of illustrating
the text. A striking example is the moment when Pilate orders
Jesus to be scourged. The Testo falls silent and the orchestra
vividly depicts the scourging. It is mainly through melody rather
than harmony that Paisiello illustrates the events. Only at
rare moments does he use dissonance, for instance on 'Barabban'.
An intensity of expression is achieved by the slow and steady
descending melodic figure when the Testo tells of Jesus bowing
his head and giving up the ghost. Remarkable is the way the
Passion ends. After the Testo telling how Jesus has been buried
a moment of silence follows, and then the Testo sings twice
the title at the cross: "Iesus Nazarenus rex Iudaeorum" -
Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
This description may suggest that this work is pretty boring. That
is not the case. In fact, its concise character is its main
strength. And Paisiello, who was famous for his melodious invention,
does not disappoint here. He has very effectively set the text
to music, and I find the result quite moving.
The impact of this work is also down to the performance, which is
very good. I say this especially considering the fact that this
is a live recording. I am very impressed by the artistic and
technical results achieved. I noticed some differences between
the text that is sung and the text printed in the booklet. In
most cases these could be just errors which are probably inevitable
in a live performance.
The two sopranos do an excellent job. Trine Wilsberg Lund is very
impressive as Testo. Although the role of Christ is also set
for a soprano, its tessitura is a little lower, creating a nice
contrast between the two soprano parts. Monika Mauch gives a
very good account of this part. I am a little less enthusiastic
about Jörg Schneider, whose voice I find a little rough, but
he sings his part well. The vocal and instrumental ensembles
are both first-class too.
I would like to recommend this disc, as it shows an unknown aspect
of Paisiello's composing, sheds light on a little-known tradition
of Passion writing and - most importantly - because it is just
fine music. This St John Passion is an interesting extension
of the repertoire for Passiontide.
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