Johann Simon MAYR (1763-1845)
Samuele - oratorio (1821)
Samuele (Samuel) - Andrea Lauren Brown (soprano)
Anna (Hannah) - Susanne Bernhard (soprano)
Elcana (Elkanah) - Rainer Trost (tenor)
Priest Eli - Jens Hamann (bass)
Simon Mayr Choir; Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra/Franz Hauk
rec. Asamkirche Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, Germany, 15-19 September 2009
NAXOS 8.572721-22 [34:28 + 60:02] 

Until thirty years ago Johann Simon Mayr had long been neglected as an important composer. He was promoted by John Stewart Allitt, a founder member of the now thriving Donizetti Society, with his authoritative biographies of the composer (1989/1995). Mayr is significant since it was he who had tutored the young Donizetti in Bergamo, Italy. He can rightly be regarded as the father of 19th century Italian operatic and church music.
This oratorio, with its forward-looking inspiration, was written at a time when Donizetti was working on La Zingara and while the young Bellini was still a student at the Naples Conservatoire. In Mayr’s works lie the roots of the bel canto opera tradition. We welcome the enthusiasm shown by Franz Hauk in bringing out another Mayr oratorio to add to the substantial Naxos Mayr series (L’Armonia; L’Amor coniugale; Marriage of Tobias; Te Deum; David in spelunca Engaddi) and also from Guild (Mass; La Passione; Sisara). Despite the rarity of this work another CD of it by Pelucchi exists on Nuova Era. However, that disc has an unnaturally wide reverberation that seriously muddies the detail of the singing. For me it is an uncomfortable listening experience.

When one hears Mayr’s music one is immediately reminded of the influence that Mozart and the German school at large had had on his style. This is understandably so because he was born in Bavaria and went to university there to read Theology rather than Music. His musical education began in earnest when he studied in Italy under Bertoni. Even so he could not shake off the latent German background that to me colours his style. It is possible that Lortzing picked up more than a few ideas from Mayr since the quartet, Ah, madre has a distinctive ring.
Samuele is unusual because it is mainly made up of parodies of some of the composer’s previous operas including Atar, Fedra and La rosa bianca. It has charming moments and throughout there are choral numbers that are uplifting and inject an added brightness. Unusual aspects involve the inclusion of two short march interludes, and a section of spoken words with simple instrumental backing. The stately opening hymn, Alfine in petto l’anima, taken at lively pace, immediately engages and holds the listener.
The breezy recitatives and arias sung by Andrea Lauren Brown (Samuele) are adorable for their legato, effortless top notes and sincerity of delivery. Her aria, Dio, che immortal is stunning with its delicacy and lightness of touch. Elsewhere her versatile flourishes blend well with the warm acoustics of the Asamkirche Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt. Jens Hamann is compassionate in his aria, Esser degli esseri and displays good clarity in the duet, Che tento. A lovely duet, Oh più cara è a me la vita for Anna and Elcana reveals the healthy balance and timbre of these excellent voices; they depict young parents. This latter duet demonstrates Mayr’s inventive versatility when it comes to interesting musical ideas and moving colours.
In Part I of Samuele, a biblical narrative from the Old Testament sets the background. Samuel’s parents (Elcana and Anna) and family are on their annual journey to Shiloh where Samuel has been entrusted to a Priest, Eli, at the temple. They have come to see their son and to offer sacrifice. In Part II, at Shiloh the plot focuses on the calling of Samuel as a prophet. The divine prophecy given by God is relayed to Priest Eli when the sacrifice takes place, an awesome event witnessed by the Levites who then give praise to God on high.
This enjoyable recording is well defined and attractive in the case of the slightly recessed soloists and with a particular clarity accorded to the woodwind and string sections. The booklet carries a short section on Mayr, detail of Mayr’s sources for the oratorio and a synopsis in English and German. A long piece on librettist, Merelli by Iris Winkler neglects to comment on how or why Samuel’s parent’s names were changed. We are also in the dark about why Samuele was changed to a female when it would have been possible that the role of Samuel was originally sung by a male treble voice. Such distortion of a biblical story seems very odd.  

Raymond J Walker 

Lively, engaging and holds the listener’s attention.