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Alessandro STRADELLA (1643-1682)
San Giovanni Battista (1675) [80:40]
Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian (countertenor, Giovanni Battista)
Alicia Amo (soprano, Erodiade la Figlia)
Olivier Dejean (bass, Erode)
Gaia Petrone (mezzo-soprano, Erodiade la Madre)
Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor, Consigliero)
Thibault Givaja (tenor, Discepolo)
Le Banquet CÚleste/Damien Guillon (harpsichord)
rec. 2019, Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, France
ALPHA CLASSICS 579 [80:40]

Alessandro Stradella was by all accounts a brilliant, influential and prolific composer, but his romantic adventures and infidelities eventually caught up with him and he was killed by hired assassins in Genoa at the age of 38. Stradella’s work is fascinatingly positioned in a period in which musical style had a surprising fluidity, and San Giovanni Battista is an exuberant grab-bag of influences as well as sitting somewhere between opera and sacred dramatic oratorio, a meeting of the Roman oratorio tradition that descended from Carissimi mingling with the Venetian opera of Cavalli. It also pays to remember that Stradella was close to the generation of Scarlatti and the musical magpie Handel, who wasn’t above borrowing Stradella’s music in his own work. The atmosphere here is however more Mediterranean than central or northern European. San Giovanni Battista enjoyed genuine success ait its premiere in 1675, but it became forgotten until a revival in 1949 in Perugia, with the role of Salome taken by Maria Callas.

San Giovanni Battista has a Biblical narrative but makes a distinctly secular impression. It tells the story of St John the Baptist on his way to Herod’s court in order to denounce his union with Herodias, of her desire to have John killed, and Herod’s plaintive remorse amidst the rejoicing at her triumph. The setting is rich and colourful, Stradella giving us a full Concerto Grosso band to fill out the soloists of the Concertino ensemble. The plucked strings of harpsichord and lute contrast superbly with strings and organ, and all of the singers contribute with red-blooded liveliness and plenty of sensitivity to the text which is printed in the booklet in Italian, French and English.

The story isn’t the most intriguing or entertaining part of this work, but this is more than made up for in music that carries us along with its momentum, energy and beautiful pathos. The musicians of Le Banquet CÚleste leave nothing behind in giving their best of a rewarding score, and this whole production crackles with energy. There are a few alternatives to this recording around, with Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski still available and still sounding pretty good on Warner Elatus (review), though this version is a little more restrained in its impact when compared with Damien Guillon’s musicians. The Stradivarius label has a version from 2004 and probably download-only with Harmonices Mundi directed by Claudio Astronio which makes for an intriguing contrast, seemingly taking us back to Herod’s time by adding the exotic antiquity of harp embellishments. The Hyperion label also has a promising looking version that I haven’t heard, sporting a cast directed by Alessandro de Marchi.

This Alpha Classics recording is set in a marvellous acoustic which is perfect for the energy and expressive range in the performance, which has been captured with detail as well as with plenty of spacious air and atmosphere. Tastes differ and you might prefer a little more elysian restraint when it comes to music of this period, but if you are prepared to engage and go on the fantastic high-octane journey presented by these musicians then you are in for a treat. Whatever else it does and wherever it stands in the current market, this performance certainly lets us in on the reasons for this work’s popularity in its day.

Dominy Clements

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