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Johann Joseph FUX (c1660-1741)
Arias for the Emperor
Giunone placata (1725): Sinfonia [4:47]
Dafne in Lauro (1714): Se dunque alla virtute - Il voler vinci Amore, rec & aria [5:30]
Giunone placata (1725): Io non potea soffrir [8:02]
La Deposizione dalla Croce di Gesù Cristo Salvator Nostro (1728): Caro Maestro - Caro mio Dio, rec & aria [11:53]
Il Fonte della Salute aperto dalla Grazia nel Calvario (1716): Vedi, che il Redentor [5:55]
La decima Fatica d'Ercole (1710): Qual' il sol in prato [8:54]
Orfeo ed Euridice (1715): Rondinella, che tal volta [3:50]
Il Testamento di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo sul Calvario (1726): Si tempra il mio martir [9:22]
Maria Ladurner (soprano)
Biber Consort
rec. 2020, Summer Refectory of St Florian Monastery, Austria
Texts and translations included
PAN CLASSICS PC10425 [61:17]

For a long time Johann Joseph Fux was more or less a 'forgotten' composer. Only a small part of his oeuvre was performed now and then and sometimes recorded. That is all the more surprising, considering that from 1715 until his death the held the important position of Hofkapellmeister at the imperial court in Vienna, one of the musical metropoles in Europe from the Renaissance until the late 18th century. In the early days of historical performance practice Nikolaus Harnoncourt acted as an advocate of Fux. One of the first discs he recorded for the Telefunken series 'Das alte Werk' included music from the collection Concentus musico-instrumentalis.

Fux was born in Hirtenfeld in Styria, near Graz, into a family of peasants, and was sent to the Imperial Ferdinandeum at the Jesuit University of Graz on the advice of the parish priest. Rather than following a vocation as a priest, he aimed at being a musician. From 1683 to 1689 he studied in Ingolstadt. In the mid-1690s he worked as organist at the Schottenkloster in Vienna. Apparently his capabilities attracted attention, as it seems Emperor Leopold I himself wanted Fux to become court composer in 1698. This is all the more remarkable as since the early 17th century musical life at the court was dominated by musicians from Italy. In 1711, after the death of Leopold, Fux was appointed vice-Hofkapellmeister, and in 1715 Charles VI appointed him Hofkapellmeister, a position he held until his death.

It is mainly thanks to his treatise Gradus ad Parnassum of 1725 that he figures in history books. This book is referred to especially because of its extensive treatment of counterpoint, even though it has much more to offer. However, there can be little doubt that it was this particular subject which made Johann Sebastian Bach greatly appreciate the Gradus. In his own music Fux also made extensive use of counterpoint. That was not only because of his own preference, but also that of his employers.

Fux's compositional output is large; the list of his compositions in New Grove is impressive. Sacred music, and in particular music for the liturgy, takes by far the most important place in his oeuvre. In comparison, his contributions to other genres is modest, even though it needs to be added that parts of his output have been lost. The disc under review here focuses on two genres that have received relatively little interest: opera and oratorio. Whereas his oratorios are sometimes performed and recorded, his operas are almost completely neglected. His best-known work in this genre is Costanza e Fortezza. The present disc includes arias from other operas and from oratorios which shed light not only on Fux's style as a composer but also on performance practice at the imperial court in Vienna.

Two things are particularly noteworthy. First, all the arias performed here were originally sung by female sopranos. That is remarkable, given the general preference for castratos, who usually took the main roles in opera. The liner-notes mention the names of the sopranos, who sang the respective arias in the time they were first performed. Probably even more remarkable is that the arias from the oratorios were also sung by female sopranos. It underlines that at the time there was little difference between the two genres.

Second, whereas in his operas Fux usually confined himself to an accompaniment of strings and basso continuo, in his oratorios he often wrote arias with obbligato parts for particular instruments. And this is all the more interesting, as in Vienna some instruments were especially revered, such as the trombone and the chalumeau. They regularly appeared in vocal works, such as oratorios, but also in church music and in instrumental compositions. Moreover, the theorbo was a common instrument, which could participate in the basso continuo, in particular in operas, but in Vienna it was also given obbligato parts.

An example of the latter is not taken from an oratorio, but from the opera La decima Fatica d'Ercole of 1710, a unique exception to the rule of a string accompaniment. In the aria 'Qual' il sol in prato', the soprano is accompanied by theorbo and chalumeau. It is a combination which is highly unusual, and which one won't find anywhere else than in Vienna. The oratorio Il Fonte della Salute aperto dalla Grazia nel Calvario includes the aria 'Vedi, che il Redentor', in which the singer is accompanied by chalumeau, alto trombone and strings. More 'conventional', as it were, are the arias from the other two oratorios. Both 'Caro mio Dio' from La Deposizione dalla Croce di Gesù Cristo Salvator Nostro and 'Si tempra il mio martir' from Il Testamento di nostro Signor Gesù Cristo sul Calvario have an obbligato part for the violin. In the former, singer and violin are supported by basso continuo alone, whereas the latter also includes tutti parts for the strings. However, there they are used in a particular way, known as bassetto. In this case the upper voices replace the basso continuo, lending the aria a special lightness and "expressing a turning towards heaven", as Dagmar Glüxam states in the liner-notes.

Turning to opera, the programme opens with the sinfonia (overture) from Giunone placata, an opera from 1725. From this work we hear later the aria 'Io non potea soffrir', which in 1725 was sung by a young Faustina Bordoni, who was to become one of the most celebrated opera singers in the whole of Europe and was to marry Johann Adolf Hasse in 1730. This aria is largely devoid of coloratura, and one may wonder whether she would have been satisfied with such a piece later in life. Very different is 'Sì, vendetta io voglio' from Julo Ascanio (1708), which is very dramatic, as the protagonist, Emilia, is torn between love and hate. The way Fux illustrates her outbursts of hate betray his feeling for drama. Here we meet a Fux who is far away from the 'dry' theorist for which he is often taken. The story of Orpheus and Euridice was one of the most popular among composers of operas and cantatas. Fux also composed an opera on this subject, and from his Orfeo ed Euridice (1715) the aria 'Rondinella, che tal volta' is taken, which is another example of a piece where Fux moves away from the habit of a string accompaniment. Here the singer is supported by the basso continuo, but the cello is given an obbligato part. That is not without a reason: it has a florid part to play which illustrates the pictures of the swallow and the brooklet mentioned in the text.

If this disc makes one thing crystal clear, it is that Fux deserves much more attention than he has been given to date. Two of the oratorios from which arias are performed here, are available in complete recordings, but they have not received that much interest and many music lovers may not even know they exist. There is a lot of catching up to do. Maria Ladurner is a young singer who is in the early stage of her career, and one can only admire and thank her for committing herself to Fux and his music. This recital is an excellent way of becoming acquainted with Fux's oeuvre and his style. The liner-notes are very helpful by putting him into his historical context.

Maria Ladurner has a lovely voice, which is perfectly suited to baroque music, which seems to be one of her favourites. I hope that we are going to hear a lot more from her. She is a stylish interpreter, and that comes to the fore here in the way she treats the various arias, for instance in the ornamentation department. Her embellishments in the dacapos are generous, but never exaggerated. There is no rewriting of entire lines. I also like her performance of the recitatives. The ensemble is excellent, and the various obbligato parts are impressively executed.

There are just two issues I have to mention. First, at the reverse of the booklet Maria Ladurner is thanking several people who made this recording possible. Among them is the St Florian monastery, where the recording took place. It has a great acoustic indeed, but perhaps not so much for the repertoire performed here. I find the reverberation hard to swallow, and for me that is a real shortcoming of this project. For opera arias one needs the drier acoustic of a theatre, and that is probably not so much different in case of the oratorio arias. Secondly, it is known that Fux at some time during his career in Vienna had around one hundred musicians at his disposal. Here the instrumental parts are performed with a very small ensemble, including two violins and one viola. That may be reasonable for practical reasons, but I wonder whether this is in line with the performance practice in Vienna in Fux's time.

Those considerations apart, this disc may well be one of the best surveys of Fux's output of vocal music, apart from his liturgical works. It should be a step towards a full recognition of the talents of a composer who was much more than the author of a book on counterpoint.

Johan van Veen

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