Reviews

GMCD 7288/89 – Sisara by Johann Simon Mayr

Accademia I Filarmonici di Verona, Alberto Martini – Concertmaster, Franz Hauk – Conductor, Stefanie Braun – Soprano, Talia Or – Soprano, Petra van der Mieden – Soprano

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American Record Guide January/February 2006

Born in Germany as Johann Simon Mayr or Meier, and settled early in Italy, Giovanni Simon Mayr (1763-1845) has long been remembered mainly as the teacher and mentor of Donizetti. But his own music has been winning revival and even recording in recent decades-mainly his own not-inconsiderable operas, but also his lesser vocal and instrumental works. In his operas we can hear the early budding of what would become the romantic Italian idiom of bel canto. But this release brings us a unique glimpse into his formative development as a bridge between 18th­and 19th Century styles.

Venice was one of his earliest haltingpoints in Italy, and he found a Base for opera-tions there in the foundling asylum of San Lazaro dei Mendicanti. For that Institution he composed four Latin oratorios in the years 1791-95, and Sisara is the second of them, dating from 1793. Its libretto, based an Chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, tells essentially the same story as retailed in Handel’s second English oratorio, Deborah. The Hebrew leader, Deborah, prevails an the young Jahel or Jael to seduce and murder (by hammering a nail through his head) the Canaanite general Sisara, who was then attacking the Hebrews.

The first thing that is interesting about this oratorio is that it is in Latin. This conforms to a practice going back through the 18th Century in Venice at least to Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, demonstrating the durability of that practice right up to the end of the Venetian Republic and the convent institutions that nurtured it. The second interesting thing is that the S. Lazaro dei Mendicanti asylum was one of the ospedali for girls, just like Vivaldi’s Pietà. Thus (and even more strictly than in Vivaldi’s oratorio) all the roles and the choral parts are written for female voices. Finally, we hear this old-fashioned Latin treatment clothed in music still echoing the style and sonorities of Mozart and Haydn, but already looking forward to a softer and more sentimental proto-romantic idiom. Here is Mayr the transitionalist in full display.

And the writing is already very accomplished, with a string of arias that bring out more of the tenderness than the violence of relationships in the Story. The opening Sinfonia is a fine piece of orchestral writing, and the concluding chorus is a real zinger. No neglected masterpiece, but a quite enjoyable score, worthy of revival.

The soloists here are, if not dazzling, thoroughly reliable and satisfying. The provincial orchestra plays with fine confidence, and the women’s chorus is part of an ensemble with a mission. The brief notes purport to be in English, but the full text is given with translations.

A low-profile but rewarding release.

International Record Review June 2005

The booklet notes tell us a little about the music and the work’s dramatic structures, gives us full texts and translations and provides full biographies of all the performers. However, they neglect to tell us who Simon Mayr was. This recording is part of a series of Mayr recordings on Guild, in collaboration with the International Simon Mayr Society, so the disc’s producers may have the touching assumption that Mayr is now a household name.

Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) was born in Ingolstadt in Bavaria; he was educated by Benedictines and Jesuits and spent his formative years as a church organist. Despite his later fame as an opera composer (he wrote about 80 operas) and Donizetti’s teacher, he retained a lifelong devotion to sacred music. His interest in both opera and oratorio was kindled by study trips to Venice in 1786 and 1790. In 1803, he moved to Italy permanently, taking up the post of Maestro di Cappella at the basilica S. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, which he held to the end of his life.

Sisara was composed in 1793, shortly after the Venetian study trips. At first hearing, its all-female cast and rich instrumentation reminded me unexpectedly of Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha Triumphans. Both works tell the story of resolute Old Testament heroines who seduced and then killed a foreign tyrant. Stylistically, of course, there is no similarity. Mayr’s early works, before traces of Romanticism appeared, are firmly in the late-Classical mould. In its nobility and seriousness of purpose, I was also reminded on occasion of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, while the luxuriant wind-writing is sometimes reminiscent of Cosi. Finally, it was Gluck who came to mind during the sublime cavatina ‘Qualis sit locus Dulces aurae’, with its obbligato harp, flute and violin.

Still, these comparisons are of limited value, for Mayr has a distinctive compositional voice. They should nevertheless alert readers to the fact that Sisara is a very fine work, much deserving of revival. The arias are well characterized, foreshadowing Mayr’s later operatic career. The melodies are strong, if not instantly memorable, and the accompanied recitatives are arresting and dramatic. The wind-writing throughout is extraordinarily rich, with horn-writing almost as demanding as in Haydn’s middle period symphonies. In the seduction duet, `Veni somne’, where Sisara is lulled to sleep by Jahel (in order to kill him), Mayr uses the rare and distinctive timbre of the English horn – this recording, features an original instrument from 1800.

As for the performances, the contribution of the Italian original-instrument orchestra Accademia 1 Filarmonici di Verona is the most impressive. Previously, 1 have found its Baroque music performances wanting in character. Italian period instrumentalists are not well known in the late-Classical repertory, so it is encouraging to hear this orchestra tackling a demanding score with brio, confidence and technical expertise. The singers are young, fairly recent graduates of various German conservatoriums, with clearly mainstream operatic careers in mind. They display all the strengths and weaknesses this entails. Their voices are forthright and characterful, undaunted by Mayr’s sometimes demanding writing. This makes for rich, often exciting singing but, with the possible exception of Claudia Schneider (who has the smallest roles), they lack the sort of subtlety singers trained in Early Music techniques could bring to Mayr’s score. In each case, their over-reliance on vibrato limits their capacity for tonal shading and ornamentation (especially trills). Much as 1 enjoyed this recording, 1 kept finding myself wondering how Susic LeBlanc, Susanne Rydén or Gloria Banditelli might sound in these roles.

1 may not yet be ready to join the Simon Mayr Society, but my first encounter with his music was an agreeable surprise.
Andrew O’Connor


American Record Guide January/February 2006

Born in Germany as Johann Simon Mayr or Meier, and settled early in Italy, Giovanni Simon Mayr (1763-1845) has long been remembered mainly as the teacher and mentor of Donizetti. But his own music has been winning revival and even recording in recent decades-mainly his own not-inconsiderable operas, but also his lesser vocal and instrumental works. In his operas we can hear the early budding of what would become the romantic Italian idiom of bel canto. But this release brings us a unique glimpse into his formative development as a bridge between 18th­and 19th Century styles.

Venice was one of his earliest haltingpoints in Italy, and he found a Base for opera-tions there in the foundling asylum of San Lazaro dei Mendicanti. For that Institution he composed four Latin oratorios in the years 1791-95, and Sisara is the second of them, dating from 1793. Its libretto, based an Chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, tells essentially the same story as retailed in Handel’s second English oratorio, Deborah. The Hebrew leader, Deborah, prevails an the young Jahel or Jael to seduce and murder (by hammering a nail through his head) the Canaanite general Sisara, who was then attacking the Hebrews.

The first thing that is interesting about this oratorio is that it is in Latin. This conforms to a practice going back through the 18th Century in Venice at least to Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, demonstrating the durability of that practice right up to the end of the Venetian Republic and the convent institutions that nurtured it. The second interesting thing is that the S. Lazaro dei Mendicanti asylum was one of the ospedali for girls, just like Vivaldi’s Pietà. Thus (and even more strictly than in Vivaldi’s oratorio) all the roles and the choral parts are written for female voices. Finally, we hear this old-fashioned Latin treatment clothed in music still echoing the style and sonorities of Mozart and Haydn, but already looking forward to a softer and more sentimental proto-romantic idiom. Here is Mayr the transitionalist in full display.

And the writing is already very accomplished, with a string of arias that bring out more of the tenderness than the violence of relationships in the Story. The opening Sinfonia is a fine piece of orchestral writing, and the concluding chorus is a real zinger. No neglected masterpiece, but a quite enjoyable score, worthy of revival.

The soloists here are, if not dazzling, thoroughly reliable and satisfying. The provincial orchestra plays with fine confidence, and the women’s chorus is part of an ensemble with a mission. The brief notes purport to be in English, but the full text is given with translations.


IRR June 2005

The booklet notes tell us a little about the music and the work’s dramatic structures, gives us full texts and translations and provides full biographies of all the performers. However, they neglect to tell us who Simon Mayr was. This recording is part of a series of Mayr recordings on Guild, in collaboration with the International Simon Mayr Society, so the disc’s producers may have the touching assumption that Mayr is now a household name.

Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845) was born in Ingolstadt in Bavaria; he was educated by Benedictines and Jesuits and spent his formative years as a church organist. Despite his later fame as an opera composer (he wrote about 80 operas) and Donizetti’s teacher, he retained a lifelong devotion to sacred music. His interest in both opera and oratorio was kindled by study trips to Venice in 1786 and 1790. In 1803, he moved to Italy permanently, taking up the post of Maestro di Cappella at the basilica S. Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, which he held to the end of his life.

Sisara was composed in 1793, shortly after the Venetian study trips. At first hearing, its all-female cast and rich instrumentation reminded me unexpectedly of Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha Triumphans. Both works tell the story of resolute Old Testament heroines who seduced and then killed a foreign tyrant. Stylistically, of course, there is no similarity. Mayr’s early works, before traces of Romanticism appeared, are firmly in the late-Classical mould. In its nobility and seriousness of purpose, I was also reminded on occasion of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, while the luxuriant wind-writing is sometimes reminiscent of Cosi. Finally, it was Gluck who came to mind during the sublime cavatina ‘Qualis sit locus Dulces aurae’, with its obbligato harp, flute and violin.

Still, these comparisons are of limited value, for Mayr has a distinctive compositional voice. They should nevertheless alert readers to the fact that Sisara is a very fine work, much deserving of revival. The arias are well characterized, foreshadowing Mayr’s later operatic career. The melodies are strong, if not instantly memorable, and the accompanied recitatives are arresting and dramatic. The wind-writing throughout is extraordinarily rich, with horn-writing almost as demanding as in Haydn’s middle period symphonies. In the seduction duet, `Veni somne’, where Sisara is lulled to sleep by Jahel (in order to kill him), Mayr uses the rare and distinctive timbre of the English horn – this recording, features an original instrument from 1800.

As for the performances, the contribution of the Italian original-instrument orchestra Accademia 1 Filarmonici di Verona is the most impressive. Previously, 1 have found its Baroque music performances wanting in character. Italian period instrumentalists are not well known in the late-Classical repertory, so it is encouraging to hear this orchestra tackling a demanding score with brio, confidence and technical expertise. The singers are young, fairly recent graduates of various German conservatoriums, with clearly mainstream operatic careers in mind. They display all the strengths and weaknesses this entails. Their voices are forthright and characterful, undaunted by Mayr’s sometimes demanding writing. This makes for rich, often exciting singing but, with the possible exception of Claudia Schneider (who has the smallest roles), they lack the sort of subtlety singers trained in Early Music techniques could bring to Mayr’s score. In each case, their over-reliance on vibrato limits their capacity for tonal shading and ornamentation (especially trills). Much as 1 enjoyed this recording, 1 kept finding myself wondering how Susic LeBlanc, Susanne Rydén or Gloria Banditelli might sound in these roles.
1 may not yet be ready to join the Simon Mayr Society, but my first encounter with his music was an agreeable surprise.
Andrew O’Connor