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Hyperion Records

CDA67617 - Stradella: San Giovanni Battista
Head of John the Baptist. Spanish School, 18th century
Basilica de San Juan de Dios, Granada, Spain / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67617
Recording details: March 2007
Oratorio Santa Croce, Mondovì, Italy
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: January 2008
Total duration: 77 minutes 24 seconds

THE OBSERVER CD OF THE WEEK

'When you learn that Handel owned an early copy of the manuscript all the pieces begin to fall into place; here is a perfect example of the Italian manner that was to influence him so fundamentally … each soloist is given masses of opportunity to display their bravura technique, both as individuals and jointly, when they comment on the action in some lovely choruses and madrigals … De Marchi really scores in his choice of soloists. Salome is sung by the exquisite soprano Anke Herman, Battista by the firm-voiced countertenor Martin Oro and the court counsellor by the excellent tenor Fredrik Akselberg, but the star of the disc is the bass Antonio Abete who as Herod thunders through some truly stunning arias' (The Observer)

'Stradella's score, characterized by constant variety, is ravishing throughout … the whole band plays with tremendous panache and stylistic aplomb' (International Record Review)

'Stradella is probably more famous for having been murdered … than for his music. That's a pity, for the latter, vital, free-flowing and bold, is well worth exploration. The oratorio San Giovanni Battista, composed in 1675, is one of his finest works, a thrilling drama calling for virtuoso singing of the highest order. The Academia Montis Regalis's playing is wonderfully alive' (The Sunday Times)

'If you haven’t heard this recording, you won’t believe your ears … this is as stunning a piece and performance as I’ve heard from this era since Noah Greenberg introduced Salamone Rossi to us a half-century ago—possibly better, because the music is far more modern for its time. The strings of the Montis Regalis Academy dig and bite into the music with a relish far too rare nowadays. The singers … perform this music as if they really mean it, with a proper legato, vocal shading, and dramatic commitment that you must hear to believe. By the time the disc is ended, you are not only emotionally drained but also stunned. This is not just another 17th-century oratorio; this is a major masterpiece, musically and dramatically so original, innovative, and advanced … this one is the performance I’ll savor for a long time to come' (Fanfare, USA)

'Alessandro De Marchi, sympathetic and stylistically informed, keeps things moving thus producing a sense of dramatic continuity … Academia Montis Regalis employ no vibrato at all; however, their clean tone and intonation and balanced, full-bodied sonority make for present, supportive accompaniments, while the players are vital and sensitive in their solo passages and movements … the sound quality is excellent' (Opera News)

'The performance is very good, with some superb singing and great playing—the contrast between the concertino group and the orchestral tutti is very dramatic' (Early Music)

San Giovanni Battista
Adagio  [1'38]
Largo  [0'45]
Allegro  [0'34]

Stradella was murdered in Genoa when he was forty-two years old. Until then he enjoyed a dazzling career as a freelance composer, writing on commission, collaborating with distinguished poets, producing over three hundred works in a variety of genres. His musical style is distinctive, characterized by fluid lines, great skill in counterpoint, and harmony which was tonal but which occasionally offers chords that were unusual then and striking even today.

The oratorio San Giovanni Battista was written for performance on Palm Sunday in the Holy Year of 1675 where some fourteen oratorios were commissioned by the confraternity of the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome—an auspicious event. San Giovanni Battista is a deeply ‘Baroque’ score, vibrant, rhythmically insistent, requiring singers to perform phrases of difficult fiorituras or deeply moving legato lines. The libretto is dramatic and emotionally vivid, and the music is closely tied to the text, creating a distinctly operatic atmosphere—described by the disc’s conductor Alessandro De Marchi as ‘a true Salome’.

Hyperion is delighted to announce a new recording relationship with Academia Montis Regalis, of which this disc is the first fruit. The group’s previous recordings on French label Opus 111 have won many international awards. The Academia Montis Regalis Foundation started its courses in Baroque and Classical orchestral training in the town of Mondovì in 1994. The aim was to offer young Italian and foreign musicians interested in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century repertoire the opportunity to engage in a unique experience. Thus was born the Academia Montis Regalis, a period instrument orchestra that has been regularly directed by leading international early music specialists since the year of its foundation, including Ton Koopman, Jordi Savall, Christopher Hogwood, Reinhardt Goebel and many others. The principal director has for some years been Alessandro De Marchi, who has overseen an important project with the Academia Montis Regalis, recording all of Vivaldi’s manuscripts preserved in the National Library of Turin. Right from the start the training programme was accompanied by highly successful concert performances. Today the orchestra is a professional ensemble with a solid international reputation.


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Alessandro Stradella was murdered in Genoa on 25 February 1682 when he was forty-two years old. Some years later, in 1715, the first history of music in French, written by Pierre Bourdelot and his nephew Pierre Bonnet-Bourdelot, carried a brief account of the murder and the events leading up to it. Although almost wholly false, its invented tale of a first attempt to kill the composer being thwarted because the hired thugs were so moved by the beauty of Stradella’s music heard in a concert, as well as other exciting although fanciful moments dreamed up by the two Frenchmen, captured the imagination of even serious music historians, who continually repeated the story. Moreover, it was embellished by writers in opera librettos and novels for the following three centuries. It was only in 1994 that the first documentary monograph of his life and music appeared and the ‘Stradella legend’ was finally put to rest.

It is now known that Stradella was born in the city of Nepi (near Viterbo) on 3 April 1639. His family was a noble one and, even though they were not titled, included doctors, lawyers and clergymen (one of whom became a bishop). It is possible that as a boy Alessandro studied music in Bologna; what is certain is that in 1653 he became a page to the ducal Lante family and lived in their palace in Rome until 1661. These would have been years of intellectual enrichment, of musical education, and of profitable contacts with the many nobles who frequented the Lante.

The first notice of Stradella as a composer comes from 1667 when he was commissioned to write an oratorio (now lost) for the prestigious Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Crocifisso, the society of nobles who financed the oratory of the church of San Marcello. From then on until his death, Stradella maintained his independence as a freelance musician, composing on commission for families such as the Pamphili, the Colonna, the Altieri and others. He was also amazingly productive. His more than three-hundred compositions cover all the genres of the period: operas; oratorios; secular, sacred and moral cantatas; prologues and intermezzos; motets and madrigals; incidental music for a spoken play; sonatas for one or two solo instruments, as well as for concertino– concerto grosso instrumentation.

Stradella’s versatility was coupled with an ease and rapidity of composing, evident from his autograph manuscripts where his pen seems to fly on the page and cancellations are rare. His musical style is distinctive, characterized by fluid lines, great skill in counterpoint, and harmony which was tonal but which occasionally offers chords that were unusual then and striking even today.

It must be noted that Stradella’s vocal music is very closely tied to its text, both formally and stylistically. This extends also to his recitatives where, in order to heighten certain words and phrases, fiorituras and ariosos are not uncommon, nor are instrumental interjections and continual instrumental accompaniment. Stradella was thus one of the earliest composers to compose accompanied recitative.

He also composed the first datable work scored for concerto grosso instrumentation (1674), as well as one of the earliest comic operas (1679). He composed mad scenes in two of his operas (1678 and 1679), still a novelty at the time, probably writing the text for two of the 1678 mad scenes himself. And the prose comedy for which he wrote both serious and comic arias and duets results in what is a rare and complete example of a work of commedia dell’arte.

While a ‘Stradella legend’ grew based on false and exaggerated accounts of his life, the details of Stradella’s real existence were also exciting. In 1676 he and a friend managed to arrange a marriage between a supposedly ‘ugly and old’ woman and the nephew of the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Cibo, receiving a large sum of money from the happy bride. Naturally the cardinal was not pleased and, when he annulled the marriage and put the woman in a convent, Stradella feared that his anger would turn to him, too, so at the age of thirty-eight he wisely left Rome for Venice.

Here he was aided by the nobleman Polo Michiel, already a patron, and began to teach music to Agnese Van Uffele, a young woman protected by the aristocrat Alvise Contarini. After only a few months, the two fled to Turin, where Stradella hoped that the court might need his services. Although Stradella later said that the girl had begged him to take her away, Contarini insisted they marry. When all was finally arranged, two thugs Contarini had hired beat the composer so thoroughly he almost died. Fortunately Stradella was able to move on in December 1677 to Genoa, this time alone.

He was greeted warmly by Duke Giovanni Andrea Doria and his wife Anna Pamphili, who did all they could to keep him in the city. In fact, a group of nobles contracted to give him a house, food, a servant and 100 doubloons a year, for which he was not obliged to do anything except remain in the city for at least two or three years. While in Genoa he composed operas for the Teatro Falcone, music for the nobility for their private parties and their churches, as well as works requested of him from elsewhere. It is notable that, in spite of his somewhat erratic life, Stradella never lost a friend or patron because of his behaviour: this says much about the personal respect with which he was held, and of course about the great esteem accorded to his music.

Stradella’s good fortune was not to last, however, and on 25 February 1682—for reasons that are still unclear—an assasin thrust a dagger into his back three times and killed him instantly. He was buried in one of the most aristocratic churches of Genoa, Santa Maria delle Vigne, an enormous number of candles were lit for him, and twenty-four masses were to be said for his soul.

Stradella’s music manuscripts found their way mainly into the library of Duke Francesco d’Este of Modena, now housed in the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria of Modena, and into the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria of Turin in the Mauro Foà and Renzo Giordano collections. Handel owned several of Stradella’s manuscripts, including a copy of the oratorio San Giovanni Battista, and both Charles Burney and Padre Martini wrote in praise of his compositional skill, citing in detail pieces from this oratorio. Stradella himself considered San Giovanni Battista to be his best work to that date.

In 1675 the confraternity of the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, which met in the Oratorio della Pietà, decided to offer a series of fourteen oratorios to be performed between January and April of that year. The series was prompted by the fact that it was a Holy Year and the composers chosen were among Rome’s best. Stradella was commissioned to set what was certainly the most important of the librettos, one about Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence and of Florentines and to whom their church in Rome was dedicated. It was performed on Palm Sunday, 31 March 1675, a prime position on the liturgical calendar.

The author of the libretto was Ansaldo Ansaldi, born in Florence in 1651 to a noble family. He had studied first under the Jesuits in Florence and then at the University of Pisa. To continue his studies in law he moved to Rome, where he had an illustrious ecclesiastical career. His literary ability was also acclaimed and he was made a member of the Accademia Fiorentina and of Arcadia. Ansaldi died in 1719 and was buried in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, affirming his close connection to the confraternity and their esteem for him. Coupling Stradella with such a noteworthy ecclesiastical and literary figure makes it clear that they valued the composer, too.

Ansaldi’s libretto presents the usual New Testament story (reported in Mark 6: 17–21) of John the Baptist (Giovanni Battista) who goes to the court of Herod (Herode) to try to convince him to send away the wife (Herodiade la Madre, or just Herodiade) of his brother whom he has taken for his own, and to renounce worldly pleasures and his lascivious life. Naturally Herodiade and her daughter Herodiade la Figlia (also known as Salome) are not ready to give up their comfortable life and they manage to convince Herode to send Giovanni to prison. But when Herode offers to give Salome whatever she asks, in gratitude for having danced so exotically for him at the festivities for his birthday, her mother suggests that she ask for Giovanni’s head, which she does. At the end of the libretto, Herode is in doubt as to whether he did the right thing, whereas Salome is delighted he killed Giovanni.

To these characters, Ansaldi added a court counsellor (Consigliere). Stradella scored the oratorio for two sopranos (Salome and Herodiade), a contralto or countertenor (Giovanni), a tenor (Consigliere) and a bass (Herode). These same voices join together to take the roles of Giovanni’s disciples and Herode’s courtiers. The names of the original singers are known and they were among the best Rome had to offer. To accompany the whole 1675 series of oratorios there were ten (unspecified) instrumentalists, to which ten more were added for Stradella’s contribution. Among these latter there was a harpsichordist, a lutenist, two violinists, two violists and two double bass players.

From what one can glean from documents and from Stradella’s score (his is the only oratorio of the series to survive), the instruments were divided into a concertino and a concerto grosso. Probably the concertino comprised two violins, the lute and perhaps one of the double basses, while the concerto grosso seems to have had six violins, four first violas, four second violas, four cellos and a double bass. The harpsichord could have been used as continuo for both groups, although it is called for only in the concertino; and an organ, although not specified, could well have been employed.

Stradella achieves great variety and sense of movement in the oratorio (traditionally unstaged) by changing the scoring from piece to piece. Of the thirteen arias in San Giovanni Battista, six are accompanied only by continuo and six by other instruments as well. Of these, one is accompanied by only the concertino (‘Io per me non cangerei’), two by only concerto grosso (‘Sorde dive’ and ‘Vaghe ninfe del giordano’), one has the concerto grosso during its first section and the concertino during its second section (‘Tuonerà tra mille turbini’), and one aria employs both concertino and concerto grosso for its accompaniment (‘Soffin pur, rabbiosi fremiti’).

The instruments are still further rearranged for the accompaniment of two other arias: ‘Queste lagrime e sospiri’ is the aria Salome sings to urge Herode to decapitate Giovanni and here the instruments form a single ensemble of two violin parts, a viola part and two separate continuos (one assigned to the voice). In ‘Provi pur le mie vendette’ Herode gives his answer to the girl and, once again, the voice has a separate continuo, while the other instruments are divided now into two violin parts, two viola parts and basso continuo.

Ansaldi’s text is very dramatic and moving, and Stradella seconds the development of the plot, reinforcing most notably—for example in ‘Queste lagrime’ and its introductory recitative beginning ‘Deh, che più tardi a consolar’—the horror of the daughter’s request for Giovanni’s head; his music reveals all her coaxing as she flatters Herode, her pleading for pity since she suffers just to see or to hear Giovanni, and, finally, exposes her violent need to have him executed. In ‘Tuonerà tra mille turbini’ Herode is first presented as a powerful king, one whose anger at Giovanni causes him to ‘thunder’ at him and banish him to a dark cell. But at the thought of having Giovanni decapitated, his weakness, uncertainty and fear for what he has to do are portrayed in the duet with Salome ‘Nel seren de’ miei / tuoi contenti’, and are also suggested in the unresolved chord closing the oratorio. And the marvellous virtuosic duet for the daughter and Giovanni, ‘Morirai! Uccidetelo / Uccidetemi pur!’ enables him to state his willingness to die and her, simultaneously, to gloat with satisfaction at his fate.

San Giovanni Battista is a most ‘Baroque’ score, vibrant, rhythmically insistent, requiring singers to perform phrases of difficult fiorituras or deeply moving legato lines, a score in Stradella’s best contrapuntal manner whether for voices and / or instruments (such as the well-developed opening Sinfonia in three brief movements). Handel, Burney and Martini were right to admire it.

Carolyn Gianturco © 2008

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