Wednesday 25 November 2020

Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias

La vanita del mondo - Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO
La vanita del mondo
- Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The French counter-tenor moves from Baroque opera to oratorio in a recital disc full of delights

On this lovely disc, La vanita de mondo on Erato, counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky turns his attention away from Baroque opera to oratorio with a selection of arias from late 17th and 18th century Italian Oratorios. With Ensemble Artaserse, Jaroussky sings arias from Pietro Torri's Abramo and La vanita del mondo, Alessandro Scarlatti's La Giuditta, Fortunato Chelleri's Dio sul Sinai, Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Antonio Caldara's Assalone, Santa Ferma and Morte e sepultura di Christo, Antonio Maria Bonocini's La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Nicola Faco's Il faraone sommerso, Johann Adolph Hasse's La conversione di Sant'Agostino, and Benedetto Marcello's La Giuditta.

The recording was due to be made in April 2020, but lockdown put all this in doubt and Jaroussky explains in his introduction that 'right up until the last moment we didn’t know if we would be able to come together in June to complete it on time. After these several months without performing, the album was like a release for me and all my musicians from Artaserse'. The disc seems to be something of a passion project for Jaroussky, not only his conception, but he collaborated with Yannis Francois (who sings briefly on the disc) on the musicological research. And in the process he introduces us to some lovely, highly imaginative music. Whilst the composers on the disc vary from the well-known to the hardly known, virtually all the works are relatively unknown. 

From the mid-17th century, oratorio in Italy started to move away from its sacred roots and take on elements of opera. Whilst there were still oratorios in Latin, those in Italian developed and instead of narrator and chorus the works relied on the interaction between characters (Biblical, historical or allegorical) in a sequence of arias and recitatives. This arose particularly in Rome where staged performances of opera were intermittently banned, leading to the development of oratorio as something of a replacement. Plots were necessarily limited and oratorios generally fell into two categories, being either of a contemplative character (a reflection on a biblical episode, for example, or the commendable sacrifice of some saintly figure) or of a more dramatic nature, inspired by the Old or New Testament.

The selection on this disc concentrates on oratorio in Italian, and casts its net quite widely.

Pietro Torri was born in Parma and worked extensively in the Netherlands and in Bavaria. His oratorio La vanita del mondo was first performed in Brussels in 1706 in honour of Elector Maximilian Emmanuel of Bavaria, whilst the more dramatic Abramo (about Abraham and Isaac) premiered in Munich in 1731. 

The story of Judith seems to crop up quite a lot in this repertoire. Alessandro Scarlatti had two goes, and Jaroussky goes for something from the later version premiered in 1697 (in Rome or Naples), whilst Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello's version (which premiered in 1709) uses the composer's own libretto. Also, Venetian was Antonio Caldara, though he is best known for the work he did for the Emperor in Vienna; he wrote some 80 operas and 40 oratorios. We hear three from his Viennese period, Assalone (c1720), Santa Ferma (from 1717, a revision of an early Roman work) and Morte e sepultura di Christo, an oratorio of a style often presented with sets and costumes at the Hapsburg Court.

Besides Italian composers working in foreign courts, foreign composers worked in Italian ones which is how Saxon composer Johann Adolph Hasse gained his experience. He later moved to Dresden, where La conversione di Sant'Agostino premiered in 1750. Another foreign import, Handel, needs little introduction. His oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, was written in Rome during a period when opera was banned, though it was given in a performance with sets and costumes.

Less well known is Fortunato Chelleri, born in Parma of a German father (called Keller), he worked extensively for the Prince-Bishop in Würzburg, and most of his oratorios premiered there. Neapolitan composer Niccolo Fago was the teacher of composers Leonardo Leo and Niccolò Jommelli. Il Faraone sommerso was written for the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini in Naples, where he was music director. Antonio Maria Bononcini was the brother of Giovanni Battista, best known as one of Handel's London rivals. Antonio Maria worked in Vienna and Berlin before returning to his home town of Modena in Italy. La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista dates from 1709, his Viennese period.

If that recitation of the composers and their works can sound a little dry, then worry not, the music is anything but. The arias are wonderfully varied, from the profoundly beautiful to the gut-wrenching to dramatic virtuoso display. The music is highly imaginative and varied, there are so many plums here that it is difficult to start selecting individual items. The music selected often plays to Jaroussky's strengths, so that the profoundly lovely Nurse's aria from Scarlatti's La Giuditta or the Handel aria (recycled as 'Lascia ch’io pianga' in Rinaldo) showcase his sweetness of tone, and ability to spin a long affecting line, whilst the aria from Chelleri's Dio sul Sinai is full of impressive busy passages. 

He and Ensemble Artaserse of make these pieces feel like sacred chamber music, creating a remarkable beauty and intensity. Whether we would find the complete works equally as striking, I have no idea? But on this beautifully conceived and performed disc, Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse seduce and entice us with these terrific performances of some lovely music.

La vanita del mondo
Arias from Pietro Torri (c1665-1737) Abramo and La vanita del mondo, Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) La Giuditta, Fortunato Chelleri (1690-1757) Dio sul Sinai, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) Assalone, Santa Ferma and Morte e sepultura di Christo, Antonio Maria Bonocini (1677-1726) La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Nicola Faco (1677-1745) Il faraone sommerso, Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) La conversione di Sant'Agostino, and Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739) La Giuditta
Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor)
Ensemble Artaserse
Recorded 5-6, 8-9, 11-12 July 2020, RIFFX Studio, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt
ERATO 1CD [73.10]

Available from Amazon, and from Hive.

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