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Fanfare Magazine: 39:4 (03-04/2016) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


Antonio Caldara first attempted to scale the musical walls of Charles VI Hapsburg’s Viennese court in 1712. He failed on that occasion, when Marc’Antonio Ziani was appointed Kapellmeister, and Johann Fux vice-Kapellmeister. Over two years later he was back from Rome and in Vienna again, having asked the Emperor for an appointment to either post after Ziani’s death. This time he succeeded, as Fux moved up the ladder to Kapellmeister. Caldara had onerous duties besides those normally associated training and performance. He was expected to compose operas and lesser secular vocal works for a range of special events throughout the year, including an annual opera for Charles’s name day, another for the Empress’s birthday, various operatic serenades for other family members, and an annual Carnival opera after 1726 (which had previously been the responsibility of the senior court theorbo player, Francesco Conti). He was also expected to contribute yearly oratorios for the court’s Lenten calendar. Fortunately, Caldara was as prolific a workaholic as Telemann and J. S. Bach—his vocal works alone are estimated at over 3,000 in number—so that despite everything else on his plate, he eagerly accepted annual side commissions for operas staged in Salzburg.

The year 1724 saw Caldara compose his ninth oratorio in Vienna. The subject of Morte e sepoltura di Christo was a stark one: the contemplation and burial of Christ’s mortal remains by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and an unnamed centurion. Some of the court’s most prized singers took part in the production, and for several of the orchestra’s star performers the composer wrote extensive obbligato accompaniments (violin in “Cari marmi,” chalumeau in “Io t’offesi,” the latter capturing some of the breathtaking melancholy of Alcina’s “Ah, mio cor! Schernito sei,” if without Handel’s extraordinary focus). The second part of the work, concerning the actual burial and subsequent reaction to it, is the more expressively varied, musically complex, and memorable. This reflects the way the characters individuate: Mary Magdalen marvels at the honor given the stone that holds Jesus, for instance; the Centurion wonders (in a more antique style, heavy with counterpoint) at the earth’s physical response; Joseph pivots between resignation and despair.

It’s worth mentioning a point raised by Robert Freeman in his article about Caldara in Grove I. He writes of the oratorios, “As one approaches Caldara’s departure from Italy in 1716, the dramatization becomes weaker, the texture less varied and more homophonic ... and the arias less imaginative in their melodic material and more schematic in their presentation.” The first section of Morte e sepoltura di Christo provides little argument against any of that. Only two selections rise above this estimation: “Io t’offesi,” as already mentioned, and the concluding contrapuntal chorus, “Ecco svelati,” which seems altogether too bright and affirmative for its subject (“Look upon your God, thus defiled for your sake, o corrupt Judaea, o thankless Israel”). Only in the second section do matters improve, and the music regularly plumbs greater musical and emotional depths that suggest the inspired composer of the Oratorio di Santo Stefano Primo Re dell’Ungheria (Hungaroton 32690; reviewed by Bertil van Boer in Fanfare 35:3).

It doesn’t help that the performance is generally quickly paced in the first section, but that’s as much the fault of librettist Francesco Fozio as anyone else for setting a series of numbers that do little more than repeat very similar expressions of grief. Certainly Fabio Biondi gets superb playing out of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. His vocalists are more mixed in quality. Martina Belli’s registers aren’t well joined, but her tone is rich, her voice focused, and she both phrases and enunciates with great care. Silvia Frigato, who I liked so much in Cavalli’s Artemisia (Glossa 920918) and criticized for a harsh tone and poor intonation in Caccini’s L’Euridice (Naïve 30552), is back on form, her voice moving with enticing agility in Parto: restate in pace. Maria Grazia Schiavo is equally good: more of a full lyric soprano in sound, finding no terrors in the coloratura of Passaggier, qui ferma il passo, and bowing her voice to beautiful effect. I wasn’t fond of Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s covered tone in Handel’s Ezio (Archiv Production 477 8073), and he finds some of the figures a bit hard going here, but manages most of his role with distinction. Ugo Guagliardo has a black bass that sounds more Russian than Italianate in its production. He, too, only handles his part’s figures moderately well, and there’s little attempt at phrasing or shading his music. In fairness, it’s probably the most difficult of the oratorio’s five parts, as its two numbers are full of what was by then old-fashioned counterpoint (Charles VI doted on that).

Finally, Fabio Biondi has edited into the oratorio several works and sections of works not only by Caldara, but by Fux and Vivaldi, as well. Of the group, the latter composer’s Sonata Al Santo Sepolcro stands out stylistically from the rest (as though Christ were reposing in endless harmonic sequences), while Caldara’s motet Transfige, dulcissime Jesu is pleasant enough but eminently forgettable. Better are his motet Laboravi in gemitu meo, a sonata movement from his Sonata a quattro III, and a sinfonia movement by Fux in his older, more richly flexible style.

The sound is very good, and full texts and translations are provided. As for buying this album, or not: If the musical level were all at that of the first section, I could easily suggest taking a pass, just as, if it were all at the level of the second section, I would urge its purchase. As it is, try a few selections from both parts while you consider it.

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