Notes and Editorial Reviews
Oratorio di Santo Stefano Primo Re dell’Ungheria
Pál Németh, cond; Randall Scotting (
); Mónika González (
); Dávid Szigetvári (
); László Jekl (
); Savaria Bar O (period instruments)
HUNGAROTON 32690 (78:45
Text and Translation)
Hungarian conductor Pál Németh seems to be starting a series of larger-sacred works by Viennese composer Antonio Caldara. Coming on the heels of his Paschal work
La passion di Gesù Cristo
, likewise on Hungaroton, this particular oratorio features something that should resonate in Budapest, since it focuses on King Stephen, the country’s patron saint. Regardless of the subject matter, however, the work conforms to the typical Italian oratorio of the early 18th century, that is to say, a sacred mirror of the
consisting of a series of
arias following recitatives. One does not speak of the Handelian chorus here, but rather a more stereotyped genre. No matter, since it was composed in 1712 as both a paean to his new master, Hapsburg Charles IV (or Charles III of Hungary, as the booklet notes point out), and as a means through which the newly crowned Emperor might prod a snorky Pope Clement XI into giving him the necessary blessing for his rule. The Pope was not favorably disposed to the Hapsburgs at the time, so Caldara’s musical message was hastily dispatched to Rome in the hopes that it might smooth things over. The first performance waited almost half a year until March 1713, and even then it took another 12 months before the Pope finally condescended to send it. One might blame the delay on the oratorio, but the wheels of Vatican response moved at a glacial pace, so it may not have hurt, either.
In any case, the unknown author of the text crafted something that makes up in singable verse what it is lacking in plot. Indeed, there really isn’t any. King Stephen, the usual castrato (and here sung by a countertenor), is musing about his conversion of the nation to Christianity, noting that it was a happy day that the Vatican supported his conversion of the heathen Hungarians. His wife, Queen Gisella, encourages him with platitudes, and eventually a courtier, Erasto (tenor), and an official sent from Rome to oversee the mass conversion, Anastasio (bass), enter and comment somewhat self-satisfyingly on the progress of the spread of Catholicism. The first part ends after a long, twisting metaphorical path with such comparisons as a “gurgling crystal stream” meandering through a swamp, and Anastasio demanding a “loud song befitting a king,” making Stephen become a composer as well as a ruler. This sort of odd dialogue continues in the second part with the same mindless zeal until finally the work ends with Stephen singing an aria about how on the day of resurrection all nations will gather in Rome to find “Mercy” ruling there. Equating the Pope to Christ may seem more than a little blasphemous, but here there is no doubt the work was meant to pander to Clement’s ego.
For Caldara, the task of musical composition of the 45 numbers was probably not terribly onerous, given that much of the musical material is rather simple. Moreover, he had the extremely popular musical model of Alessandro Scarlatti to follow. The shortness of the individual numbers, however, is where any similarity ends. The string part-writing is often quite full-voiced, with a nice sense of inner harmony in the viola, as well as the sort of expanded concertato figuration that one finds in Vivaldi. Indeed, one might almost mistake the Venetian for Caldara’s model were it not for the fact that this oratorio predates almost all of the sacred music composed by Vivaldi. There are moments, such as in the opening aria “Cieca fede,” that are more Handelian, and here Handel, who was known as “Il caro sassone” at that point, is a more likely musical mentor. But Caldara also panders to what he considers the Roman tastes of the Pope, in the duet “Soave piacere le stele” writing a lilting set of parallel thirds above a strumming lute and theorbo accompaniment. One is firmly planted in the older world of Carissimi or Cavalli at this moment. The composer’s interest in unusual harmony can be seen in the false cadences of the minuet-like
“Del mio’ Numi” in which the line twists to a conclusion via some very unexpected and rather pungent harmonic modulations. Caldara crafts a work that conforms and yet demonstrates more depth than one would find in Scarlatti, with even the opening instrumental movement constituting a
sinfonia da chiesa
, with slow deliberate chords followed by a rushing series of sequences and suspensions with textural variation between the full strings and a two-violin
group, something very Corellian.
There is not much here that would support the Hungarian subject matter, given the work’s thoroughly Italian nature, but it is a vibrant piece of music and one that seems almost too good for the turgid text. Németh, of course, is no stranger to a strong performance. The strings are highly disciplined and controlled, with an excellent sense of phrasing and pacing. The continuo can be a bit wooly in texture at times, especially when it is limited to the plucked instruments (and one presumes the harp stop on the harpsichord), but it is never overwhelming. Dávid Szigetvári has a light, flexible tenor, handling the technical demands of his arias such as “Su l’ali del pensiero” with ease. Randall Scotting’s countertenor, on the other hand, sometimes seems a bit thick in terms of vibrato, which makes his coloratura awkward and the text difficult to understand in passages. In his final aria of the first part, “Regno mio, so che pugnando,” for example, I find the florid portions hard to follow. Mónika González varies between a nice, even tone, particularly in the aforementioned
, and a bit too much force. László Jekl’s bass is fine, but I have trouble sometimes finding the energy in his interpretation. In short, the oratorio itself is an interesting work from the High Baroque by a composer whose own music is better known from his later operas. The performance is certainly more than adequate, and given that this piece will probably not be done again in the near future, it might be good to have in your collection.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
Oratorio di S Stefano primo rč dell'Ungheria by Antonio Caldara
László Jekl (Bass),
Monika Gonzalez (Soprano),
Randall Scotting (Countertenor),
David Szigetvari (Tenor)
Savaria Baroque Orchestra
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