Notes and Editorial Reviews
Minkowski realizes the inherent richness of invention and the sheer beauty of the music with insight, affection and, a lively awareness of its dramatic intent.
Corelli's older Roman contemporary, Alessandro Stradella, was held in high esteem both by his contemporaries and by later generations of composers. Among his patrons in Rome were the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden and the Colonna and Pamphili families. Stradella's amorous adventures, which eventually led to his murder in Genoa at the age of 37 subsequently gave rise to a novel, an opera by Flotow, a poem, a play and a song text. Though an outstanding oratorio composer he was considered in his own lifetime foremost as a composer for the theatre and his great gifts in this direction enabled him to treat the New Testament story of the imprisonment and murder of John the Baptist with considerable dramatic force.
San Giovanni Battista was first performed in Rome in 1657. The librettist, a Sicilian priest, Girardo Ansaldi dispensed with a testo or narrator concerning himself more directly with the exchanges between Herod and John the Baptist. Stradella portrays this relationship with great subtlety as he does equally that between Herod, his wife Herodias and their daughter Salome. From a purely instrumental viewpoint San Giovanni Battista is interesting for the example it provides of division between concertino and concerto grosso textures. It is one of the earliest known instances of such writing before Corelli who may very well have been one of the violinists in the first performance of Stradella's oratorio masterpiece.
The work is in two parts. Events in Part One are presented in three stages. After a Sinfonia follows a pastoral scene in which John bids farewell to the countryside as he prepares to travel to Herod's court. In the second stage the scene moves to the court where the king's birthday festivities are in full swing. Stage three is marked by the arrival of John who interrupts the proceedings with a command that Herod give up his brother's wife. Herod is enraged and orders John to be thrown into prison. Part Two contains the well-known events leading to the beheading of John and concludes with a masterly duet in which the contrasting emotions of foreboding and joy are expressed by Herod and Salome, respectively. Here, Stradella underlines the depth of incomprehension which exists between them by ending the oratorio on the dominant and with a question ''E perche, dimmi, e perche? (''And why, tell me why?'').
The conductor, Marc Minkowski, has assembled a strong team of soloists with Gerard Lesne in the title-role, Catherine Bott as Salome, Christine Batty as Herodias and Philippe Huttenlocher as Herod. The part of a Counsellor is sung by Richard Edgar-Wilson. Additionally there are three brief sections allotted to a chorus fulfilling various functions in the first part of the oratorio. Minkowski paces the music well making the most of Stradella's admirably effective contrasts of texture and mood. Lesne's portrayal of John the Baptist is affecting and his warm tone and subdued vocal colour suits the music in Part Two especially well. His ''Io, per me, no cangerei'' is sung with an affecting blend of tenderness and restraint. In Part One his striking interruption of Herod's party is forcefully projected but perhaps a greater degree of confrontation is required here. Herodias and Salome both come over well though neither singer succeeds in concealing the difficulties presented by Stradella's wide tessitura. Catherine Bott gives a virtuoso performance of her aria ''Su, coronatemi'' underlining both the callousness and the streak of cruelty which characterize the role. Huttenlocher's Herod is splendid. Sometimes I have found his voice ill-focused but here he conveys with equal conviction the king's vacuous authority on the one hand, and his tortured soul on the other.
In conclusion, this animated and imaginative approach to a masterly score does the work justice. The freedom with which Stradella deploys recitative, arioso and aria together with the fruits of his gifts as a melodist are among its most engaging qualities. Minkowski realizes the inherent richness of invention and the sheer beauty of the music with insight, affection and, a lively awareness of its dramatic intent. The recording is excellent and full texts in translation are provided in the booklet. Strongly recommended.
-- Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone [10/1992]