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Simon MAYR (1763 - 1845)
Il sagrifizio di Jefte - The Sacrifice of Jephtha - Sacred Oratorio (1795)
Hrachuhi Bassénz (soprano), Stefanie Irányi (mezzo), Robert Sellier (tenor), Jochen Kupfer (bass)
Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble/Franz Hauk (harpsichord)
rec. Asamkirche Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, Germany, 1-4 September 2009
World Premiere Recording
Italian libretto with English and German translations available online.
NAXOS 8.572719-20 [57:34 + 53:36] 

Naxos are continuing their valuable series of Simon Mayr’s works, and there is indeed a lot to choose from, since he was an uncommonly prolific composer.
 
This is the fourth set that has come my way - see reviews of Samuele, David in the cave of Engedi and L'Armonia - but he wrote almost seventy operas in thirty years and about six hundred sacred works. The present work is textually based on Judges 11, 29-40 in the Bible and this story has attracted several composers. Best known is no doubt Handel’s oratorio from 1751, but there is also an opera by Meyerbeer and an oratorio by Carissimi. Handel’s Jephtha was to be his last oratorio, since his eye sight was rapidly deteriorating. Mayr on the other hand was in his early thirties when he composed hisIl sagrifizio di Jefte and was to live another fifty years. It would be unfair to compare the two works, since Handel’s Jephtha, in spite of the composer’s failing eyesight and other infirmities, is one of the great masterpieces in Western music. Mayr’s work is on a more modest scale but still interesting and worth anyone’s attention.
 
Though almost contemporaneous with Mozart and an eager champion for Beethoven’s works in Italy it is rather the earliest of the Vienna Classicists, Joseph Haydn, who is Mayr’s musical influence. The short sinfonia is colourful with a lot of wind solos and throughout there is plenty of interesting orchestral detail. The choral writing is efficient and engaging, not always truly memorable, but the chorus O belle vergine (CD 2 tr. 17) is really beautiful. The recitatives - and there is a lot of them - are expressive and sometimes adorned with embellishments. Generally the drama unfolds without many longueurs and the 111 minutes pass rapidly. That interest hardly ever wavers is a tribute to the quality of the music and the standard of execution. The chorus and orchestra are well drilled under Franz Hauk, the mastermind behind the project and an enthusiast who burns for this music.
 
He has gathered four outstanding young soloists for the important arias and ensembles. The Armenian soprano Hrachuhí Bassénz, who sings the title role, has an excellent voice with dramatic potential. Hearing her in the aria Squarciami il seno (CD 1 tr. 13) I can imagine that she must be a very fine Leonora in Il trovatore and Desdemonain Otello, two of the roles she has been singing recently. Her recitative and aria Ecco l’istante ... Se a morte mi condanna (CD 2 trs. 6-7) only confirms her greatness. Jefte’s daughter Seila is sung by mezzo-soprano Stefanie Irányi, who also seems destined to make headlines. Hers is a grand voice, and it came as no surprise to read that she is now taking on Wagnerian roles. Listen to Deh palesa al genitore (CD 1 tr. 16) to see what I mean. In the second part of the oratorio she has the longest aria in the work, In te solo eterno amore, impressive and beautiful.
 
Abnero is a prince who is Seila’s betrothed, and he is sung by tenor Robert Sellier. He has a fine flexible voice with sturdy technique. Not surprisingly his repertoire list contains several Mozart roles, Belmonte, Ferrando and Tamino, for instance. Judging from his singing of the aria Col tuo bel nome in petto (CD 1 tr. 6) he must be excellent in those Mozart roles as well, and this is confirmed by his second part aria Pria con un ferro il seno (CD 2 tr. 3). One of the finest numbers in the work is the terzetto Qual di morte nero velo (CD 2 tr. 15) with the singers hitherto mentioned.
 
The fourth soloist is by no means an also-ran. Jochen Kupfer has an important international career both in opera houses and on concert stages. He is an outstanding Lieder singer and can be found on numerous recital discs. As the High Priest Jaddo he has several attractive numbers. He doesn’t appear until the end of part I but there he sings eloquently in the aria Guarda, rifletti e trema (CD 1 tr. 19). He distantly reminds me of Hermann Prey but with a more evenly produced voice. In the second part he has a beautiful but short arioso,O Popol mio guardati (CD 2 tr. 9), but his real tour de force comes a little later in the Già la morte sua falce rotando (CD 2 tr. 12). This is a dramatic aria with a lot of coloratura and here he is masterly. Distinguished singing of the highest order.
 
I hope Naxos will continue this interesting and very attractive series, which already has made Simon Mayr emerge from the shadows as a thrilling contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven but with a personality of his own. This latest issue is worth the attention of all inquisitive music-lovers, and most of all it should attract lovers of excellent singing.
 
Göran Forsling 


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