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Ferdinando PAER (1771-1839)
La Santo Sepolcro (1803) [63:35]
Giovanni Simon MAYR (1763-1845)
Invito [6:30]
Maddalena (Mary Magdalen) — Cornelia Horak (soprano)
Giovanni (St. John) — Vanessa Barkowski (alto)
Nicodemo (Nicodemus) — Thomas Michael Allen (tenor)
Giuseppe d’Arimathea (Joseph of Arimathea) — Jens Hamann (bass)
Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble/Franz Hauk
rec. Church of Maria de Victoria, Ingolstadt, 3–7 September 2008
NAXOS 8.572492 [63:35]

Ferdinando PAER (1771-1839)
La Passione di Gesù Cristo (1803) [69:45]
Maddalena (Mary Magdalen) — Valentina Kutzarova (mezzo)
Giovanni (St. John) — Valentina Coladonato (soprano)
Nicodemo (Nicodemus) — Enea Scala (tenor)
Giuseppe d’Arimathea (Joseph of Arimathea) — Alvaro Lozano (baritone)
Coro La Stagione Armonica and Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto/Sergio Balestracci
rec. Auditorium Pollini, Padua, 18-20 April 2011
CPO 777 698-2 [69:45]

This is a rather confusing pair of releases. The CPO disc is described as a ‘world premiere recording’; however the Naxos disc, presenting an earlier recording of the same work, makes no such claim. The use of different titles partly disguises the fact that these are rival recordings. The musical sources of the oratorio call it La Passione di Gesù Cristo, whereas the published text of the oratorio, by Pietro Bagnoli (1767-1847), calls it La Santo Sepolcro. Naxos and CPO have gone different ways on this, but the notes accompanying both discs recognise the existence of the alternative titles so it was an extraordinary oversight of CPO to claim a world premiere.

Nor is this the end of the confusion. Iris Wrinkler’s notes for the Naxos version are, for no obvious reason, mainly concerned with an 1822 performance at Dresden, though at the very end she states ‘it (La Santo Sepolcro) was first performed in Dresden in 1807’. Perhaps that is literally true; but the implication that this was the first performance anywhere is not. Confusingly, Franz Hauk’s synopsis, which immediately follows, commences with the statement that the work ‘was first performed in 1803 in Vienna’. Whoever put the booklet together for Naxos must have been nodding. Carlo Vitali, in the CPO booklet, supports the 1803 date and provides documentary evidence which I take to be definitive. The premiere was on 3 April 1803, Palm Sunday, and there was a repeat performance the following day. The title page of the CPO booklet dates the work ‘(Parma, 1810)’, however, a date not mentioned at all in the notes, so someone seems to have been nodding at CPO, too.

The correct date and place add considerably to the interest of the work for, as Vitali says, the two performances ‘then made way for another premiere: Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) [performed 5 April]. This is one of many bits of evidence repeatedly linking the Parma maestro [i.e. Paer] and the Bonn maestro, rivals in the highly competitive Viennese performance marketplace but nevertheless good personal friends willing to exchange opinions and creative ideas.’ The parallels between Paer and Beethoven are indeed considerable. They were almost exact contemporaries (Paer born 1 June 1771); both moved to Vienna in the 1790s; and, most strikingly, they both started working on an opera on the same subject in the early 1800s, Paer’s Leonora being premiered on 3 October 1804. An LP recording of Leonora released in 1979 was until recently the only complete recording of a significant Paer work and was presumably chosen from among his many operas because of its Beethovenian interest.

Yet that fact by itself is misleading and anyone approaching Paer’s music for the first time needs to be aware of his immense standing in his own time. He was one of the best known and best remunerated musicians of the Napoleonic era, the highlight of his career coming in 1807 when Napoleon appointed him ‘Composer to the Emperor’ on an immense salary said be worth nearly 50,000 francs a year. Yet his was the sort of success subsequently explained away with the argument that he was composing for his contemporaries, not the ages. It is difficult to know how much it is worth challenging such complacent assumptions. Paer was primarily an opera composer (he wrote more than fifty), but only one of his stage works survived the whirlwind that was Rossini: the late Maître de chapelle of 1821, sometimes encountered in its Italian incarnation as Il Maestro di Cappella. This enjoyed an extraordinary afterlife that continued well into the twentieth century and before the 1979 Leonora appeared, extracts from Le Maître were the only music of Paer’s to have been recorded. They reveal him to have had something of a genius for comedy; it is music that would have delighted Offenbach.

A complete recording of Le Maître de chapelle is a real desideratum and would represent the best place to commence a reassessment. As things stand, apart from the 1979 Leonora, now available on CD, there have appeared in the last decade an Opera Rara disc of highlights from the opera Sofonisba (2006) (review), a Carus recording of the Missa Piena in D Minor (2008) (review), and the discs under review. This means Paer’s comparatively small body of sacred music is disproportionately represented: one can wonder, with some amusement, what the composer himself would have made of this, for there is nothing to suggest that he regarded works like La Passione di Gesù Cristo (as I shall call it here) as central to his legacy.

La Passione is certainly no lost masterpiece and probably only an accident of recording history has resulted in there being two interpretations on disc. Pietro Bagnoli’s text is a lamentation over the dead Christ which at the same time expresses the hope of resurrection and confidence that ‘impious Zion’ will be properly punished — there is a strain of almost gleeful anti-Semitism. It has no more to do with the scripture than a Poussin painting. Only a much more pious, or naïve, composer than Paer could have drawn any genuine religious feeling from it, and perhaps one can hardly blame a busy working musician for leaving the oratorio as remote from true devotion as he found it. The Naxos blurb’s desperate recommendation of ‘Paër’s incomparable narrative’ stretches credulity to breaking point: can they really be suggesting that La Passione is superior to the equivalent parts of Messiah? That way Christianity and criticism seem destined to die together.

This said, Paer’s oratorio is worth listening to. The higher mysteries of the Christian atonement may have been beyond his grasp, but from beginning to end La Passione shows a very resourceful composer playing to his strengths, which were in the field of opera. La Passione never feels static and heavy, as many oratorios tend to do. At times it almost seems to trip along, a wide range of human passions being expressed in the music amidst plenty of descriptive orchestral colour. It all feels very assured and at times close to inspired. If Paer understood his brief as making the lamentation over the dead Christ musically entertaining, he can certainly be said to have succeeded. Many listeners will probably choose to pay no attention to the textual pretext for all this sonorous splendour. The case for a continued investigation of Paer’s vast body of music is strengthened.

The two recordings both do justice to the work. The Naxos is more incisive and dramatic while the CPO is more serene and grand; I have gone back and forth more than once on which I prefer, so will leave it at that. The CPO recording has the advantage of much better notes and a text of the libretto in the booklet; Naxos requires the listener to download a libretto from the website. On the other hand, the more sprightly pace of the Naxos recording allows room for a small filler in the shape of Mayr’s delightful Invito, originally written as an introduction to Haydn’s Seven Last Words. It is well worth having.

David Chandler



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