United States Handel, Torelli, Allegri, Caldara: American Classical Orchestra and Chorus, Thomas Crawford (conductor), Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York, 21.4.2014 (SSM)
Handel: Chandos Anthem No. 10: “The Lord is my light” HWV 255
Torelli: Concerto for Trumpet and Strings in D Major
Allegri: Misere mei, Deus
Caldara: Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo
Hana Blažíková: Magdalena
Marcy Richardson: Martha
Solange Merdinian: Earthly Love
Abigail Fisher: Celestial Love
Christopher Herbert: Pharisee
Martin Coyle: Jesus
In the program notes, musical director and conductor Thomas Crawford replaces the traditional explication of Maddalena with a “personal commentary” that begins with the question, “Where’s Tony nowadays?” Tony is Antonio Caldara, the 18th-century composer whose prolific output was barely enough to meet the demands of the public for his vocal works. He wrote music in every form, with over 90 operas and 40 oratorios to his name. Based upon their popularity today, one would expect Vivaldi to have died a wealthy man and Caldara a pauper, instead of the other way around. (Can you imagine how much Vivaldi might have drawn on royalties from his Four Seasons alone?)
Mr. Crawford bemoans the fact that Caldara has not made his way to New York. This is not entirely accurate: there has been the infrequent stray song appearing in vocal recitals, one going as far back as 1905, but no work of substance has been performed. If we are going through a reevaluation and revival of Caldara’s music, it might be in part because of a recording by René Jacobs of Maddalena. Jacobs’ performance shows Caldara in his best light, featuring now-familiar names such as Maria Cristina Kier, Bernada Fink and countertenor Andreas Scholl as Celestial Love.
Crawford then asks why a work like the Messiah, a lesser masterpiece by any standard, is so popular. Actually, Handel himself was puzzled by this. When asked what his favorite work was, he replied Theodora, an oratorio as visceral as anything Handel wrote and now rarely performed. To my mind there is an endless list of composers whose names will never appear on anyone’s ten-composers-to-listen-to-before-I-depart roster. My short list, in addition to Caldara, would include Chistoph Graupner, whose solo keyboard music and cantatas have only recently been recorded; Sylvius Leopold Weiss, the composer of charming music written solely for the lute; and Niccolò Jommelli, born the same year as Gluck, whose reform operas he complements and occasionally surpasses.
Often the revival of a previously unheralded composer coincides with a performer or performance that hooks enough of an audience to make them want to hear more. Classic examples are Mendelssohn’s resurrection of Bach’s vocal works and Glenn Gould’s revival of Bach’s keyboard pieces. It’s unlikely that Vivaldi would have been so popular if he had never written the ubiquitous Four Seasons.
Whether Caldara will ever get the attention he deserves is impossible to answer. Suffice it to say that Crawford gave an admirable reading of this undeservedly neglected work. There were so many memorable moments that I’ll only mention a few. In addition to “Per il mar del pianto mio,” a moving aria by Magdalena, there’s “Pompe inutili,” reminiscent of Bach’s great cello obbligato arias from his cantatas; and “La mia virtude,” the concluding aria of Part I, a complex duo which is comparable to those written by any better-known composers of the time.
Although it is often stated in playbills that a given vocalist will be singing or has sung in a Baroque style, more often than not this is ersatz. Vibrato may be second nature to most singers, but few really reach a level in which “whiteness” and warmth coexist. This was not the case here: all were well-versed in baroque singing style. Guest soloist Hana Blažíková had a remarkably pure voice, but so did Solange Merdinian and, even if less potent, Marcy Richardson did too. Abigail Fischer’s rich mezzo only lacked the heft needed to carry through to the back of the Church. The men’s roles were slighter, but Martin Coyle as Jesus had a strong presence.
The only misjudgment ̶ one that had little impact on the quality of the performance ̶ was the decision to squeeze the entire opera into the second half of the concert; the Jacobs performance runs slightly over two hours. This was accomplished by ignoring the da capo marks that appear at the end of most of the arias. Even without the repeats of the “A” sections, it still ran too long to prevent numerous audience members from leaving early.
Given the performance of Misere mei, Deus by Allegri, whom the program note calls “a one-hit wonder,” you could see why Crawford wanted to squeeze this little gem into the program. The work is scored for two choirs, but it took a bit of time to realize that the choir in the front of the church was complemented by one in the back balcony. Most striking were the piercing high Cs that came near the end of each of the back choir’s refrains. This mixture of modal chant with the tonal style of the day leaves one awed and chilled by its beauty.
One of Torelli’s many trumpet concerti served as a treat between pieces. John Thiessen, the excellent Baroque trumpeter, played his valveless instrument as if it were no different than today’s keyed trumpets. In fact, it is an impossibly difficult instrument to master, and Thiessen deserves much praise for making it seem so easy.
Given the exceptional quality of the Caldara, by comparison the opening Chandos Anthem was less interesting. These choral works were written during Handel’s stay at Chandos, a large estate outside London, where for two years he was the resident composer. Unfortunately, he had limited access to both voices and instruments and, hence, in this anthem there is the strange absence of the viola. Handel borrowed many arias written for earlier works, which gives these anthems a feeling of being a pastiche. Here in the 10th Anthem, for example, he borrows the music for “They are brought down and fall’n” from the much earlier aria in the Italian cantata Lucrezia, “Alla salma.”
My thanks to all for the hard work that must have been gone into putting this exceptional program together.