Mayr: David In The Cave Of Engedi / Hauk, Ostermann
S. MAYR David in the Cave of Engedi • Franz Hauk (hpd, cond); Merit Ostermann ( David ); Cornelia Horak ( Saul ); Ai Ichihara ( Michal ); Sibylla Duffe ( Jonathan ); Claudia Schneider ( Abner ); Simon Mayr Chorus & Ens • NAXOS 8.570366 (2 CDs: 94:13)
The Bavarian-born Johannes Simon Mayr (1763–1845) is probably most often remembered as the teacher and mentor of Donizetti. Until recently, his own works—more than 60 operas, some 600 liturgical compositions, as well as chamber music and symphonies—have been the realm of specialists. At 24 he abandoned studies in philosophy and law at the University of Ingolstadt to pursue a musical career in Italy. He studied first in Bergamo, then with Bertoni in Venice, where he began writing operas. The second he composed for La Fenice in 1796 was so successful that Mayr became much sought after in the world of Italian opera. The next year, his operas were produced in Vienna, and performances in other European capitals and in the U.S. followed. Despite lucrative offers from Paris, St. Petersburg, Lisbon, Dresden, and London, Mayr preferred to remain in Italy. He settled in Bergamo, establishing a music school, spearheading philanthropies to benefit musicians, and becoming an important champion of the Viennese style south of the Alps.
Mayr wrote his fascinating oratorio David in spelunca Engaddi (“David in the Cave of Engedi”) during his first creative blossoming. It was destined for one of the four Venetian ospedali , those institutions for orphaned or indigent girls where, earlier in the century, Vivaldi had been employed. Characteristically for a work commissioned by the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, its five solo roles, as well as the chorus, are all treble voices. The libretto by Foppa is based on scenes from Samuel I. King Saul is jealous of David, hero of Israel’s wars against the Philistines and tries to kill him. Saul’s son Jonathan and daughter Michal help David, who is able to stay one step ahead of Saul’s operatives. In the wilderness of Engedi, David comes upon Saul asleep in a cave. Though David has ample cause to kill Saul, he spares the king’s life. David’s display of loyalty reconciles Saul with his anointed successor as King of Israel. Though it’s difficult to say what is most striking about this masterful work, certainly character delineation in each principal role is unusually acute. Through the course of the oratorio, their characters develop with a psychological complexity rare in the genre, particularly in the late 18th century. The vocal writing is superb, florid, idiomatic, and deftly evokes the affects of the text.
Despite its economy of means, the choral writing, mostly in two parts, is extremely effective. And in a proto-Wagnerian sense, the orchestra almost becomes a character, its traditional role of accompaniment significantly expanded. Mayr is a deft and resourceful orchestrator. The brief Sinfonia that prefaces the first part of the oratorio is a little gem, worthy of the young Mozart. The Sinfonia that introduces part II, on the other hand, lasts more than five minutes, a virtual one-movement concerto grosso in Classical garb. Bassoons, oboes, horns and, above all, the harp (David’s instrument) interact with the orchestra in brilliant concertante style. Franz Hauk assembled an uncommonly strong group of soloists, each of whom meets Mayr’s vocal and dramatic demands with artistry and sophistication. Chorus and orchestra respond with ensemble cohesion to Hauk’s imaginative direction. The slow sound decay in the Assam Church of Maria de Victoria in Ingolstadt contributes to the near perfect acoustic ambiance with little blurring of detail. Informative notes are contributed by Iris Winkler, though listeners wishing to follow the text must download a 28-page libretto from the Naxos Web site.
Mayr has long been acknowledged as a key transitional figure between 18th- and 19th-century opera, and a potent influence on Rossini as well as Donizetti. But lately, signs of a fully-fledged revival keep cropping up. Opera Rara, the English company, has three complete Mayr operas in its catalog: Ginevra di Scozia (OR 23) and two productions of Medea in Corinto (OR 11 and OR 215). Cantatas (including one on the death of Beethoven) may be heard on Naxos 8.557958 and the oratorio La passione along with a Stabat mater setting are available on Guild 7251. In the instrumental realm, two of Mayr’s piano concertos may be sampled on Tactus 761301. The strong, nuanced performances that breathe life into David in spelunca Engaddi provide a strong argument for further exploration of Mayr’s imaginative and powerful music. They also suggest that a Mayr revival would be welcome and, perhaps, long overdue.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
Catalog Number: 8570366-67
Composer: Giovanni Simone Mayr
Conductor: Franz Hauk
Orchestra/Ensemble: Mayr Ensemble, Simon Mayr Choir
Performer: Ai Ichihara, Claudia Schneider, Cornelia Horak, Franz Hauk, Merit Ostermann, Sibylla Duffe