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Bassani - La morte delusa
Giovanni Battista Bassani, Jean Tubery, Ensemble la Fenice
Bassani - La morte delusa
Genre: Classical
 

      
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The Swansong of the Cornetto
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 03/22/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The characters of this dramatic oratorio are Death, Lucifer, Justice, Piety, and Glory. Lucifer is a defiant basso. Death is sung with plaintive grace by alto Daniela del Monaco. Justice is a tenor, while Piety is a soprano. Glory almost steals the show through the virtuosity of male soprano Philippe Jaroussky. In the curious libretto, Death and Lucifer bewail their impotence in the face of the virtues, Justice, Piety, and Glory, who offer immortality to the spirit. In her final aria, Death moans `...non cercate piu la Morte, che la Morte gia mori.' [Dark shadows of the tomb, seek Death no longer for Death is dead.] Sounds grim, no? But without a libretto in hand, this charming oratorio sounds more pastoral than sepulchral. Cheerful and playful. Mocking of death and the devil in the light-hearted style of a commedia dell'arte, in which Lucifer is a blustering fool.

There are only two brief tutti choruses, at the end of each act. Otherwise this is a showcase for solo vocal virtuosity, and the five singers are all up to the challenge. It would be hard to find an ungraceful, untuneful note in all their recitativos and arias. Lucifer, bass Jean-Claude Sarragosse, has the most opportunities for vocal color, and he uses his `false' voices picturesquely. The regular succession of recitativo-aria, which might become monotonous, is given variety by frequent instrumental interludes and by imaginative pairing of voices with obbligato instrumental accompaniments of the arias. The bassoon, for instance, shadows Lucifer and offers a counterpoint to his defiance.

Stellar as the singing is, the orchestra is the true protagonist of this oratorio. With only six instruments plus continuo, La Fenice produces a full palette of timbres: cello, bassoon, three violins, and above all, in every sense, a cornetto. Written in 1696, La Morte Delusa may well be the last great piece of music featuring the cornetto as the leading instrument, and whoever played the part in the music hall of provincial Ferrara may have been the last great cornettist before modern times. The three violins definitely play second fiddle to the cornetto throughout.

The cornetto is not a small brass trumpet. It's a wooden instrument shaped like an ibex horn, about the size of a tenor recorder, with seven finger holes and a tiny mouthpiece shaped like an acorn cap. Elegant cornetti were carved geometrically and covered with black leather. The glory times of the cornetto were approximately from 1550 to 1660, during which century it was the leading virtuoso's instrument in the music of composers like Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and Schuetz. Often the cornetto was paired with the violin; the two players would toss passages back and forth almost in competition to see who could play the most notes the fastest in decoration of a melody. To play the cornetto, first one has to find an embouchure to make a clear, voice-like tone, and to sustain that tone through a range of up to three octaves, with dynamics from pianissimo to forte. Control of pitch is diabolically hard to master. Once tone and pitch are found, the instrument will respond to the player's tonguing and fingering with remarkable grace and fluidity. A good cornettist can easily play the recorder without half trying, since the fingerings are almost the same.

Jean Tubery, the cornettist/conductor of La Fenice, is one of the holy trinity of the instrument, with Bruce Dickey of Concerto Palatino as the acknowledged Pater, Doron Sherwin as Filius, and Tubery as Spiritus Sanctus. Befitting a spirit, Tubery is the most ethereal player, the most vocal in timbre, sounding his best when his races through an improvised `division' of the melody with a bold freedom only to be compared with Charlie Parker on his jazz saxophone.

The prominence of the cornetto in this oratorio is its most distinctive feature. Not only does the cornetto unify the work with its command of the orchestra, but it also echoes and comments on the musical thoughts of each singer in her/his arias. I'm reminded of the use of dancers in some modern stagings of operas, to amplify the emotions of the singers, or of the black-cloaked puppeteers who shadow the puppets in the Japanese Bunraku. No other oratorio ever made more imaginative use of the cornetto than this Morte Delusa.

Giovanni Battista Bassani spent most of his life in Ferrara, a city with a huge musical heritage from the Renaissance, in which the religious fraternities of an earlier musical culture still thrived. This oratorio was written for such a fraternity, the Accademia della Morte. The cornetto, by the way, had odd associations with such fraternities in the 16th C, and with the Guild of Butchers in Florence. Apparently the Accademia commissioned the oratorio to celebrate the Pope's role in the defense of Vienna in 1683. Bassani is about as thoroughly forgotten a composer as one could seek, but he was a master of his craft, at least in writing sprightly and beautiful music. Perhaps his berth of Ferrara was too comfortable to motivate him to explore the profundities of Bach. If I believed in such things, I could imagine him reincarnated as the sunny side of Rossini.

This oratorio is a pure joy. As a cornettist and bassoonist myself, I'm planning to get a copy of La Fenice's playbook as soon as I can. The current CD deserves a place on the shelf alongside the works of Handel and Scarlatti.
"
FASCINATING!
V. FH | RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL | 05/27/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I cannot understand what the reviewer below wanted to say with "none of them does anything close to inspired". This is a valuable oratorio, worth every penny spent, an interesting account of the genre. And yes, the singers do their job with soul and passion. The instrumentation and the playing is like a fiercing, bloody, passionate torrent."