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Uncle Dave Lewis, June 2010

Bavarian composer Simon Mayr was centered in the Northern Italian city of Bergamo, which in the early eighteenth-century enjoyed a reputation as sort of “little Vienna,” reflecting the cultural thrust of what was then the center of the universe as far as the arts in Europe were concerned. Mayr’s contribution to Italian opera was critical—although by the 1820s he represented a relatively conservative viewpoint; he is credited with shepherding the transition from classical-styled opera to Romantic melodrama in Italy. Mayr is also notable as the teacher of composer Gaetano Donizetti, who only outlived his master by three years. The two works featured on Naxos’ Simon Mayr: L’Armonia (Dramatic Cantata) are not operas but secular cantatas, a genre to which Mayr contributed more than 60 occasional pieces. Owing to its topicality, Mayr’s Cantata for the Death of Beethoven would prove of especial interest to Beethoven enthusiasts.

Colin Fleming
Fanfare, June 2007

I am not aware of any additional recordings of either piece, Mayr being better known for his more overtly sacred works and his operas; but for some Beethoven-inspired rapture—albeit rapture-lite—and a well-handled, properly preserved curio, here’s a nice decorative blend, not exactly essential, and not exactly expensive.

American Record Guide, June 2007

This disc of works by Simon Mayr (1763–1845) seems to add two works of his to the catalogs. He is almost unknown these days. He was born to a teacher in a small Bavarian town near Ingolstadt and showed signs of musical talent early. His early training was by the Jesuits in theology. Only in 1787 was his talent recognized by a patron who then took him to Italy to study music. He eventually began writing Italian operas, first in Venice and then in Milan, as a result of encouragement from Piccinni and Peter von Winter. He succeeded Carlo Lenzi, one of his sponsors, as maestro di cappella at the cathedral in Bergamo, where he remained for the rest of his life.

His music is essentially Italian in style (sometimes sounds like Rossini), though he did much to promote knowledge of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Harmony was written for a state visit to Bergamo by the Austrian emperor and empress on July 1 and 2, 1825. The high point of their visit was the premiere of Mayr’s work. It was his last stage work. It is full of praise for the merchandise produced in Bergamo as well as quotes from the ancient Latin writers Ovid and Virgil. The cast includes a number of ancient bards—even some of the emperor’s ancestors.

Less than two years later, Mayr wrote his Cantata for the Death of Beethoven shortly after the news arrived. It shows signs of hasty work and borrows from his cantata for Haydn’s death and from his transcription of Cherubini’s work for Haydn’s death. He includes musical quotes from the Sixth Symphony, Wellington’s Victory, the Mass in C, and Christus am Olberg. This is also an enjoyable work.

This recording was presumably made at a Mayr Festival in Ingolstadt by local performers. They all seem to be quite professional. Even the three soloists are very good. The recording is reasonably well spread and balanced. The notes are fine. This is a surprise favorite for me.

David Vernier, March 2007

German-born Simon Mayr received his musical training in Italy (he’s also properly known by his Italian name Giovanni Simone Mayr), and that’s where he spent his career writing both operas and sacred vocal music at the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. One thing’s clear about this composer/teacher/choir master: he knew his Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and if you like their sacred and theatrical music, you’ll enjoy this program featuring two delightful cantatas. L’Armonia, an extended (45-minute) near-opera with three scenes, characters, choruses, virtuoso arias, and well-developed recitatives, was presented on the occasion of a state visit to Bergamo in 1825 by the Emperor Franz I and his entourage. It contains all the conventions of the day to satisfy and impress an imperial audience—the references to classical poets and mythology, symbolic associations to the emperor’s benevolence and wisdom (not to mention a surprise tribute to the Empress), grand choruses and florid arias glorifying the defense of the nation’s and its people’s ideals in battle, and textual quotations espousing the goals of harmony and peace.

But rather than being tedious and predictable, Mayr treats us to some very appealing, expertly crafted music that handily combines some dramatic and very demanding Mozartian opera-style arias—beautifully sung by all three soloists—with choruses right out of the church works of Mozart and Haydn. The pacing is swift and conductor Franz Hauk keeps his forces tightly together most of the time—some ragged instrumental ensemble and choral intonation slips are only occasionally noticeable. Mayr also cleverly uses a harp at opportune moments to add color and for symbolic reference to the Bards, which are among the cantata’s “characters”.

And speaking of references, if you know Beethoven, you’ll have fun picking out Mayr’s nifty insertions of excerpts from some of the master’s works in the Cantata for the Death of Beethoven. This 15-minute piece was basically cobbled together from original material and from existing works, and again, it’s a very satisfying listen marked by strong vocal writing for the soloists and stylish orchestration. Once more I do have to mention the solo singers—soprano Talia Or, tenor Altin Piriù, and bass Nikolay Borchev—all first class and very solid in some very challenging music. They have a lot to do here, and they really carry the show. A pleasant surprise!

Richard Wigmore
Gramophone, March 2007

Tributes to music and a great musician—but is Mayr’s music up to the job?

Bavarian-born but thoroughly ltalianised by training, Simon Mayr (1763–1845) was one of the most successful opera composers of his day and a key influence on Rossini, Bellini and his own pupil Donizetti. But his subsequent eclipse is not surprising. As recordings of Medea in Corinto and Ginevra have revealed, he is all too liable to lapse into decorous amiability, even frivolity, when something far sterner or more intense is required. So it is in these two “homage” cantatas, the one composed to honour an imperial visit to Bergamo, the other hastily put together for a Beethoven commemorative concert in 1827.

L ’Armonia, which simultaneously celebrates the power of music and the glory of the Habsburgs, has its agreeable moments: a solemn “hymn to harmony” with rich wind scoring, for instance, or a charming trio and chorus with harp obbligato (something of a Mayr speciality).

Elsewhere, though, the invention tends to veer between the jaunty and the downright banal. A would-be bellicose number for tenor and chorus sounds positively flippant -like comic Rossini minus the dangerous, intoxicating verve; and when Mayr embarks on a lyrical tune, it soon becomes encrusted with otiose coloratura.

If L ’Armonia is at least worth hearing, the Beethoven cantata, partly concocted from works by Cherubini and Mayr written in homage of Haydn, was surely best left interred. The graceful, rather Mozartian opening promises more than it delivers. Thereafter blandness and empty rhetoric prevail, relieved briefly by reminiscences of the Pastoral Symphony and Mass in C. Those who do decide to investigate should find the performances more than acceptable. Chorus and orchestra, from Mayr’s native city, are spirited if a trifle homespun. The three soloists all negotiate their pyrotechnics fluently enough, though soprano Talia Or sounds stretched in the high tessitura of the Beethoven cantata. Best is the young Russian baritone Nikolay Borchev, with his warmly sonorous tone and elegant sense of style: a singer to watch.

Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, March 2007

Though Simon Mayr is perhaps best known as Donizetti’s teacher and the composer of nearly seventy operas, sacred music seems to have remained close to his heart. Despite great success in the opera house, Mayr succeeded his teacher Carlo Lenzi as maestro di capella of Bergamo Cathedral in 1802. Mayr remained in post until his death, writing some six hundred sacred works.

In 1825 Emperor Franz of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, paid a state visit to Bergamo along with his Empress, his son and daughter-in law. The visit culminated in a performance of Mayr’s cantata L’Armonia at the Ricciardi Theatre. The cantata, for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, choir and orchestra, was evidently his last composition for the theatre. It was described as an azione drammatica, which means that it was acted on stage with stage-setting and scenery.

The basic plot, if that’s what you can call it, is straightforward. The scene opens in peaceful countryside with the chorus and the leader of the people (bass soloist) celebrating peace. Trumpets are heard and the leader of the soldiers (tenor soloist) informs the populace that war is imminent. The third scene takes place after the victory and the leader of the people, the leader of the soldiers and the leader of the bards (soprano soloist) lead the chorus in celebrating their victory. The text includes glowing references to Rudolf of Hapsburg—the first significant member of that family—as well as to Emperor Franz and his Empress.

The piece opens with a jolly, four-square chorus. The bass soloist, Nikolay Borchev, now enters. Borchev has an attractive, light voice and copes very well with the fioriture required of him. Here and elsewhere in the cantata, Mayr orchestrates the recitatives in an attractive and imaginative way, punctuating and illustrating the text. The ensemble with chorus and bass soloist which concludes the first scene has plenty of Rossinian overtones.

After the martial trumpets the tenor soloist, Altin Piriu, has a florid aria. Piriu copes pretty well with the high tessitura. His tone is not the most grateful but he has a flexible open top to his voice.

The third scene opens with the chorus celebrating victory in a jolly triple-time chorus. The scene is then constructed as a series of choruses alternating with trios from the soloists. Mayr integrates these into a satisfying whole and structures the trios to include significant solo parts for the soprano solo, Talia Or. Or has a vivid way with her, though she is apt to be a little wayward at times. But she copes well with the virtuoso music required of her.

The Simon Mayr choir acquit themselves adequately, singing the choruses with lively enthusiasm and a reasonable degree of finesse. They are well supported by the orchestra.

This cantata is an attractive occasional work in a Mayr’s operatic vein. There are many echoes of Rossini and other contemporary operatic composers. The piece is not the most sophisticated but it is certainly bears repeated listening.

The accompanying piece is Mayr’s Cantata on the Death of Beethoven. Mayr had performed Beethoven’s Christus am Olberg in Bergamo in 1826 and the cantata includes references to this, as well as Wellington’s Victory, the Sixth Symphony and the Mass in C. Mayr wrote the piece for performance in 1827 and it seems to have written in a hurry; it reuses portions of Mayr’s cantata on Haydn’s death as well as Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort d’Haydn. This piece takes itself far more seriously than L’Armonia. It has a rather ponderous pomposity to it. Attractive enough, in its way, it makes a good filler. One of the curiosities is the selection of Beethoven’s works which Mayr chooses to commemorate.

Simon Mayr is one of those influential figures whose music is only gradually coming back into view. We are again in Naxos’s debt for this disc of two of Mayr’s attractive occasional works.

Goran Forsling
MusicWeb International, January 2007

Simon Mayr was one of those composers who created quite a stir in their lifetime but since then have fallen more or less into oblivion. He was born in Mendorf in Bavaria, close to Ingolstadt, where these recordings were made. He first studied theology at the University of Ingolstadt and later in Italy, where he took music lessons. In 1802 he moved to Bergamo, where he was appointed maestro di cappella at the Cathedral, a post he held until his death. He did much to make Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven known in Italy. There are also influences from them in his own compositions, even though his style is essentially Italian. One of his pupils was Gaetano Donizetti. As a composer he was enormously prolific, leaving behind around six hundred sacred works and nearly seventy operas. The record catalogues can’t boast much, I’m afraid, but at least Opera Rara have several things, not least in the “100 Years of Italian Opera” series but also a complete opera, arguably his masterpiece, Medea in Corinto (1813), which I seem to remember also existed in a recording during the LP era. He has one leg firmly rooted in the Viennese tradition and the other influenced by the music in his new homeland. His music has a certain formal kinship with the former and melodic directness, sometimes verging on the banal, that shows the provenance of the latter. Though hardly on the level of Rossini and Donizetti his music has appeal and displays an intimate knowledge of the possibilities of the human voice. The orchestral and choral writing is highly professional and very often more than that. His choral writing has both power and lyrical bloom and as an experienced opera composer he knows how to make use of the orchestral palette. It is however the solo singing that shows his forte, and no wonder: he had behind him more than three score operas when these two cantatas were composed. Considering that he was well over sixty at the time of composition, there is a remarkable freshness about the music, especially L’Armonia, which is laid out in mainly short numbers that succeed each other without pause. This may have something to do with the occasion for the composition. On 1 and 2 July 1825 Emperor Franz I with companions visited Bergamo and the grand finale was a visit to the Ricciardi Theatre where this dramatic cantata was performed to the illustrious company in a staged production with set designs by “the extremely talented” Sanquirico. This was in fact Mayr’s last composition for theatre and it was a great success. Reportedly even the Emperor and his wife praised him so highly that Mayr went home that evening with tears of joy in his eyes. We need not go into a detailed outline of the story but the message is the harmony of the spheres and the drama is populated with bards, soldiers and people, each group with a leader. All this results in joyous and lively music as befits a festive occasion like this, but there are contrasts as well. The opening chords have more than a casual likeness to Die Zauberflöte overture and the ladies’ chorus Scendi de’ cantici, alma custode! (tr. 12), which was the most appreciated number at the premiere, is light and airy. There are other moments of contemplation and repose, but elsewhere the soloists indulge in dramatic recitatives and the solos and ensembles are distinctly operatic with quite a lot of florid singing. Without bothering much about the text I had an entertaining three-quarters of an hour, enjoying good choral singing, the excellent playing of the Georgian Chamber Orchestra, which I admired greatly a number of years ago while they were still stationed in Tblisi. Then they were a string ensemble; here they are amended by wind, timpani and even a harp, which has a lot of solo work to do. The vocal soloists shine in their far from easy solos and ensembles. And very good they are, these three young singers. Nikolay Borchev from White Russia is the owner of an agile and lyrical bass with attractive timbre, full of character. He is expressive in the recitatives and he sings elegantly and with gusto in the two arias that follow suit in the first scene. He should be an asset in any Rossinian baritone or bass role. Albanian tenor Altin Piriù also has a natural aptitude for florid singing and can be both lyrically mellifluous and powerfully temperamental, best demonstrated in long marital aria with chorus A combater ci chiama la tromba (tr. 5). The soprano, Israeli born Talia Or, matches her male colleagues in technical accomplishment and feeling. A splendid trio indeed. The other cantata, written for the death of Beethoven, so much admired by Mayr, is more sombre. It is nevertheless vital music, more a tribute to the great master than a dirge, written á la manière de Beethoven and quoting several of his works, the most well-known being the Pastoral Symphony. It is well-crafted music and the performance is on the same high level, but when I want to return to this disc it is primarily for the L’Armonia cantata, much of which has already started to stick in my memory. Simon Mayr may have been a parenthesis in musical history, but his was a not inconsiderable talent and lovers of the Viennese classics and/or early 19th century opera with an interest in some byways of the period will find much to enjoy here. Having heard very little of Mayr before, I took a chance when this disc was on the latest “request list”—something I definitely don’t regret. While writing this I have the finale of the cantata in my headphones and—gosh!—I like it more and more.

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