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Patrick Rucker
Fanfare, March 2009

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. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

John W. Freeman
Opera News, January 2009

Like Mozart, Mayr wrote with lightness, charm and vivacity as well as a keen ear for drama and live dialogue. Here, in a two-CD album from Naxos, is a rare recorded example—the Latin oratorio David in the Cave of Engedi, written in 1795 for the young, musically proficient female wards of the Beggar's Hospital in Venice…The scenario offers little action but abundant personal conflict, reaching a peak after Saul tries to deny David his promised bride. In an agitated aria, "Tu spernis pecantem," mezzo Merit Ostermann dips into dramatic chest tones to show David's distress at such deceit. The composer goes on to build a Part I finale on a stormy quartet and quintet. Part II continues to focus on the king, resisting pressure from his entourage to relent. As the impasse intensifies, emotional temperatures rise further. Keeping pace musically, Mayr avoids creating too dense a dramatic atmosphere; even as the music grows more ornate and expansive, the lean framework of a baroque oratorio isn't overstretched.

One would expect the stubborn, willful Saul, who controls the plot and characters, to dominate this score; but it's Ostermann's David, running on a mix of hope, urgency and despair, who holds center stage. The fact that Ostermann is a mezzo, with a darker spectrum of colors, gives her a leading edge, and the composer too is more interested in David's character. Cornelia Horak, a soprano, does hold her own as Saul, starting with modest assurance and agility, then growing in security and vocal solidity, as in the Part II aria "Patri amanti amplexus dona," trying to assure Michol that "father knows best" even when decreeing David's death. Soprano Ai Ichihara makes Michol's vulnerability believable with her plaintive, girlishly determined pleas.

As Saul's son Jonathas (Jonathan), another soprano, Sibylla Duffe, offers a stylish portrayal, at first bright, cheery and secure, tapering the dynamics on held notes, later responding with rising concern to threats against his friend David. (Duffe also sings the few lines allotted to Phalti, an advisor of Saul's.) As army commander Abner, Claudia Schneider (soprano) keeps a balance between caution and diplomatic initiative, distinguishing soft asides (text in parentheses) from more overt expression. The bright choral and instrumental ensemble responds with accuracy and cheer to Franz Hauk's workmanlike leadership, and the recording captures a charming freshness and intimacy suggestive of a student performance, even though this one's professional.

American Record Guide, September 2008

This performance sounds like everyone has come together for the avowed purpose of rescuing Simon Mayr from the clutches of anonymity. The energy never flags. Each of the five soloists is a sparkler and there's a lilt to everyone's phrasing, courtesy of Herr Hauk. The period orchestra performs handsomely, with 18th Century touches that are, for the most part, attractive and relatively subtle. Naxos offers excellent sound and informative notes, though you have to go online to get a hold of the libretto. …Viva Mayr!

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, July 2008

The German-born, Italian-trained Simon Mayr is little known today but about a year and a half ago I had for review another Naxos issue with two of his cantatas written in the 1820s. There I also gave a thumbnail biography to which I refer readers. He is not in the class of Rossini or Donizetti, who were his juniors by about a generation – Donizetti was actually his pupil. His music has, however, a distant similarity with theirs but he is at the same time influenced by the Viennese school of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. This gives his compositions a certain individuality, even though some of the arias here seem to be almost copied from Mozart.

The oratorio David in spelunca Engaddi is from his relative youth and is the last of four such works that he wrote for the Ospitale dei Mendicanti in Venice. The texts were by Giuseppe Maria Foppa, with whom he also collaborated in several operas. This particular libretto has survived in two languages: one in Latin, printed for the performance at the Ospitale and one in Italian. There are also various version of the musical score, one – in Mayr’s hand – with female chorus. There are also sketches and a copy with the chorus scored for mixed voices. Franz Hauk has based this recording on the original autograph but added the sinfonia that opens part two, from the other copy and arranged the final chorus for female voices, since the chorus was missing from the autograph. The Ospitale dei Mendicanti was intended for girls showing musical talent. There they were obliged to undertake ten years of training in the choir. This also explains why all the solo parts are for female voices. It feels initially a bit strange to have King Saul sung by a soprano but the convention of the day was different from our time. Vivaldi half a century earlier also had only women at his disposal and baroque opera featured castrati for male roles. For more variation of sound it wouldn’t have come amiss top have had a couple of lower voices but, as so often, one gets used to it.

The Biblical story is taken from Samuel I, xvi-xxiv. Samuel has anointed David King of Israel. Saul is tormented by an evil spirit and David plays his harp to calm him. David defeats the Philistine, Goliath, in combat and presents Saul with his head. Saul retains David as a member of his household and makes him his chief warrior. Jonathan, Saul’s son, becomes friendly with David. The people’s love of David makes Saul jealous and suspicious. David falls in love with Saul’s younger daughter Michal. Saul then demands the foreskins of a hundred Philistines, thinking that, in attempting this feat, David will be caught by the enemy. David however delivers the required quantity and gets Michal as his wife. Saul’s anger increases and he plans to kill David but Jonathan helps David to flee. Eventually he reaches the mountains of Engedi where Saul catches up with him. Saul falls asleep and David finds him but instead of killing him he cuts a piece from Saul’s robe and then wakes him up by playing his harp. When Saul sees that his life has been spared they are reconciled and the chorus sings: O joyful happy day … all are joined in peace and love.

Being an oratorio it has to be said that Mayr’s version displays little in the way of sacred feeling. There is much overt operatic drama and rather showy virtuosity, and since the chorus has fairly little to do the impression of secular music is further emphasised. True, Handel’s oratorios, also dealing with mainly Old Testament subjects, are also operatic in a way but the important choruses still lend them a veneer of solemnity. This is, however, more a description of the approach than criticism. I found the music very attractive throughout and the drama unfolds without too many preliminaries. The oratorio is in two parts and the structure is quite simple: a sinfonia opens each part, there are recitatives and arias sandwiched with a few ensembles and a couple of duets in between. The recitatives are mostly accompagnato - with orchestra - and they are surprisingly expressive. Melodically and dramatically there are riches in the musical numbers and, just as with the cantatas, I became really fond of this oratorio and will certainly want to hear more of Simon Mayr.

A distinctive Mayr fingerprint is his habit of featuring solo instruments and groups of instruments, not only in the purely instrumental sections but also quite often as obbligato to the singing. In the sinfonia to Part one we hear some charming woodwind; in David’s pastoral first aria (CD 1 tr. 8) we hear an English horn; the long sinfonia to Part Two has a prominent part for harp and Saul’s arioso (CD 2 tr. 18) also features the harp. The oratorio opens with festive music acclaiming David having defeated Goliath and in the final chorus the festive mood returns.

The performance is spirited and full of life. David in spelunca Engaddi was performed in the Assam Church in Ingolstadt on 24 September 2006 and then recorded in the same venue over the following three days. This is a method that has very often proved to be the closest to the ideal recording situation: the participants are well prepared and deeply involved, inspired by contact with an audience. They have all experienced the continuity of the work and are in the same environment. Where the live recording can often be marred by external noises and occasional mistakes by the musicians, in this case there are possibilities of mopping up defects through a second take. The chorus and orchestra, certainly well rehearsed by the enthusiastic Franz Hauk are splendid and the young soloists are truly inspired. Claudia Schneider is a dramatically intense Abner in his only aria (CD 1 tr. 6), which is one of the best things here, Merit Ostermann’s David goes through numerous moods and feelings and is at his/her finest in the trio in Par Two (CD 2 tr. 11) and in the noble aria a bit later (CD 2 tr. 15). Saul is brilliantly portrayed by Cornelia Horak, who has some really virtuoso moments. In the aria (CD 1 tr 11) the coloratura is breathtaking as is the aria in Part two with a very Mozartean first half and a stunningly dramatic second. Jonathan is sung by the bright, glittering and agile Sibylla Duffe who also doubles as the King’s advisor Phalti (CD 2 tr 9), where she glitters even more. The only singer who actually performs as a woman is the Japanese soprano Ai Ichihara as Michal. Her recitative and aria (CD 2 tr. 3-4), where she pleads for her beloved is lyrical and beautiful – another high-spot.

The recording cannot be faulted. There are a total of 46 cue-points on the two discs which facilitates when one wants to return to one’s favourite moments. There are also good notes and a synopsis. The libretto with translations is available on the internet but to get it on paper the printer needs 28 sheets. The stories about Saul and David have been hot stuff for several composers. Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote an opera in 1688, David et Jonathas, Handel wrote the oratorio Saul in 1739, Carl Nielsen wrote the opera Saul og David in 1902 and Honegger composed his dramatic psalm Le roi David in 1921. Now Simon Mayr’s David in spelunca Engaddi can be added to that list and, though less illustrious than the other names, Mayr need not feel ashamed in their company. Lovers of Italian opera from the latter half of the 18th century and the early 19th century should ponder a purchase. They will be richly awarded.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

Do get to know the music of Simon Mayr, for he will surely be the major musical discovery of this decade

Do get to know the music of Simon Mayr, for he will surely be the major musical discovery of this decade. Last month I was singing the praises of his one-act opera, L’amor coniugale, but this oratorio is far more important. A native of Bavaria, his artistic inclinations took him in his early twenties to live in Italy, first moving to Venice, but later to Bergamo. He first became a teacher while embarking on his massive output as a composer in many genres, leaving on his death in 1845 a catalogue numbering 1510 works. They were to suffer more than a century of neglect before a recent wave of interest in his music has changed the situation. Much of his output was aimed at the church where he could be assured of performances, his oratorio David in spelunca Engaddi coming from the early part of his career and before he embarked on his major output as an operatic composer. Composed in Venice in 1795, it was in many ways in preparation for that segment of his output, and can be seen as the precursor of Rossini’s operas. It is a dramatic story of Saul’s resentment of David’s victory over the Philistines, and his attempts to avoid the marriage of David to his daughter Michal, even to extent of plotting David’s murder. Though cast as an oratorio, it is made up of a series of arias and duets which relate the story. Indeed it would be more convincing to stage as an opera than as a static oratorio. It does, however, have the drawback of being cast for five solo sopranos who take both male and female parts, that coming as a result of the work having originated as for the girls of the Ospedale dei Mendicanti. That does create a lack of variation in the mood of the music, but not sufficient to withdraw my assertion that if the music carried the name of Mozart, it would be viewed very differently. Try track 14 on the first disc, the duet between David and Michal, to confirm that appraisal. The young Japanese soprano, Ai  Ichihara, has that light and silvery voice for Michal and does make a contrast - one of the few - with the superb mezzo of Merit Ostermann as David. Those two are the undoubted success of the release, the remaining cast of Cornelia Horak and Sibylla Duffe, as Saul and Jonathan, both utterly reliable, while the Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble are admirable. Franz Hauk achieves the crisp and neat accompaniment directing from the harpsichord. To add to the operatic feel of the work, the recorded sound seems to be straight from the atmosphere of the theatre.

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