Schmelzer: Le memorie dolorose

Floral design

Tenet Vocal Soloists, Acronym
74:20
Olde Focus Recordings FCR914

Following relatively hot on the heels of a fabulous recording of settings of the Jubilus Bernardi by Capricornus, this stunning performance of a little-known Passiontide oratorio by Schmelzer (perhaps the first of a major piece of vocal music?) can only enhance the reputation of the ensemble Acronym, and also those of the Tenet Vocal Soloists (in this case 11 first-class singers).

Viennese tradition saw musical settings of reflections on Christ’s passion by the leading poets and composers of the day performed in elaborate theatre-like sets for the private devotion of the emperor and his inner circle. Here Nicolò Minato contrasts happy memories from Christ’s life with the events from the story of his crucifixion. The musical style is very much of the age – the narrative is declaimed in tuneful recitative and each section is followed by arias whose melodies are simple but memorable. There are also a duet, three trios, a quartet and two choruses. As tradition also seemed to demand, various passages were set by the emperor himself, here Leopold I, one of which is the longest track on the CD (perhaps Schmelzer was obliged to ensure that this was the case?). Acronym interpolate two sonatas for strings.

The singing is glorious and the instrumental playing (including violini piccoli and lirone!) outstanding. The whole has a very relaxed sense of pace – nothing seems rushed or over-dramatised. If anything, in fact, at points I wanted a little more anguish and pain in the voices; but I stick by my overall impression of the performance – the fact that I listened to it back-to-back three times should give an idea.

I’m afraid I didn’t react in the same way to the booklet note. Firstly – and this is probably just me, so perhaps it’s not even a point worth making – I found the references to “our oratorio” and “our sepolcro” and the conclusion that the work “well deserves its first recording” a little twee. More importantly, I found a paragraph about alterations of the libretto very difficult to read. I understand the reasoning behind the change (even though ultimately I think it is a suprious argument), but I wonder why a quarter of a page of the notes had to be devoted to taking “a clear stand”; given that the piece is as obscure as it is, why not just make the changes tacitly? No-one need be any the wiser. It is the banner-waving I find difficult, not the objectionable passages in the original. Ultimately, though, where does such modern-day censorhip stop?

Brian Clark