Caldara Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo
I was aware that Caldara was the most prolific and famous oratorio composer of his day, with some 40 such works to his credit, but I had no inkling that this one (written around 1700) would prove to be so wonderfully rich in fresh and attractive invention. Though practically devoid of external action, it is dramatically tense, concentrating on a continuous struggle between the forces of good and evil counselling the sinner Magdalen, who in addition is urged towards penitence by her sister Martha: the roles of Christ (unusually written for a tenor) and a Pharisee are considerably smaller, though the latter has one very fine dark-hued aria, “Questi sono arcani ignoti”. The work opens in immediately arresting fashion, with an agitated sinfonia followed by the hypnotic aria “Dormi, o cara” (Bernarda Fink insinuating her vocal entry most beautifully): then come (even with the cuts imposed here) another 27 brief da capo arias with their associated recitatives – ensembles scarcely exist. But there is no lack of variety: some arias, flanked by an orchestral ritornello, are accompanied only by a continuo – artfully distributed in this performance among harpsichord, organ, lute and theorbo; others are furnished with different usages of the five-part strings. There is a cello obbligato to “Pompe inutili”, for example, a violin obbligato to “Da quel strale”, and the jubilation of “Fin che danzon le grazie” is expressed by two solo violins: a rushing bass suggests inner turmoil in “Spera, consolati”, and a steady pacing bass line in the superbly moving “In lagrime stemprato” represents ceaselessly falling tears.
Rene Jacobs furthers the dramatic impact by his pacing of the recitatives, in particular; and his casting is flawless. He has had the highly effective idea of differentiating the parts of Earthly and Celestial Love by allocating the former to a mezzo and the latter to a countertenor. Both are excellent, but so are all the participants in this performance – not forgetting the admirable instrumentalists. In such a wealth of treasurable music it seems almost invidious to single out highlights; but besides movements already mentioned let me cite the aria “Diletti” for Magdalen (Kiehr) and the succeeding ornate “Vattene” for Martha (Dominguez) and, even more, two florid arias from Scholl rejoicing in the eventual triumph of good and two, passionately delivered by Fink, of fury by evil at its overthrow. This is an issue to be recommended with all possible enthusiasm: it will almost certainly be my Recording of the Year.'