BORTNIANSKY: The Italian Album
November-December 2008, "American Record Guide" magazine
The name Bortniansky immediately brings to mind the founder of the great modern literature of Russian Orthodox liturgical music-leaving a heritage and momentum that his many epigones never quite equaled. But Dmitri Stepanovich Bortniansky (1751-1825) was actually a composer of considerable breadth, beyond that familiar identity. As a youth in the Russian Imperial Court Choir, his potential was recognized. He was given instruction by the Italian master Galuppi, then resident in St Petersburg, and on Galuppi's advice the teenage Ukrainian was allowed to follow his teacher to Italy. There Bortniansky became totally immersed in the Italian musical styles of his day and was sponsored in a wide range of compositional experience, including Italian opera and Latin church music. Called back to the Russian court by Catherine the Great in 1779, Bortniansky was set on the course of redirecting Russia's Orthodox church music. He continued to write secular music for the court. Much of that has been lost, but in recent years some Russian-made recordings have begun exploring his non -Orthodox music, while what survives is still being sorted out.
This program, from a new Moscow label I have not encountered before, is an important example and a model contribution to the catalog. The nine selections all date from the composer's Italian years. First, operatic material: the threemovement Sinfonia to his 1778 opera Il Quinto Fabio (libretto by Apostolo Zeno), plus two arias that became part of that score; and a French aria from the same year. Then a fugal 'Amen' for four-voice choir and strings, demonstrating his contrapuntal mastery. Finally, four examples of Latin sacred motets in the then-current Italian style, for soloist(s) with small orchestra, adding a chorus in one. Little of this music has been recorded before, so there is an element of novelty and freshness. This music is, if not dazzling, still very accomplished-certainly up to the standards of Galuppi and his peers-and sometimes even outstanding. It's also always very enjoyable.
And it is all performed very well here. The three singers are excellent, each with a fine voice and a firm stylistic grasp: they are worthy of an international career. The chorus, which appears to consist of the Russian Patriarchal Choir and Moscow Boys Capella, sings in only two selections but sounds quite comfortable in what we would consider a Mozartean choral sound. The orchestra, consisting of 24 players, sounds a little rough, but nevertheless shows that Russians can add to the rank of period-instruments ensembles. Recorded sound is bright and full-bodied. The booklet has multilingual notes but no texts. Otherwise, cordially recommended for musical as well as novelty value.