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Bach's "Easter Oratorio" from the Handel and Haydn Society

Conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini is seen conducting, gesturing enthusiastically to the H&H Orchestra and Chorus
Sam Brewer
Rinaldo Alessandrini

Sunday, October 1, 2023

On WCRB In Concert, Rinaldo Alessandrini leads the Handel and Haydn Society in Antonio Maria Bononcini's richly lyrical Stabat Mater and J.S. Bach’s jubilant Easter Oratorio. Through texts related to the Christian celebration of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, this program explores death, rebirth, and perhaps the most enduring, hope.

Handel and Haydn Society
Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor
Silvia Frigato, soprano
Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano
Ben Bliss, tenor
Gabriele Lombardi, baritone

Antonio Maria BONONCINI Stabat Mater
J.S. BACH Easter Oratorio

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Read the program notes.

See upcoming Handel and Haydn Society events.

To hear Rinaldo Alessandrini describe the story told across these two pieces, listen to his conversation with Tyler Alderson using the audio player above and reading the transcript below.


Tyler Alderson Rinaldo Alessandrini, thank you so much for talking to me today about a really, really interesting program that you have. You have the Bononcini Stabat Mater and the Bach Easter Oratorio. Welcome to Boston.

Rinaldo Alessandrini Thank you, thank you. You're very kind.

Tyler Alderson So I had a question. I'm going to get to the Bach in a second. You have possibly the most famous composer out there in Bach. And then you have a guy who's not even the most famous Bononcini. You know, he's someone who's—well I think most people wouldn't know him, and yet the music is so spectacular. Were you the first person [to] actually record this Stabat Mater, or are there others who've done it? How did you come across this particular Stabat Mater and choose it for this program?

Rinaldo Alessandrini No I've been not the first one. And my first contact with the Bononcini Stabat Mater was just because of a very old recording of the... probably the 70s, and with the English Modern group. By the way, Bononcini is not one. I mean, there are three Bononcinis.

Tyler Alderson Yes.

Rinaldo Alessandrini There's the father and the two brothers. Antonio Bononcini is one of the two brothers, probably less popular than his brother. But well, I mean, [the] music is really nice. It's kind of, well, we could say kind of pure Italian style with a lot of cantabile moments and of course, with the usual operatic attitude. I mean, the last fugue is just underlying that we are into a sacred piece, and the opening chorus as well. It's typical treatment, harmonic treatment of sacred music, so with a lot of dissonant chords and so on. But the rest of the piece has a kind of... what was the usual theatrical taste in the sacred music in the first half of the 18th century. The choice went because, well it's kind of [a] Lent program, so the Bach Easter Oratorio is fine. The Stabat Mater is just telling before, just a bit before the story of the Easter Oratorio, so in itself it's a nice [coupling of pieces].

Tyler Alderson And I wanted to ask you about that because it is a journey. It's really telling the whole story of the week that is coming up, that this will be the start of. You have the Stabat mater, which is a very kind of low point, if you will, and then by the end of the Easter Oratorio, this really triumphant feeling. What kind of journey does the music go through between these two pieces and will the audience end up going through as they're listening to these?

Rinaldo Alessandrini Well, the Stabat Mater should be approached like a real tale about how a mother can face the death of [her] son. So it's a very human test. It's full of human feeling, it's full of human comments on the sorrow of the Virgin Mary. So it is not really a sacred text. It's a human text. How it is possible that a mother can exist [after] what happened to Jesus Chris? And in some way, the text of the Easter Oratorio is also the event of the resurrection seen by four actors, including the Virgin Mary and so on. So it is the reaction after the resurrection. So, “Where is Jesus Christ? Oh okay." And the problem gives this story seen from a human point of view, and I think that, for the audience, it is essential. It will be very important to be involved in the deep meaning of this text, especially the Stabat Mater. The Easter Oratorio is the story in some ways. So we know the story and there are some arias that are giving comments like usual in rock music where the arias are giving kind of personal, intimate comments to the recits. In fact, there is a kind of dramaturgical arch, yeah? So... But as usual, with Bach and music, it's very important to... at least to have a contact with this before listening to the music.

Tyler Alderson And I wanted to ask as well, you mentioned this human connection to it and in Bach and in Bononcini's day, the audiences that would be listening to this would have been much more religious, probably much more specifically Christian, than the much more diverse secular, you know, you'll have people from very different religious backgrounds who will be coming to listen to this. And I wonder, with Handel and Haydn, we talk a lot about the period instruments, the instruments of the day. But does it change how you approach this when you know that the audience is going to be very different from maybe the intended audience that Bach or that Bononcini had in mind?

Rinaldo Alessandrini Well, I don't know. Concerning the Stabat Mater, as I told before, the text of Stabat Mater is touching because the text is talking about Jesus Christ, but it's mainly talking about his mother. This is why, I mean, what happened to the Virgin Mary, it's horrible. Even nowadays, when a mother loses a child, you know, or a son. So the texts is mainly related to the, "Oh, it could be possible to survive to the death of a son." And considering the theatrical attitude that is proposed by the Italian style, you will see, "Oh, everything is in connection with this human feeling" is really clearly exposed. I mean, the sorrow is a human sorrow. And I repeat, the main idea is around the psychological attitude of the Virgin Mary.

Paradoxically, the Bach has a more theatrical plot because there is more movement. The orchestra is bigger because there are winds, so there is more variety in terms of colors, there is more variety in terms of gestures. It's a different theatrical attitude. I don't know how and if religious people could approach this music. At Bach's time, the transmission of a text was very important and cantatas like this were performed every, every Sunday with a different text. And it was a moment where there was really a transmission of meaning, of a religious meaning. So in itself, the mechanism is safe, is always the same. Nowadays we, of course, we enjoy also, I mean, [the] music of Bach because for us it's a kind of monument coming from 300 years ago. 300 years after his time, we learned that, "What was Bach, exactly?" So I mean, there are a lot of, in fact, a lot of meanings that are overlapping all together. But probably religious people could use this occasion like a kind of reflection either, no? The music in itself is, in any case, a big consolation.

Tyler Alderson And with Bach and with the Easter Oratorio, this is one of the things that he spent a lot of his time doing, is writing these, you know, these cantatas and, you know, these works for the church. I was wondering specifically in this Easter Oratorio, which is something that people might not know as well as say the, you know, the St Matthew Passion or, you know, some of the other Bach works that are a little bit more familiar. What parts of his craft, you know, in building this really stand out to you in in this oratorio?

Rinaldo Alessandrini But, you know, the music at this time was... There were some specific meanings in the music. When you see, for example, the use of big orchestras, like in the opening symphonia or the choruses where you have trumpets and oboes, so a lot of noise. This is the usual way to demonstrate something that is creating a tension, that is creating kind of—not, not a suspense, but I mean, excitement, yeah? And Bach, and the composers from his time, they were used to [using], for example, the special combination related to special meanings. For example, there is a very nice tenor aria. It is talking about a sleeping, it's a sleeping aria. And there is the usual combination of violins and recorders that are creating these very, very special sounds, and that are realizing physically the image of a very calm sleep. What I mean is that at Bach's time, the language was stable in some way. Bach was very special because he was [writing] a lot of complexity. So even if the vocabulary is the same, but the use of the music, the use of the structures, the use of the counterpoint… this is typical Bach so it's complex, it's difficult. There are a lot of information coming all together, so a lot of counterpoint, a lot of suggestions in the music. I mean, we can recognize his language.

It's absolutely the same of Mathew Passion, St. John Passion, or all the cantatas. He speaks always the same language. Of course, [the] more and more we get familiar with his language, [the] more and more we are able to recognize, "okay, this sound is belonging to this special feeling" and so on. Music, all the music is, it's fantastic because you can, I mean, you can sit and listen to whatever music and say, "I like" or "I don't like." Even this very basic level is enough because music is just for, I mean, listening and relaxing. Of course, more and more, you feel that you get more and more information. So it's up to you when you think, "Okay, let me see. Let me understand what’s behind this, what I’m listening [to]. Why this melody or why this combination?" And you discover that there is a word behind the notes and you discover that the speech is more complex than the simple image of the first listening. But this is the beauty of the music and this is the excitement of the music. And Bach is a kind of eternal discovering about meanings and is so deep, is so complex, is so full of details.

Tyler Alderson It's funny you use that term discovery because that's something that I've heard a lot of when talking about Bach. There's always something new, and then you have someone who, again, is probably going to be very new to a lot of the people listening, in Bononcini. To start off, who is—

Rinaldo Alessandrini Because it's a different style.

Tyler Alderson Yeah.

Rinaldo Alessandrini Bononcini's a different style. Even if Bononcini uses counterpoint like Bach, but in a different way, I mean, it's a different sound. It's a different language. I mean, Bach is talking German, Bononcini's talking Italian, so, like Rameau is talking French or the late Handel is talking English, you know? Music is like a language.

Tyler Alderson Yeah, I was I was going to ask you, these are two composers that lived at about, you know, the same time. I was going to ask you, when you hear those languages, does it strike you more what they share? You know, they were living in the same time, or does it strike you more how different they are, being from two different places and cultures?

Rinaldo Alessandrini Well, it depends. I mean, for example, in the case of Bach, the German language, the idea behind the German languages is really present in music. Especially in Germany, there was a combined style with French influences and Italian influences. What was coming from France in Germany was a kind of, can I say, social elegance. Yeah, I mean, French was the symbol of elegance, of the new fashion. From Italy, there was the cantabile, the kind of theater, the opera, you know, the kind of simulation on stage. And in Germany, they were able to create a kind of mixed style. And Handel was exporting in England the Italian style, with the operas after his time in Roma. And with the French, for example, they were very... French [Alderson laughs] all the time. I mean, and it was nice because Italian music right in France at the end of the 18th century was very funny, but...

By the way, Italians were more interested in [the] French style. We have a lot of Italian music written in [the] French style, for example. They were very fascinated by this kind of special, special style. In some way, also the French, but the French music is so typical, is so strictly connected to an incredible repertoire of ornaments and harmonic treatments or melodies or the typical way to manage, for example, the speed of the music. In Italy, we were lacking more contrast: very slow, very fast, or very slow. And in France, they were always in the middle: not too fast, not too slow. So you see. But at that time, especially when you consider that, especially in the 18th century, a lot of composers were traveling around Europe, so visiting different countries and bringing with them all the culture, so especially the Italians, so you can imagine such a incredible chemistry, incredible mixtures of whatever, whatever.

Tyler Alderson That's wonderful. I just again, wanted to thank you so much. Really excited to hear the concerts, really going to enjoy the contrasts and the, you know, the sound of Bononcini and Bach. So thank you very much.

Rinaldo Alessandrini You're welcome. Thank you.