In the middle period of his life, in and around 1820,
Schubert had terrible trouble finishing things. The Mass in A Flat,
which he did finish, took three years to complete and even then he revised
it four years later. Not that there was a lack of ideas, but his style
was developing so rapidly that he easily lost patience with a work.
His oratorio (or cantata) 'Lazarus' dates from this period. Setting
a libretto written in 1778 by August Hermann Niemeyer, modelled after
Pietro Metastasio, it is not actually an oratorio at all but a sacred
stage work, an 'azione sacra'. Schubert composed the work at a time
when he had some success with his stage works and 'Lazarus' was planned
in three acts, corresponding to the death, burial and resurrection of
'Lazarus'. Niemeyer's metrical text is a version of the story from the
Gospel of John, supplemented by invented characters. There was a long
tradition of Lenten performances of sacred drama, when ordinary theatres
where closed, and the work may have even been commissioned for Easter
performances. Schubert was possibly expecting the work to be staged,
as the score includes detailed stage directions. But this could easily
be a red herring, as a similar point has exercised Handel scholars for
Schubert broke off part of the way through the second
act. No trace of any score for the missing portions has ever been found,
so we must assume that Schubert wrote nothing. Besides the usual ones,
an added reason for breaking off may have been that Schubert's own religious
views gave him a lack of confidence in the final act (the raising of
Lazarus), but in March 1820 Schubert got into a political scrape which
may also have contributed to his problems.
The torso has been recorded before, Wolfgang Sawallisch
and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra forces did so on a highly
regarded 1994 EMI set of all Schubert's sacred works with a cast that
included Robert Tear. But Helmuth Rilling asked the Russian composer,
Edison Denisov to complete the torso, so what we have here is 'Lazarus'
complete, with Denisov taking over from Schubert part of the way through
the second act. In 1992, fired by newly awoken religious feelings, Denisov
wrote an oratorio on the life of Christ, so it is not so surprising
that he should respond to Rilling's request in 1994 to complete 'Lazarus'.
In fact, Denisov was a great admirer of Schubert's music and throughout
his composing career had introduced Schubert quotations into his work
and produced orchestrations and transcriptions of Schubert works. Unlike
the Unfinished Symphony, which Denisov regarded as complete in itself,
he felt that a dramatic work about Lazarus's resurrection could never
be complete until the final act, on the resurrection itself, was completed.
Act I opens with a short, atmospheric prelude leading
to an aria for Lazarus, Scot Weir shapes Schubert's lines beautifully
and sings the aria in a well modulated voice. Too beautifully and too
well modulated perhaps, he certainly does not sound like a man dying.
The text differentiates well between the two sisters with Camilla Nylund
as Martha, making the most of her dramatic outbursts. This leaves Sibylla
Rubens to sustain Maria's part through long, beautifully sung but often
un-dramatic passages. This is a fundamental problem with this act, too
much of the text is non-dramatic and the performers shape Schubert's
line's impeccably but neither they, nor Helmuth Rilling, seem to be
able to endow the calmer sections of the work with a cohesive dramatic
flow or the emotional intensity required for such contemplative music.
The act has the feeling of a gentle meander through an attractive landscape;
there are interesting and dramatic moments, the music is always lovely,
but it fatally never seems to be going anywhere. Some of the fault in
this must be Schubert's but I felt that, perhaps, Rilling could have
given the Act a far more cohesive dramatic shape. Schubert's construction,
using a continuous stream of accompanied recitative, arioso and aria
with no secco recitative, was quite innovative for the time, so it is
a shame that the resulting work seems less interesting than its construction
details. The act closes with a welcome entry by the chorus. One problem,
common to recordings using young singers, is the differentiation between
different characters. Kurt Azesberger sings Nathaniel’s aria finely,
but I thought he sounded too similar to Scot Weir's Lazarus. The same
is true of Simone Nold as Jemina who sounds too much like Sibylla Rubens's
Maria, though Simone Nold's performance of the aria 'Schlummert auf
Rosen die Unschuld ein' is one of the highlights of this act.
Act II opens in far more dramatic fashion, and Schubert
manages to sustain the drama for the duration of his contribution. Mathias
Goerne as Simon and Kurt Azesberger make the most of their opportunities
and the first CD closes with a welcome, if rather leaden, chorus of
Lazarus's grieving friends. The second CD continues with Schubert, still
in dramatic vein, but rapidly the transition is made to Denisov. Denisov
handles this tactfully, writing music of surprising conservatism, but
by the time we reach the meaty unaccompanied chorus which closes Act
II it is clear that we are no longer in Schubert's world.
I am unfamiliar with Denisov's music, but the music
on this CD is remarkable for a man who was influenced by Boulez. His
contribution to the disc is consistently tonal, though with a chromaticism
and bitter-sweetness that is not found in Schubert's music. His vocal
lines, whilst still being melodic, are more taxing than Schubert's but
all the soloists manage the transition well. Denisov gives the chorus
far more work than Schubert and they respond gratefully to his effective
vocal writing. His aria for Maria at the beginning of Act III though
convincingly sung by Camilla Rubens, seems strangely skittish for an
aria about hope and does not fit very well with Maria’s music in the
previous acts. Denisov does write some surprising music at times, the
final duet for Lazurus and Jemina with its accompaniment reminiscent
of the Gounod 'Ave Maria', is charming but verging on the kitsch. At
other times he writes dramatically and his handling of the resurrection
in Act III is very effective, quite thrilling. Soloists, chorus and
orchestra perform this section with convincing fervour.
I have great admiration for the way all the performers,
under Rilling, manage the difficult transitions that take the work from
Act I to Act III. They almost convinced me that the newly completed
'Lazarus' was a viable work. But whilst Schubert's meditative Act I
and dramatic Act II torso are charming failures which illuminate the
work of a great composer, Denisov's Act II completion and Act III are
dramatic and effective portions of a potentially interesting opera/oratorio.
They left me wishing that Denisov had simply set the libretto whole
rather than completing Schubert's torso.
When it was first issued, this recording received the
German Echo-Klassik Award in 1997 in the World First Recording category
and I can highly recommend it as a fascinating but flawed attempt to
shed new light on Schubert's incomplete oratorio. The booklet has an
informative essay in English, but the complete libretto is only in German.
So you need reasonable German to be able to follow the work properly.