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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
Lazarus (1820/1994)
Oder Die Feier der Auferstehung
Religiöses Drama in drei Akten D689
Text von August Hermann Niemeyer
completed by Edison DENISOV (1929-1996)
Maria - Sibylla Rubens (Soprano)
Martha - Camilla Nylund (Soprano)
Jemina - Simone Nold (Soprano)
Lazarus - Scot Weir (Tenor)
Nathanael - Kurt Azesberger (Tenor)
Ein Jüngling - Christian Voigt (Tenor)
Simon - Mattias Goerne (Bass)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
Recorded. 22-26 January 1996, Stadthalle, Sindelfingen, Germany.
[2CDs: 71.41+59.01]

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 years.

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.

Robert Hugill

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