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Albert LORTZING (1801 - 1851)
Die Himmelfahrt Jesu Christi

(The Ascension of Jesus Christ)
Gabriel - Anneli Pfeffer (soprano)
Eloa - Hedwigh Fassbender (alto)
Christus - Bernhard Schneider (tenor)
Christian Hiltz (baritone)
Kay Stiefermann (bass)
WDR Runkfunkchor Köln
WDR Runkfunkorchester Köln/Helmuth Froschauer
Recorded 5-9 May 1998, Westdeutscher Runkdfunk Köln (Klaus von Bismark Saal)
CPO 999 837-2 [56.35]


Born into a theatrical family, Lortzing composed a number of Singspiels, most famously 'Zar und Zimmerman' (1837) and 'Der Wildschutz' (1842) as well as a romantic opera ('Undine') and a revolutionary opera ('Regina'). His 'Hans Sachs' probably influenced Richard Wagner. But Lortzing did not only write operas. He states in his autobiography that the expectations of his audience constrained him to constantly present entertaining works and but he seems to have written a number of more serious works.

'Die Himmelfahrt Jesu Christi' was first performed in Munster at the City Theatre in 1828 shortly after Lortzing's one act comedy 'Ali Pascha von Jenina' was performed. This was two year's after Weber's 'Oberon', a year after Beethoven's death, the same year as Schubert's death, and a year before the first performance of Rossini's 'William Tell' in Paris.

'Die Himmelfahrt' was first performed in Münster and then a year later in Osnabruck as part of a concert which included an opera overture, several arias including one from Mozart's 'La Clemenza di Tito' and a 'Hymn to Harmony' by Ignaz von Seyfried. In many ways it should not be regarded as an oratorio, more as a religious opera. It is written for chorus, orchestra along with five soloists - Gabriel (soprano), Eloa (alto), Christ (tenor), St. John (baritone), St. Peter (bass). The piece opens with a chorus of Angels and then in an accompanied recitative (all the recitatives in the piece are accompanied) St. John, sung by Christian Hiltz, explains that the disciples have come to the Mount of Olives as instructed by Christ. Hiltz has a pleasing light baritone that almost makes you think he could be a tenor. Then in an aria 'Blow Loudly to Zion with trumepts' Gabriel informs the listeners that Christ is Lord. Gabriel is sung by soprano, Anneli Pfeffer and is most impressive in this aria with its hints of Mozart, Weber and Haydn's 'Creation'. Following this Eloa, sung by Hedwig Fassbender, recites the passage from St. John's gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word…'. Fassbender displays a rich contralto instrument in this dramatic, atmospheric recitative. The recitative is followed by a rather conventional quartet for Gabriel, Eloa, John and Peter in which Christ's earthly life and suffering are recalled. John, in a recitative, graphically depicts all the suffering that occurred. Lortzing's orchestration at this point very effective, pointing up the graphic words. Unfortunately, Hiltz's baritone sounds rather uncomfortable with the lower tessitura of the piece. Then he and Gabriel, in a touching duet with charming solos, lament the loss of a friend. In a recitative and bravura aria 'The women did not see him in the tomb', Peter describes Christ's resurrection. Peter is sung by bass Kay Stieffmann and he also sounds a little taxed by the lower notes, but he has a very effective, dramatic bass voice with a fine feeling for the words. Part 1 concludes with another chorus of Angels.

Part 2 opens with a recitative and aria 'O great salvation has been given to you' from the risen Christ himself who is sung by tenor Bernhard Schneider. Schneider has a light, bright clean toned voice. The aria is essentially lyrical, but ideally Christ should have a bit more weight than Schneider can provide, but the high tessitura of the piece holds no fears for Schneider. In a dramatic and very operatic chorus, the disciples implore him 'Let us not be forsaken'. Christ then prays to God the Father, 'I have revealed your name' and again Schneider lacks that essential element of heft that the Weberian dramatics of the aria require. In a trio, Christ, Gabriel and Eloa then praise faith as the greatest good. Then the chorus of disciples sees Lord of truth surrounded by the heavenly host. Christ then vanishes into Heaven amidst a highly operatic ensemble. The work concludes with a short recitative from Peter and an operatically dramatic Chorus of Angels.

This is a fine, committed performance of the work and should do much to raise interest in Lortzing's non-operatic output. The young cast give fine performances even though I felt that the three men had voices a half-size smaller than was desirable. They are well supported by the clean, bright choral tones of the WDR Rundfunkchor and the WDR Rundfunkorchester. Helmuth Froschauer's speeds are generally apt and he encourages a performance that is far from routine.

Robert Hugill


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