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Carl LOEWE (1796–1869)
Passion Oratorio (1847?)
Nathalie Gaudefroy (soprano), Christianne Stojtin (contralto), Jacky da Cunha (tenor), Henk Neven (bass), Edwin Crossley-Mercer (bass – Peter)
Ensemble Vocal des Heures Romantiques
Ensemble Instrumental des Heures Romantiques/Udo Reinemann
rec. live, 2 August, 2003, L’Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Villedieu-le-Château, France, Heures Romantiques au Pays de Monhodon 2003 Festival. DDD
NAXOS 8.557635-36 [59:33 + 37:04]

 

Today Carl Loewe is almost exclusively remembered as a composer of songs and ballads, many of them settings of Goethe. He wrote more than four hundred, thus challenging even his almost contemporary Franz Schubert. But he wrote a lot more: operas, oratorios and other choral works, chamber and piano music and two symphonies. Even in his lifetime his fame rested primarily on his songs – being an excellent singer he often performed them himself. Those who have heard his songs know that besides a nice melodic gift he also possessed a natural feeling for drama – his setting of Erlkönig is worthy of a place beside Schubert’s. Thus it came as no great surprise to learn that he also turned to oratorio as a means of expression.

In Stettin, where Loewe spent most of his life as organist and musical director, he conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1831, only two years after Mendelssohn had revived it, and it is obvious that the Passion Oratorio is influenced by ‘the fifth evangelist’ with recitatives, arias, chorals and choruses. Where he differs from Bach is that he doesn’t employ an evangelist, instead the narrative is allotted to different soloists. The tonal language is very much of its time, mid 19th century but there are baroque influences as well: several choruses are fugues. He also avoids ‘big’ numbers. There are no heavenly long choruses as the final one in St Matthew Passion and the arias are rarely more than 2–3 minutes.

The oratorio was written for fairly modest forces: a handful of soloists, a chorus (moderately sized – the group here has 22 members) and a string orchestra and an organ. Whether Loewe intended the orchestra to be of chamber music size I don’t know – here it is a string quartet + double bass. The lack of wind instruments lessens the possibilities to colour the music but it works surprisingly well with this pocket-size, too. The string group is balanced well forward with the chorus at some distance and the soloists seem to be somewhere between. Whether this was the sound the audience at this recorded concert experienced I don’t know, but it is good to hear so much of the strings and the inventive use of them: sometimes playing with mutes, sometimes tremolo effects to heighten the tension and also some pizzicato playing. In a few places there are obbligato solos behind the vocal proceedings, notably in the Chorus of the Daughters of Sion in Part III (CD2 tr. 3), where the cello provides some dramatic comments. Generally speaking Loewe achieves much with little and there is no lack of variation. The strings even have a little Larghetto on their own (CD1 tr. 7). Since this is a live recording there has to be some intrusive noises. These occur mainly when the chorus stand up or sit down. At a live performance this is part of the concept, for repeated listening it may be annoying to some. I noticed it and got used to it. The presence of an audience is noticeable only in the shape of applause after the final chorus.

Udo Reinemann, well known as a singer and teacher - some of the singers have studied with him - has picked a group of young musicians and singers for this occasion. It doesn’t say anywhere whether the Ensemble Instrumental and Vocal is a permanent group or a pick-up gang for this festival. Some rough edges in the choral singing leads me to think that they may not perform together on a regular basis. There is enthusiasm a-plenty, though and the dramatic choruses are done with nerve – and verve. The string group is really excellent. Always when hearing a piece of music for the first time, not spoilt by alternative readings or recordings, one has to trust that this is the way the music was intended – unless there are obvious mistakes and miscalculations. Knowing quite a few of Loewe’s songs I think that Reinemann and his forces have caught his intentions well and the overriding impression is one of sorrow, drama and contemplation in a varied score.

Of the soloists the bass, Henk Neven, has the heaviest burden and he also seems to be the most accomplished singer. He has a splendid bass-baritone, expressive, steady and his declamation is lively and involved. He becomes ever better the further the oratorio proceeds and the agitated recitative and bass aria in Part II (CD1 trs. 18, 19) show him at his very best. He is one to watch in the future. The tenor, Jacky da Cunha, has less to sing but his is an eager and lively delivery. The soprano, Nathalie Gaudefroy, has a light and bright and possibly fairly small voice, if the microphones can be trusted, but it can also be that she is positioned further away from the microphone than the others. Anyway she makes a nice impression and she has some of the most beautiful solos. Contralto Christianne Stotjin is equipped with a big vibrant voice; at first I thought it was a size too large and unwieldy with a vibrato one expects from a well-versed Wagnerian mezzo but it turned out after a while that the voice was under control and once she had settled she sang her part with feeling. Her Part II aria (CD1 tr. 15) is a fine calling card.

More experienced soloists and a more homogenous chorus might have given us an even stronger performance but there is something to be gained with this smaller scale as well and the obvious enthusiasm of all involved brings a lot of compensation.

The booklet gives us all the information we need, bar the complete texts, which as usual have to be downloaded from the internet, to a cost that goes beyond the impecunious’ means, but Keith Anderson’s detailed synopsis is a good substitute.

A rarity no doubt and probably not a forgotten master-piece, but a pleasing version of the passion story, enthusiastically performed by young musicians. I don’t regret having heard it and will certainly give it the occasional hearing in the future too.

Göran Forsling

 



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