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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]

Loewe’s Passion Oratorio followed closely on the Bach revival in Germany, one which was powerfully inaugurated by Mendelssohn’s famous performances of the St Matthew Passion. Loewe himself performed Bach’s work two years after Mendelssohn’s revival performances of 1829 and the importance of that pioneering work can be felt throughout his own Passion Oratorio, which can be provisionally dated to 1847.

Loewe splits the narrative amongst his soloists and employs a very small accompanying force – a string quintet, to include bass, and an organ. He sanctioned larger orchestral forces and also a version for accompanying solo organ but the version as recorded here seems to me to have the piquancy and intimacy of chamber forces allied to the gently reverential nature of the piece as a whole. There are certainly enough incidental string textures to add variety and colour to the accompanying passages and where necessary there are moments of expressive and theatrical power as well. Pizzicati sharply accompany Judas’s complaining; the strings interject strongly in the cry of Blasphemy in the Trial; there is plenty of strict contrapuntal writing. The chorales are simple and effective. Some are derived from Bach and some from older Lutheran sources. O Du Zuflucht der Elenden for instance was originally by Johannes Crüger and used by Bach in his Cantata No. 180. And Ach bleib mit deiner Gnade is a melody by M. Vulius, taken over and harmonised by Bach for Cantata 95. One less than convincing moment is the Chorus of the Daughters of Sion in Part III – very fey. Nevertheless the sense of homage and renewal here is still palpable. There are however also contemporary stylistic allusions to Mendelssohn in the romantically descriptive moments such as Judas’s aria Weh’ mir.

The intimacy of the chamber forces extends to the choral as well – a choir of twenty-two. The choir is resonant and effective but lacks the ultimate in tonal refinement and blend. As early as the first Chorale one can hear them struggle and the sopranos in particular are somewhat raucous with individual voices sticking out somewhat prominently. There’s a very raucous soprano in the fugal climax of Part I who does a deal of aural damage to the proceedings. They all tend to be a touch florid as well, with vibratos that tend to over-balance the altos.

Of the soloists three have studied with the conductor Udo Reinemann. Soprano Nathalie Gaudefroy has a very pleasant and well-focused voice; it’s a touch on the small side but nicely supported and technically adroit. Contralto Christianne Stotjin sounds considerably older than twenty-seven but contraltos as a breed tend to sound somewhat more matronly their years. The voice is a fine one albeit I find her vibrato, albeit well employed, rather too wide to match those of her companion singers. Of late I’ve noticed her taking on mezzo roles. As compensation she brings great gravity and seriousness to her role – try her in Part II’s aria Heil’ge Nacht.

Tenor Jacky da Cunha brings plenty of energy if also a certain amount of strain to his role. Henk Neven is the most impressive of the quartet – an eloquent, well-nourished and rounded voice. Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a bass from the chorus, takes the small part of Peter well.

The success of Lowe’s Passion lies in its simplicity and compression. At times one can even imagine oneself listening to chorales from the St Matthew Passion. The performance has its rough edges, as must be acknowledged. It’s also a live performance, though the audience is commendably quiet. Only a dropped programme (or something) alerted me to its presence, and the applause at the end. The notes give a synopsis of the chorales and arias but texts will need to be downloaded.

The Oratorio offers a creative sideline on Loewe’s far better known songs. It faces backwards, as it were, but with unselfconsciousness. And it bears with it a surety and sincerity that are very winning.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Goran Forsling


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