Ferdinand RIES (1784 - 1838) Die Könige in Israel - oratorio in 2 parts (1837)
Gramß (soprano); Gerhild Romberger, Ewa Wolak
(contralto); Markus Schäfer (tenor); Kai Florian Bischoff,
Harry van der Kamp, Marek Rzepka (bass)
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert/Hermann Max
rec. 22-23 September 2005, Basilika Knechtsteden, Germany.
DDD CPO 777 221-2 [53:33
Some composers have a strong influence on later generations.
Sometimes this influence persists a long time after their death.
Beethoven is just one example. It took a while before Brahms
dared to write a symphony; he wasn't sure he could live
up to the standard Beethoven had set. Another is George
Frideric Handel. He was a man of the theatre and preferred
to compose operas but it was mainly because of his oratorios
that he was admired - and feared. Mozart was so impressed
by Handel's oratorios that he arranged several of them
and Haydn's oratorio 'Die Schöpfung' is unthinkable
without the model of Handel's Messiah. The oratorio
'Die Könige in Israel' by Ferdinand Ries shows how
long Handel's influence lasted. It shows the traces of
Handel's style and yet for all this Ries feared the standard
Handel had set. This explains the story behind the oratorio.
Ries had first become acquainted with the oratorio genre when he studied
with Beethoven in Vienna from 1802 to 1806. As he arrived
in Vienna, just 18 years of age, Beethoven was working
at his own oratorio 'Christus am Ölberge', and in
return for free musical education Ries had to assist Beethoven
with copying out the parts of the oratorio and assisting
with preparations for its first performance.
'Die Könige in Israel' wasn't the first Ries oratorio. From
1825 he had acted several times as musical director of
the Music Festival of Lower Saxony. This took place every
year at Pentecost in Aachen, Düsseldorf and Cologne alternately.
In 1829 he was commissioned by the Festival to compose
an oratorio. This became 'Der Sieg des Glaubens'.
In 1836 the festival in Düsseldorf had presented Mendelssohn's
oratorio 'Paulus', and so next year the festival
in Aachen wanted to come up with something of the same
standard. Ries was invited again to act as musical director
and also to direct an oratorio of his own.
The first problem was to find an appropriate subject. He considered
the story of Esther, but Ries was afraid to follow that
one up because Handel had set the story as well. In a letter
Ries wrote: "Now that [Handel] is a dangerous competitor;
I cannot write in his style and would not want to do so
either - if I did, my own positive qualities would go to
the devil, and, vying with him, I would have to be the
runner-up". 'Die Könige in Israel' was also
a subject which Handel had dealt with: Saul and David.
But the main character in this oratorio is David, whereas
Handel called his oratorio 'Saul'. This is in line
with what Ries had written in the letter just quoted: that
if a subject had to be chosen which Handel had already
used, it "must be undertaken in an entirely different
The Ries oratorio begins with an overture which is followed by a chorus
which sings the praise of David. It already refers to David's
future as king: "We greet you as king, now that God
has repudiated Saul!" David then answers in his first
aria by pointing upwards: "Might and victory wouldn't
be mine if the power of the Most High didn't descend here
to me". His wife Michal, daughter of Saul, then in
an aria prays to God that Saul may stop pursuing David
- to no avail. Next we hear Saul coming with his army to
capture David. He is saved by the invading Philistines.
When the battle goes the Philistines' way Saul is driven
back to seeking the advice of the late prophet Samuel,
who is conjured up by a witch in Endor. He tells Saul: "Your
kingdom will be taken from you". The Philistines defeat
Saul's army, and both Saul and his son Jonathan are killed.
When the Philistines want to celebrate their victory ("We'll
divide the spoils") David, with his own army, intervenes.
In the last part of the oratorio David becomes king. A
spirit chorus of Patriarchs refers to the coming of Jesus: "Hail
to you, you are the anointed of the Lord, a prefigurement
of the one who is to come and has been from all eternity".
In the closing chorus Jesus is praised as the son of David: "Worship
him, the First and the Last; praise and honour to the Son
This is a typical romantic oratorio in that the orchestra must establish
an atmosphere which suits the text of the recitatives,
arias and choruses, for instance through the use of dynamics.
The most striking example is the scene with the witch of
Endor, where the tremolo in the orchestra creates an eerie
atmosphere in which Samuel is coming up from the underworld.
At the same time there are clear traces of Handel's influence,
or of the baroque oratorio in general. For instance, the
character of Jonathan is scored for an alto - giving a
male role to a high voice was a feature of the baroque
era. The choruses are often connected to a group of characters:
David's warriors, the Philistines, Saul's warriors, the
Maidens - just what Handel often did in his oratorios.
There are also examples of a very direct illustration of the text.
The word "zerschmettert" (smashed to pieces)
in the chorus 'In düstrer Nacht' is sung and played forte.
The orchestra depicts the footsteps of the soldiers of
Saul's army when they come to capture David (chorus 'Er
nah't'). When the chorus of the Philistines sing that Saul
must fall the word "fallen" (fall) is sung and
played forte and is followed by a pause, and on the word "fall" Ries
has also set descending figures. Lastly Ries makes use
of counterpoint: several choruses contain fugal sections,
as in the second section of the closing chorus, and also
in the chorus which ends Part 1. Here we find another feature
of this oratorio: a dialogue between two choruses, in this
case the Israelites and Saul's warriors on the one hand
and the Philistines on the other.
There are relatively few arias in this work. Saul and Michal have
two, David, the Witch of Endor and the spirit of Samuel
just one. In addition David has two solos in choruses.
The witch and Samuel play the main roles in the scene where
the spirit of Samuel is conjured. It was this scene which
made the strongest impression during the first performance,
as Ries wrote in a letter to his brother Joseph: "The
witch scene comes over extraordinarily, which made me very
happy, because I was not entirely certain of my effect
there; but several people said to me that it gave them
a quite eerie feeling, and they looked around to see if
something might not be coming up out of the ground".
This scene is also a highlight in this recording. That isn't only
due to the orchestra, which realises Ries' effects very
well, but also to Ewa Wolak who sings the role of the witch,
and does so to frighteningly realistic effect. Her part
is pretty low, and in the lowest notes she goes down to
a tenor range. Markus Schäfer has sung many roles in this
kind of oratorio, and here he gives a fine account of the
role of David. His clear and penetrating voice is very
suitable for this role, and his diction admirable. Harry
van der Kamp, Nele Gramß and Gerhild Romberger are completely
convincing as Saul, Michal and Jonathan respectively. Marek
Rzepka and Kai Florian Bischoff are good in their respective
roles of spirit of Samuel and Saul's general Abner, although
in both cases I would have liked a bit more powerful voices.
The choruses are magnificently sung, with great command
of the dynamic nuances Ries requires. All the orchestral
effects are perfectly realised by Das Kleine Konzert.
This oratorio is a very interesting and musically enthralling composition.
It is another treasure unearthed by Hermann Max and an
important addition to the repertoire of sacred vocal music
of the 19th century. The work fully deserves its place
in the catalogue of romantic oratorios. No one who likes
the oratorios of Mendelssohn or Schumann should miss this
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