Christmas Oratorio and Magnificat
Die heilsame Geburt und Menschwerdung unsers Herrn und Heilandes
Jesu Christi [36:00]
Magnificat a due cori [19:03]
Nicky Kennedy, Anna Crookes (soprano), Ursula Eittinger, Dorothee
Merkel (contralto), Andreas Post, Sven Hansen (tenor), Stephan MacLeod,
Johannes Gsänger (bass)
Die Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 9-12 November 2009, Chamber music auditorium of Deutschlandfunk,
Cologne, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 274-2 [55:20]
This is the third oratorio by Johann Mattheson which I have
heard and reviewed in a fairly short space of time. For many
years hardly any of his music was available on disc, but these
three releases show a remarkable interest in Mattheson, who
is best known for his writings on musical subjects.
He was educated as a singer, and also learnt to play the keyboard,
the viola da gamba, violin, oboe, flute and lute. His first
public appearances as a singer and organist were at the age
of nine. The first stage of his career was as a singer in opera:
he participated in various performances at the Oper am Gänsemarkt.
He also composed some operas. This phase lasted until 1705 when
he accepted the post of secretary to the English ambassador
in Hamburg. In the following years he became known as a translator
and as a writer on music. He published several books which are
still often referred to as they give much information about
performance practice and the aesthetic ideals in Germany in
In 1715 he became cantor at Hamburg Cathedral, a position he
held until 1728 when he had to leave his job due to progressive
deafness. In this capacity he composed various oratorios for
festivities like Christmas and Easter. They were mostly split
into two parts, performed before and after the sermon. Only
recently I reviewed
a recording of the Christmas oratorio Das größte Kind.
It dates from 1720 and is very different from this Christmas
oratorio which is from 1715 and is one of the first pieces he
composed for Hamburg Cathedral. Whereas in Das größte Kind
not a single line from the Bible is used, the core of this oratorio
is the text of Luke 2, 1-18, which is sung in the form of recitatives
by the Evangelist. And in this oratorio the allegorical characters
that feature in Das größte Kind are absent.
Musically these two works are also very different. The arias,
written on a poetic text of a reflective nature, are less virtuosic
and less operatic than in the oratorio of 1720. It is also remarkable
that it contains several references to the past. The oratorio
begins and ends with stanzas from the 16th-century hymn 'Vom
Himmel hoch'. Mattheson doesn't use the well-known melody which
Martin Luther wrote in 1539, but an older melody from 1535,
after a then popular song. It is also quoted in the chorus 'Aus
Zion bricht an der schöne Glanz Gottes'. The chorus of the angels,
'Ehre sei Gott', is composed in the stile antico, and
the chorus of the shepherds, 'Lasset uns hingehen', is a fugue.
Only a couple of arias have a dacapo; sometimes a whole aria
is repeated from beginning to end. One aria uses a biblical
text: the angel singing 'Fürchtet euch nicht!' (Fear not!).
But in fact it is more a kind of arioso than a real aria. It
is followed by a 'real' aria for soprano, here given to the
second soprano. In most arias the singer is accompanied by strings
and basso continuo. In the bass aria 'Der Väter Wunsch' two
horns are added, and the duet 'Sterbliche, besingt mit Freuden'
contains a solo part for the violin. In the intimate aria 'Man
darf dir einen kleinen Raum versagen' the soprano is supported
by flute, viola and bc. This suits the content well, and the
second half says: "Come into my heart for your comfort."
In the chorales and the chorus 'Aus Zion bricht' Mattheson adds
parts for two trumpets, two horns and timpani.
The other work on this disc is a setting of the Magnificat.
That is to say: Mattheson keeps only two lines from the original
biblical text (in German translation). The other verses are
replaced by a poetic paraphrase, divided over recitatives and
arias. The Magnificat is written for two choirs, each consisting
of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. It begins with a Sinfonia
for the whole orchestra which consists of flute, two trumpets,
timpani, strings and basso continuo. A duet by the two sopranos
follows, who are then joined by the tutti. In the first aria
soprano I is supported by solo violin and bc. Next the bass
has a recitative in which some elements in the text are singled
out through extended coloraturas. He then sings an aria which
begins with the text: "His arm scatters and exercises might".
Mattheson defies expectation and refrains from using the trumpets
here - only strings. The second soprano has a beautiful aria
with flute and bc: "I suffer thirst, my soul hungers".
After another recitative the piece ends with the other line
from the biblical text Mattheson has kept: "As he has spoken
to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever", written
in the stile antico. The piece closes with a repeat of
the opening section.
The Mattheson we meet in the Christmas oratorio on this disc
is more 'conventional', as it were, than the Mattheson of Das
größte Kind. The Magnificat a due cori, on the other
hand, is anything but conventional. At least I can't remember
having ever heard a Magnificat, in which the biblical text was
largely replaced by a free poetic text. Because of the combination
of these two compositions this disc deserves the attention of
lovers of baroque vocal music. Like the other two recordings
I have referred to it shows that Mattheson is more than a theorist
and has to be taken seriously as a composer. New Grove lists
quite a number of oratorios from his pen, and it is a shame
that a considerable part of his oeuvre in this department is
I was not completely happy with the previous two recordings,
also directed by Michael Alexander Willens. In both cases there
were some weak links in the cast. This disc is the best of the
three, with all soloists giving fine accounts of themselves.
The part of the Evangelist is given an immaculate performance
by Andreas Post. The soprano parts are divided over the two
sopranos. I don't know whether this was indicated by the composer,
but it was certainly a good idea as the voices of Nicki Kennedy
and Anna Crookes are sufficiently different to tell them apart.
The other 'second voices' (alto, tenor and bass) are used as
ripienists, who only sing in the tutti sections. These
are generally well sung, although sometimes a slight vibrato
creeps in, especially in the chorale settings which open and
end the oratorio. The playing of the orchestra is also good,
and the solo and obbligato parts are beautifully executed. I
would like to mention especially Catherine Manson who plays
the violin solos in both works. The only criticism is that some
of the recitatives are slowish and should have been sung with
more rhythmic freedom.
The booklet contains programme notes in German, English and
French. In the part about the Magnificat we read: "the
metre too changes from 4/4 to ? time". According to the
French translation the question mark should be replaced by "3/4".
The lyrics are also given with an English translation.
Johan van Veen