Johann Mattheson is mainly known as theorist and writer of books
about music. But he was also a productive composer. The largest
part of his output is vocal music, both sacred and secular. The
former he composed mainly in his capacity as cantor of Hamburg
Cathedral, a position he held from 1715 to 1728. In that year
he had to leave his job due to his progressive deafness.
The Cathedral had a special status in Hamburg. Unlike the other
churches it was not under the supervision of the city council
and as a result it had a considerable amount of freedom. Mattheson
used this freedom to the full. He insisted on using new texts
for religious compositions. Even more revolutionary was that
he used women in liturgical music, which was absolutely not done
everywhere else. And he also made use of the singers who worked
for the Hamburg opera which the ecclesiastical authorities considered
a cesspool of vice.
The participation of opera singers in the performance of religious
music in the Cathedral is an indication of Mattheson's preference
for sacred music of a theatrical nature. This explains an oratorio
like the present, Der liebreiche und geduldige David
which is one of the last Mattheson has and which dates from 1724.
It concentrates on the revolt of David's son Absalom and his
defeat. As usual it is in two parts, which were performed before
and after the sermon respectively.
The main role is that of David; Absalom doesn't figure here at
all. The second main role is Meditatio, an allegorical character
who at first opposes David and then supports him and comments
on the events. The first parts tells about the start of the uprising
when David has to flee. Meditatio urges God's revenge but David
says God wants us to love our children. When Simei, who belongs
to the family of David's predecessor Saul, curses him, David
resists any attempts to punish him as he believes "that
God commands him to do so". At the end of the first part
Meditatio understands that David takes his love from God's love,
and then urges the 'Christian Community' to sing: "Let us
increase in your love and knowledge, that we may remain in faith
and serve you in the spirit."
The second part begins with David's army fighting Absalom and
his men. David urges his soldiers to spare Absalom's life. But
at the end of the battle he learns that Absalom has been killed,
and then sings a song of mourning: "Oh, Absalom, my son!" Meditatio
reacts in a recitativo accompagnato: "Now I'm completely
convinced that neighbourly love arises from God's love".
He also points in the direction of Jesus: "What David did,
that Jesus does no less". This is underlined by the chorale
which ends the oratorio, a stanza from the hymn 'Wie schön
leuchtet der Morgenstern', associated with the Annunciation.
The instrumental scoring is for strings, two flutes, oboe, two
bassoons, two horns and bc. The horns only play in one aria in
the first part and the war chorus at the start of the second
part. The other wind instruments have some obbligato parts, but
they mainly play unisono with the voice. There is little instrumental
virtuosity in this work, with the exception of the obbligato
part for the violin in Meditatio's aria which opens the second
Mattheson was a supporter of the modern style which emphasized
the importance of melody instead of harmony. This is reflected
by this oratorio. There are no harmonically remarkable passages,
and expression is mainly achieved through the melodic lines.
The duet of Ithai and Abisai in the second part (Gott ist
es der für alle Menschen wacht
) is typical of this work:
the two voices mainly sing in parallel motion.
I haven't heard many of Mattheson's vocal works. Years ago I
had the opportunity to hear performances of operas by Mattheson
and his colleague Reinhard Keiser, and I came to the conclusion
that Keiser was the better composer. This oratorio confirms my
impression. 'Der liebreiche und geduldige David' is a nice work,
but there was hardly anything which really struck me as remarkable.
David's lament "Oh, Absalom, my son!" is rather flat
and not very expressive.
But that is also due to the performance. I don't understand why
in this aria the basso continuo is played by the theorbo alone.
The use of the organ and the cello would have imparted more colour
to the performance, especially as Christian Hilz is not the most
expressive singer of the cast. There is nothing wrong with his
singing as such, but his voice is rather bland and lacks colour.
The most interesting part is that of Meditatio, and with Nicky
Kennedy it is very well cast. Ursula Eittinger has a small role
as Simei; in her only aria she could do with more bite. Max Ciolek
is alright as Ithai, but unfortunately in his aria 'Heldenkönig,
deine Schmerzen' his voice wobbles on every longer note. The
soloists are also part of the choir which is extended to eight
singers in total. The blending of the voices is less than ideal
which is especially noticeable in the chorales. The orchestra
does play well in the tutti and in the obbligato parts; the natural
horns should be mentioned with honour.
To sum it up: it is interesting to become acquainted with Mattheson's
vocal music, and those who have a special engagement with the
musical life in Hamburg in the early 18th century shouldn't miss
this disc. If the part of David had been given a more expressive
performance I would have commended it to a wider range of baroque
enthusiasts. Even so I think the vocal works of Reinhard Keiser
are in more urgent need of exploration.
Johan van Veen