Johann MATTHESON (1681-1764)
Das größte Kind - Christmas Oratorio in 2 parts
Susanne Rydén, Nele Gramß (soprano), Anne Schmid, Melissa Hegney (contralto), Gerd Türk, Ulrich Cordes (tenor), Wolf Matthias Friedrich, Thilo Dahlmann (bass)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 20 December 2008, Peterskirche in Kempen, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 455-2 [56:01]
Johann Mattheson was not only a prolific writer of books about music, he was also active as a composer of mainly vocal music. He wrote a number of operas and oratorios, the latter in his capacity as cantor of Hamburg Cathedral. Because of the special status of the cathedral - it was not under the supervision of the city council - Mattheson had freedom to perform the music he wanted. He could also choose the interpreters he preferred, among them singers who worked for the Hamburg opera. They had the technical skills to sing the vocal parts in his oratorios which were sometimes quite demanding. That is also the case in the oratorio Das größte Kind.
This 'Christmas Oratorio' has nothing in common with the famous oratorio of Johann Sebastian Bach. Not a single verse from the gospels is quoted here. The unknown librettist uses a free poetic text, which is extended by stanzas from two well-known hymns: In dulci jubilo and Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ. There are some biblical characters, like Joseph and Mary and shepherds, as well as allegorical figures: the Bride of Christ, Devotion, Meditation and the Children of Man - but no Evangelist. The story is set in Bethlehem, with - in part one - Joseph and Mary singing God's praise in the stable. The second part concentrates on the shepherds telling them that the angel has announced the birth of Jesus.
Among the technically demanding parts in this work is the aria 'Was schad't mir der Tod' (How can death harm me) for soprano (the Bride of Christ), transverse flute and basso continuo. It has a very high range which is only just within the tessitura of Nele Gramß. She sings it very well, though, and Annie Laflamme delivers an exquisite performance of the flute part. The longest aria is that of Mary at the very end of the oratorio, 'Komme dann, erwehlte Seele' (Come then, chosen soul), which is sung by Susanne Rydén. She does quite well, but I am really surprised by her singing in this recording. I have heard her many times on disc, and was always struck by the clarity and purity of her voice. In one of her recordings she sings with Emma Kirkby, and their voices blend superbly. Here her singing is marred by a big wobble, in particular on unstressed notes, which seems to me a technical deficiency. It is to be hoped that this is temporary, because it isn't pleasing to listen to. And as she has an important role in this oratorio it undermines the overall quality of the listening experience.
Wolf Matthias Friedrich in his role as Joseph sings his aria 'Heller Glanz von 's Vaters Licht' (Radiant glow of the Father's light) beautifully, but he is disappointing in the recitatives which are artificial and rhythmically too strict – as with all the recitatives in this recording. Thilo Dahlmann is new to me, and I am pleased by his performance of the aria of Meditation, 'O allerliebstes Kind' (O child dearest of all). In the duet of the Children of Man, 'Wer kann dieses recht erwegen', the balance between Nele Gramß and Anne Schmid is less than ideal. Delightful is the trio of Shepherdesses and a Shepherd, 'Es klopft noch unsre volle Brust' (Our hearts even now do throb), in which the throbbing is imitated in staccato figures in the orchestra as well as in the vocal parts.
This trio is just one example of the imaginative and evocative way Mattheson sets the text to music. His treatment of the chorales is also interesting. There are no simple harmonisations here. The two stanzas from Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ which end the first part and open the second - musically the second is a repetition of the first - are dramatised, so to speak, in that fragments of the hymn are repeated or dramatic pauses are included. In the second part three stanzas from In dulci jubilo are used, and after every line the two horns repeat the last notes of the choir, as an echo.
In this performance the 'choir' consists of the soloists with some additional singers to a total of eight voices. It is involved in several 'arias with choir'. This mostly means that at some moment the choir intervenes and repeats one line from the aria. But in the aria of Devotion, 'Großer Gott' (Great God), the soloist (Gerd Türk) sings a line which is then immediately repeated by the choir. Lastly it should be said that several arias seem to reflect that Mattheson considered an oratorio as an opera with a sacred subject. Some are quite operatic, especially in the use of long and virtuosic coloratura passages. The opening chorus also has that element.
Last year Michael Alexander Willens conducted another oratorio by Mattheson, Der liebreiche und geduldige David, also on CPO. I wasn't that impressed by its quality. In my opinion this 'Christmas Oratorio' is much better, even if one has to readjust, being acquainted with Bach's completely different Christmas Oratorio. It is well worth it despite the performance having some serious shortcomings.
Johan van Veen
A Christmas Oratorio of a different kind, well worth exploring despite some shortcomings in performance.