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Carl LOEWE (1796-1869)
Das Sühnopfer des Neuen Bundes (Passions-Oratorium) [103:12]
Monika Mauch (soprano), Ulrike Malotta (mezzo-soprano), Georg Poplutz (tenor), Andreas Burkhart (baritone)
Arcis-Vocalisten München, Barockorchester L’arpa festante/Thomas Gropper
rec. 2018, Himmelfahrtskirche, München-Sendling
OEHMS OC1706 [62:01 + 41:11]

The sound which the name Carl Loewe always brings to my mind is the inky basso profundo of the great Kurt Moll doing full emotional and vocal justice to some more or less gruesome ballad – ‘Herr Oluf’, ‘Tom der Reimer’, ‘Harald’ - something like that. Well, Loewe certainly did write more than 400 songs and ballads, but they can be sung successfully by a wide variety of voices (Loewe himself was a distinguished boy soprano, and later a tenor); and he composed a great many other works as well. Thomas Gropper’s booklet note lists six operas, two symphonies, two piano concertos and some seventeen oratorios – all this running alongside a career of some 46 years (1820-66) as Cantor of St James’s Church in Stettin (now Szcsecin, on the Oder in North West Poland).

Given that all his life Loewe was absolutely steeped in the traditions of North German Lutheranism, and had indeed studied theology at Halle an der Saale, it is perhaps surprising that, of these oratorios, only the one recorded here could be described as ‘church music’. Most of the others seem to have been by way of hybrid opera-oratorios conceived as a way of circumventing the fact that, as Cantor, Loewe was banned from composing for the theatre. Das Sühnopfer des Neuen Bundes, however (the English ‘Expiatory Sacrifice of the New Covenant’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue either), clearly was designed for liturgical performance, on Good Friday. It was written in 1847, the year after the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and the same year as that of Verdi’s Macbeth; scholars assume, though without hard evidence, that it was first performed in Szcsecin that year. Its composition is obviously linked at least indirectly to Mendelssohn’s recent revivals of the choral works of J. S. Bach: Loewe himself is known to have conducted the St Matthew Passion as early as 1831, and the St John in 1841; and after the composition of  Das Sühnopfer it seems its composer alternated it on Good Fridays in Szcsecin with Bach’s two Passions and Der Tod Jesu by Carl Heinrich Graun. A recording of this latter piece with exactly the same forces as this new Loewe performance was issued by Oehms in 2015 (review).

So how to describe this ‘Passion Oratorio’? First of all, it’s carefully and rather satisfyingly structured: there are three parts, each of which in turn has three sub-divisions. Part One begins with a prelude set at the grave of Lazarus in Bethany, and then covers Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus’s feet and the Last Supper in Jerusalem. Part Two describes Jesus’s capture in the Garden of Gethsemane, followed by his appearances before first Caiaphas and then Pilate. The final part, slightly longer than the first two, stretches from Simon of Cyrene’s carrying of the cross to Christ’s crucifixion on Golgotha and entombment in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea. Unlike Bach, Loewe and his librettist Wilhelm Telschow combine elements of all four Gospels, though especially Matthew and Luke, to form an economical, coherent and unpretentious narrative. Around this are added arias – more precisely, short ariosi – the occasional duet or trio for the SATB soloists, some turba choruses and a sprinkling of congregational chorales from the Lutheran tradition.

So far, so Bach-like. There are, however, also significant differences from what we know and might expect. Loewe does not employ an Evangelist, but rather distributes the many narrative recitatives between the soloists (overall, the bass is the busiest); and, during these – except for some short dialogues towards the end for tenor (as Pilate or Barabbas) and bass (as Christ) – singers quote from other characters using their own voices. His work is also on a smaller, simpler scale than the Bach Passions: the orchestra has no wind instruments, only strings, a – sparingly used – organ and timpani; there are no big ‘set pieces’; and both words and music espouse for the most part a notably dignified, unpretentious restraint. It’s all very North German: there’s a lot that seems redolent of the Protestant Hanseatic culture out of which Brahms was to emerge only a few years later.

Musically, the oratorio comes across as neither particularly distinctive nor yet derivative. There are echoes of Mendelssohn, perhaps also of Schumann, and some parts – notably those involving Judas and the more dramatic crowd scenes – betray Loewe’s interest in opera and in the more dramatic elements of the ballad genre. But the Baroque is very much there as well – particularly perhaps in the choral writing, but also in the work’s frequent use of rigorous counterpoint and its general demeanour of contemplative devotion. It’s not a thrilling piece, and not a gloriously melodic one either; but it certainly has its moments of memorable beauty – the four short arias for the female soloists are particular cases in point; and it has about it a real seriousness and integrity that I at least find cumulatively impressive.

It is very well served by these performers. Thomas Gropper, himself a singer, seems absolutely inside the idiom, and he gets excellent playing from his 17-strong original instrument orchestra. He also has a very good semi-professional choir of what sounds like medium size, who sing with fine discipline, secure intonation and superb diction. All the soloists are good, too. Andreas Burkhart is perhaps light-voiced for what sounds to me in essence a bass-baritone part, but his tone is well produced and pleasing, and he shows great versatility across a wide range of tasks. We don’t hear all that much of the tenor Georg Poplutz, but he has an attractive lyric voice and makes the most of his chances to characterize. Ulrike Malotta is a warm-toned mezzo with a contralto- rather than soprano-orientation; to my ear her production sounds at time slightly nasal, but she makes her two arias in Part Two into real highlights, singing them with gripping intensity. If there is a stand-out among the soloists, however, it is Monika Mauch. She has one of those delightfully fresh, clear, rather boyish ‘early music’ sopranos, but emerges also as an able vocal actress; and she possesses sufficient vocal heft to do justice to the description of cosmic convulsions that Telschow interpolates into Pilate’s wife’s plea to her husband to spare Jesus. All the soloists have young, steady voices and – again – first-rate diction; and they blend remarkably well in two brief, but very lovely, unaccompanied chorales.

Musically, then, all is in good hands. The recording, made in a warm but not especially resonant, church acoustic, is also very good, well balanced and eloquently conveying the work’s often dark-hued colouring. Listening on headphones, though, I was aware of a slight and not easily describable background noise that I occasionally found distracting. The booklet is also not perfect. It is most elegantly produced, making appropriate use of white surfaces and a tasteful amalgam of the Chi-Rho and Alpha/Omega symbols; but Gropper’s note tells us more than one needs about Loewe’s biography and less than one might like about the music in hand; there is no mention of a fifth soloist, a bass who appears briefly in Part One; and, unaccountably, the words of one item, the Chorale ‘O du Zuflucht der Elenden’ (no. 6) are omitted from the enclosed libretto. More seriously, perhaps, that libretto appears only in German. This is particularly disappointing in that its ten pages are followed by a full sixteen containing trilingual biographies of the artists.

That said, an English translation of Telschow’s text can be accessed on the Naxos website (link). This was uploaded to accompany the only other recording of Das Sühnopfer which is currently available. Conducted by Udo Reinemann and using predominantly French forces, it appeared on Naxos in 2006 and was reviewed for MusicWeb International by Goran Försling (review) and Jonathan Woolf (review). Both admire some elements of that performance, notably its obvious enthusiasm and the distinguished contribution of the baritone Henk Neven. Both, however, also have reservations, not least about the choral singing. Woolf says that “the choir is resonant and effective but lacks the ultimate in tonal refinement and blend… and the sopranos in particular are somewhat raucous with individual voices sticking out somewhat prominently”. Moreover, his feeling that “the performance has its rough edges” is reflected also in Forsling’s suggestion that “more experienced soloists and a more homogenous chorus might have given us an even stronger performance”. I have been unable to do more than sample the Naxos disc, but my first impressions largely coincide with those of my two colleagues. Neven is indeed superb, and the live performance has a palpable sense of drama. On the other hand, I find the audience noise intrusive, struggle to hear the words in a way I never do in the Gropper performance, and am put off by the industrial quantities of vibrato on display from the soloists, instrumentalists and, above all, choir – who really aren’t in the same class as the Arcis-Vocalisten.

Considerations of price aside, then, it seems clear to me that the new Oehms recording is the one to go for. It’s not perfect, but it is a quality product with no major flaws of the kind that will disturb you on repeated listening. As to whether the music itself warrants the outlay involved, that’s of course a matter of opinion. Das Sühnopfer is not a great work; but it is, I think, a distinguished and admirable one whose acquaintance I am glad to have made. I can’t see myself wanting to listen to it all through very often. But I can imagine wanting to use its three parts rather as you might, for example, a sequence of three Bach cantatas: for half an hour’s enjoyable and edifying listening on, say, three separate evenings in Holy Week. Certainly it’s worth a listen; and you may find, as I did, that its sincere but somehow understated spirituality has a way both of commanding respect and of drawing you in.

Nigel Harris

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