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Oskar Gottlieb BLARR (b. 1934)
Jesus-Passion (1983-85) [96:42]
Gloria Rehm (soprano)
Silvia Hauer (mezzo soprano)
Sung Min Song (tenor)
Johannes Hill (baritone)
Markus Volpert (Jesus, bass-baritone)
Bachchor Wiesbaden
Jugendkantorei der ev. Singakademie Wiesbaden
Bachorchester Wiesbaden/Jörg Endebrock
Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Oskar Gottlieb Blarr [94:01]
Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with Odilo Klasen [36:11]
rec. live, 30 March 2018, Lutherkirche Wiesbdaden; Conversations (2018)
Reviewed in CD stereo

I was very pleased when this new recording of Oskar Gottlieb Blarr's Jesus-Passion arrived for review, the reason being that, only a few months ago, I'd purchased the composer's own live recording of the work on The Koch Schwann label. That performance was cobbled together from three live concerts given between 1985-86, which would have been the work's initial outing. Blarr has composed four oratorios about the life of Jesus, no doubt the result of inspiration gained from a prolonged visit to Israel in 1981-2, when he experienced and absorbed the environment Jesus lived in as a Jew. The other three oratorios followed in subsequent years: Jesus-Geburt. Weihnachtsoratorium (1988/91); Oster-Oratorium (1996); Die Himmelfahrt (2010).

For those unfamiliar with the composer, he was born in Sandlack in 1934, before 1945 part of Germany, now in Poland. His early organ teacher was Wilhelm Adrian, a Reimen pupil. He later studied Lutheran church music at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hannover, where he also undertook some percussion training. In 1961 he took up his post at the Neanderkirche, Düsseldorf. As a composer, he's had tuition from such notables as Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Krzysztof Penderecki, and had contact with Olivier Messiaen in Düsseldorf, Karlsruhe, Jerusalem, and Paris. His compositional output is wide-ranging and, in addition to oratorio, he's produced an opera, several choral works, four symphonies, two concertos, chamber and piano music.

The oratorio's immediacy has guaranteed an enthusiastic response from audiences over the years. It's had twenty-six performances to date (2018) since that 1985 premiere. The early seeds of the work date back to Blarr's sojourn in Israel at the beginning of the 1980s when he sought out the roots of Jesus and the biblical story. The work avoids all references to anti-Semitism, the composer distancing himself from the St. John and St. Matthew passions with the words: "I will not play such a passion any longer!". Jesus-Passion draws on diverse texts, not just biblical, but also the writings of the poets Pinchas Sadeh and Alfred Kittner.

The oratorio is divided into three parts:
(1) Entry into Jerusalem
(2) Jesus in Gethsemane
(3) The Crucifixion

What particularly strikes me is the wealth of ingenuity and invention of Blarr's scoring, harnessing harps, horns, flutes, trombones, clarinets and a small hand drum, all employed resourcefully to achieve a multifarious canvas of sound. In addition, shofar blowing techniques of the Yemeni Jews, passed down over the generations, and discovered on his sabbatical are utilized to add colour and potency - Tekia (long tone), Shebarim (rapid gissando) and T'ruh (blaring staccato).

The five soloists all give engaging performances, and Jörg Endebrock's inspirational direction elicits the very best from the choir and orchestra.

Like the Koch version, this recording is live. The sonics can't be faulted in any way, with the Lutherkirche Wiesbdaden acoustic offering ideal conditions. The engineers have struck an ideal balance between all participants, and every detail emerges clearly. Although the sound quality of both the Cybele and Koch recordings is first class, I have a slight preference for the richer bloom and warmth of the Cybele version. In addition, the soloists in this new venture are more sharply profiled, which is a plus.

A portion of the package, as is the norm in the 'Artist in Conversation' series, is given over to Mirjam Wiesemann in conversation with the composer and with Odilo Klasen, who's something of an authority on Blarr. The interviews are in German and provide some fascinating insights into the composer and his music.

Having reviewed several Cybele Records releases, I'm typically struck by the label’s high production values and sumptuous presentation. The three SACDs come in a sturdy gatefold, which also houses a substantial 79-page booklet. Annotations are in German and English, each language displayed on adjacent pages, which is convenient. Unlike the Koch Schwann set, there are no texts which will disappoint some. Having said that, there is a detailed commentary which can aid the listener navigate this complex score. There are portraits also of the participating artists. As a bonus, there's a fascinating cache of black and white photographs depicting the composer in the various stages of his life.

This is a touching and deeply rewarding score. Let's hope Cybele Records issues the other three oratorios in due course.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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