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Ernst Wilhelm WOLF (1735-1792)
Jesu, deine Passion will ich jetzt bedenken - Passion Oratorio
Hanna Herfurtner (soprano), Marian Dijkhuizen (contralto), Georg Poplutz (tenor), Mauro Borgioni (bass)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
rec. 2017, Chamber Music Hall of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 777 999-2 [81:23]

German sacred music written in the decades after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach has for a long time been almost completely neglected. Since the beginning of this century the oeuvre of Gottfried August Homilius has especially received serious attention, and recently other composers of his time have been the subject of performances and recordings. For many music lovers Ernst Wilhelm Wolf will be a completely unknown entity. Often, composers who were held in high esteem in their own time, are completely forgotten today. This goes for Wolf too.

He was born in Grossenbehringen in Thuringia and attended the Gymnasien in Eisenach and Gotha. At an early age he came under the spell of the music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Carl Heinrich Graun. He went on to study at Jena University, where he became the director of the Collegium Musicum. Here he composed his first works. Next, he spent some time in Leipzig and Naumburg, and from 1761 until his death he was in the service of the court in Weimar, first as Konzertmeister, then as organist and from 1772 as Kapellmeister. He was in close contact with some of the leading figures in German cultural life, such as Goethe, Herder and Von Seckendorf. He was also close friends with CPE Bach.

His oeuvre includes several works for the stage (mostly in the Singspiel genre), secular cantatas and songs as well as sacred vocal music. Moreover, he wrote instrumental music, especially for keyboard, both sonatas and concertos. The influence of CPE Bach is evident particularly in Wolf’s keyboard music.

Among his sacred works are five oratorios, most of them on Passion texts. The subject of the present recording is one of them. It is a Passion oratorio, which in contrast to Bach's oratorio Passions, means it doesn’t include the narrative of the Gospels. It’s rather a paraphrase of and a reflection on the events of Good Friday, scored for four voices (soli and tutti) and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two horns, strings and basso continuo. It was probably written during his time in Jena and never published.

The oratorio is divided into two parts. This in itself does not indicate it was performed during a service in church. Passion oratorios at this time were mostly intended for performance in public concerts. The oratorio is in fact a sequence of scenes from the events of Good Friday. In the first part each of the scenes includes a recitative for tenor, either accompanied or secco, followed by an aria and finished with a chorus and a chorale. The two scenes in the second part are a little different.

Wolf called his work simply Passions-Oratorium, but, to distinguish it from other Passion oratorios, it is normally named after the first line of the chorale that opens the work: "Jesu, deine Passion will ich jetzt bedenken"; a chorale Bach also used in the 1725 version of his St John Passion. It is followed by the first scene: Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. The recitative of the tenor who describes Jesus's anxiety is followed by an aria for soprano. Like all the arias it is a moral reflection, from the perspective of the faithful, on the events just described: "Holy One, I too am earth. (...) Look down to this mortal part, keep the soul awake". In the A section the orchestral part is dominated by dark colours. This scene ends with a chorus: "My heart is ready, God, that I may sing and praise".

The second scene is about Jesus's arrest and the betrayal by his disciple Peter. The tenor ends his recitative with the words: "Peter stops short, and a tear full of remorse moistens the betrayal's face". He then sings an aria which links up to this: "Tenderly the tear flows, dear Virtue, to your honour", accompanied by two transverse flutes and strings. In part A the word "Reue" (remorse) is set to long melismas. The aria then takes a moral turn in part B: "Weep, evildoers, your sins can find somebody who wipes them away”. Here the flutes keep silent and the strings play partly in unison. The chorus picks up the message of part B: "Happy is the man whose trespasses are forgiven". A chorale closes the scene.

Next, we hear about the way Jesus is treated: "A purple robe is put on him to scoff him; the mob kneels down before him and blasphemes him with haughty zeal." The tenor’s recitative is not followed by an aria this time round, but by a recitative for the alto: "Behold, Christians, what a man: once he was so handsome, was chosen for thousands, his head like the finest gold, but now he is robbed of all majesty's splendour." Then there’s a chorus, a quotation from Isaiah 53: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities." A chorale closes this scene as well as the first part.

The second part opens with the crucifixion. The tenor’s recitative, ending with Jesus asking his Father to forgive those who have crucified him, is followed by a duet of soprano and alto, accompanied by two oboes and strings and whose moral character is typical for the arias in this work: "God on the cross, teach me to deal kindly with my brother / teach me, like you, to bless my enemies". The ensuing tenor recitative opens with the words, "The seraphim soar from afar" and is fittingly accompanied by muted strings. Some words from the cross are paraphrased, and the recitative ends with Jesus saying to one of the criminals who was also crucified: "Today you will be with me in paradise". This is followed by an aria for bass: "Hear it, Christians, hear it, that is our faith; the soul fights its way up from the dust, its nature is immortality." The word "immortality" (Unsterblichkeit) is set to long chains of coloratura. In the orchestra the strings are joined by a pair of horns. A chorus and a chorale bring this scene to a close.

The last section comprises a sequence of different forms: recitative (secco and accompagnato), canon, arioso and chorale. It is a reflection by the faithful on Jesus's passing away, occasionally interrupted by the bass, singing "Be consoled, you who weep, death and hell now are vanquished by the Lamb’s blood; therefore, be glad, earth; rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them." This sequence includes two canons for soprano and tenor on the melody of the hymn Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, in the English-speaking world known as the 'Old 100th'. The chorale is sung to the same melody, again interrupted halfway by the bass. The work closes with a chorus in da capo form.

This oratorio is a typical specimen of the sacred music, in particular the music for Passiontide, written in Germany during the second half of the 18th Century. The style of the Epmfindsamkeit, dominates the character. The arias are marked expressions of the rather moralistic tenor of such pieces, very different from, for example, Bach's Passions. A work like this Passion by Wolf is the musical translation of the Enlightenment, which emphasizes Jesus's humanity and portrays him as an example to be followed.

The arias are long - between nine and twelve minutes - and unashamedly operatic in their use of coloratura. The choruses are homophonic and almost completely devoid of counterpoint. The only reminiscences of that old technique are the two canons in the large scene that closes the second part. The chorales are simple harmonisations without any text expression. The orchestra plays a marked role. It is instrumental in the expression of the text especially in the accompanied recitatives. It lends the pieces quite a dramatic character, even though they are only paraphrases of or reflections on the events.

If one loves Bach's Passions, this oratorio is of a kind that one must get used to first. However, it is very interesting to see here how features we know from the instrumental music of this period are translated to sacred vocal music. It is all done very well and easy to understand why Wolf was held in high esteem in his time. It certainly makes me curious about other parts of his oeuvre. Overall the performers serve his music very well. Georg Poplutz deserves credit for his outstanding and emphatic performance of the tenor’s part, which is really the heart of the work. I am a bit disappointed about Hanna Herfurtner's delivery of her aria. She uses a bit too much vibrato. The same applies to the contralto Marian Dijkhuizen but her role is rather small. The duet is for two sopranos; I assume Dijkhuizen sings the second soprano part. Fortunately, this duet is rather well done and certainly one of the nicest parts of this disc. Mauro Borgioni gives a fine account of the bass part and being an Italian speaker, his German is quite good. Choir and orchestra leave nothing to be desired. The orchestra's colourful and alert playing greatly contributes to the character of this performance.

All in all, this is a very interesting and musically compelling addition to the discography of 18th Century music for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen


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