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Reinhard KEISER (1676-1739) Der blutige und sterbende Jesus
Monika Mauch, Anna Kellnhofer (soprano), Anne Bierwirth (contralto), Mirko Ludwig, Hans Jörg Mammel (tenor), Dominik Wörner, Matthias Lutze, Oliver Luhn (bass)
Cantus Thuringia, Capella Thuringia/Bernhard Klapprott
rec. 2018, Schießhaus Weimar, Germany CPO 555 259-2 [2 CDs: 2:08:54]
Reinhard Keiser is considered the main composer of operas in Germany in the early 18th century. He was one of the pillars of the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg, the first public opera house in Germany. Unfortunately his many contributions to the repertoire of the opera are almost completely lost. Only a few operas have come down to us complete or in fragmentary form. His oratorios have fared hardly better. Several of them have been lost, and one of his best-known oratorios, the St Mark Passion, whose recitatives are sometimes used for reconstructions of Bach's St Mark Passion, is probably not from his pen. An oratorio of 1711 was revised twice (in 1715 and 1735), but none of these versions have been preserved.
For a long time the oratorio which is the subject of the present recording, was also considered to be lost. New Grove mentions Der blutige und sterbende Jesus with 1705 as the year of performance. This was Keiser's first oratorio and is also the first Passion oratorio in German history. This was to become a popular genre. Unlike the oratorio Passion (such as the Passions by Bach) it does not include the narrative of one of the four Gospels. It is rather a paraphrase of and reflection on the events of Good Friday. The libretto of Keiser's oratorio was written by Christian Friedrich Hunold, who had already written the librettos for two of his operas. The encouragement to turn to sacred poetry came from Erdmann Neumeister, the poet whose texts were used by, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach. Hunold was not the only connection between the oratorio and opera. The three female roles - two with the name of Daughter of Zion (soprano and mezzo-soprano) and that of Mary, the mother of Jesus (soprano) - were sung by singers from the Opera, which was closed during Lent. This very fact caused considerable unease in Hamburg, and especially among its clergy. Several further performances in Hamburg and elsewhere in the years following the premiere are documented, but the score of 1705 has not survived.
Christine Blanken, the author of the liner-notes, who is also responsible for the preparation of the performance material, took a look at a catalogue of anonymous works in the music collection of the Berlin State Library and found a manuscript of the oratorio, which she could identify as an autograph on the basis of her knowledge of Keiser's handwriting. It bears the title Oratorium passionale 1729, and turned out to be a later version of the work of 1705. It was prepared for a performance at Hamburg Cathedral and is divided into two parts; in between the sermon was held. This version also includes the hymns that Keiser had already inserted in 1710, to meet some of the criticism of the original version. Otherwise, it seems that he did not change that much.
As is already mentioned, the text of the Gospels is omitted, as was customary in Passion oratorios. However, Hunold stays closer to the narrative of the Gospels than, for instance, Barthold Heinrich Brockes, the author of the famous Brockes Passion, which was also set by Keiser. Hunold includes the story of Jesus' Passion in the recitatives and arias of the main characters. For instance, at the start of the second part, Caiphas sings in his aria: "Bind and take him [Jesus] before the court, do not spare him who charmed so many and led them astray". Sometimes Hunold reminds the reader of the story through inserted remarks. Between the recitative, which ends with Peter's denying Jesus, and his aria ("Alas! Misery, O fright, anguish and woe!"), Hunold explains: "And as the cock crowed, Peter remembered Jesus' words, and went out, and wept bitterly." One should keep in mind that very likely printed librettos were available to the audience. Moreover, we should not forget that the faithful knew the Passion story by heart.
The oratorio opens with a chorale, which - like all chorales and choruses - is allocated to a group of people, in this case the Christian Church. It is the first stanza of Jesu Leiden, Pein und Tod (Paul Stockmann, 1633). Then we get a chorus of Disciples, which is a hymn of praise after the Last Supper. It is preceded by a sinfonia. Next follows a dialogue of Jesus and his disciples, among them Peter, in recitatives, accompagnati, arias and a cavata. One of the notable aspects of the Passion oratorio is that Jesus is given free poetic texts in the form of recitatives, ariosos and arias. Stylistically, this oratorio is not fundamentally different from the opera of the time. A telling example is Peter's belligerent aria 'Waffnet euch, ihr Himmel': "Arm yourself, you Heavens, overturn the murderous fray of the accursed world". It is followed by the remark: "Unseathes his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest's servant". This is not unlike scenic indications in opera librettos.
Another notable feature is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is given a major role in this oratorio. In the narrative of the Gospels she is mentioned as a bystander at the Cross, but she is never quoted. Here she is asking where her son has gone in a series of recitatives, accompagnati and arias. One of them is a dacapo aria - as most arias in this work are - whose two sections are separated by an accompagnato. In the first part we also meet two false witnesses: their parts are scored for alto and tenor, just as in Bach's St Matthew Passion. Next Hunold includes references to the Song of Solomon, in a recitative of one of the Daughters of Zion (mezzo-soprano) and a dialogue between Jesus and the other Daughter of Zion (soprano): "You, most beautiful of my beauties, see how your beloved loves you". Then follows Peter's denial and the first part closes with a chorale of the Christian Church.
The second part opens with a chorus of High Priests and Elders. When Judas sees that Jesus is binded, he expresses his sorrow, and his aria ("Now swallow, you hosts of hell") is followed by the remark "And Judas hanged himself". In the next stage of the work we hear a dialogue between Pilate and the Chorus of Jews, asking for the release of Barabbas. When Pilate decides that Jesus is to be crucified, we hear a sequence of recitatives, accompagnati and arias of the two Daughters of Zion. It is followed by the most emotional part of the oratorio, the dialogue between Jesus and Mary, which is concluded by a duet: "Inscribe this consolation on your soul/The consolation is inscribed on my soul". Jesus's words at the Cross, "Eli! Eli! Lama asabthani?" and "It is finished!", are set in the form of accompagnati. A sinfonia depicts the earthquake. After an aria by one of the Daughters of Zion, the oratorio closes with a chorus of Women and Disciples; the B part refers to the resurrection.
If one listens to this work, one can only deeply regret that so much of Keiser's oeuvre has been lost. This is a marvellous oratorio, and its rediscovery has to be considered an event of major importance. Considering its character and qualities, this oratorio should be part of the standard repertoire for Passiontide. In no way it is inferior to the better-known Passion oratorios of the time, especially the various settings of the Brockes Passion. Notable is Keiser's brilliant way of writing for the voice, but also the way he uses the instrumental ensemble in the interest of text expression. To give just one example: when the first Daughter of Zion sings "Therefore, let him be silent, Jesus alone hears us", this is perfectly illustrated by the strings, playing quietly in unison. This is not the only moment when they do so; there is hardly any polyphony in this work. That also goes for the chorales and choruses, which are mostly homophonic. In that respect, this work is very modern for its time.
Bernhard Klapprott's selection of singers is spot-on. Every one of them delivers idiomatic performances, and the expressive qualities of this oratorio are explored to the full. The main soloists are joined by ripienists in the choruses; the latter also take care of the minor parts. With eight violins and two violas, the instrumental ensemble may well be of the size of orchestras in public performances at the time. Its fine playing is an essential contribution to this performance.
I have greatly enjoyed this oratorio and the performance under the direction of Klapprott. This production is one of the most important in recent years, in particular as far as the repertoire for Passiontide is concerned.