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Johann Joseph FUX (1660 - 1741): Gesù Cristo negato da Pietro (K 297)

Maria Ladurner (L'Umanità Peccatrice), Alois Mühlbacher (Ballila), soprano; Markus Forster (L'Amor Divino), alto; Daniel Johannsen (Pietro Apostolo), tenor; Gerd Kenda (L'Odio de' Giudei), bass
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: Jan 24, 2020, Vienna, Konzerthaus (Mozartsaal)
Accent - ACC 24374 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (96'15")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores (only arias & choruses)

Gunar Letzbor, Fritz Kircher, Mira Letzbor, violin; Barbara Konrad, viola; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Norbert Salvenmoser, trombone; Hubert Hoffmann, theorbo; Erich Traxler, organ

For a long time Johann Joseph Fux was only taken seriously as a theorist, who wrote one of the standard works on counterpoint in history, Gradus ad Parnassum. Only a few of his compositions were available on disc, and his name hardly ever appeared on the programmes of live concerts. That seems to have changed in recent years: quite a mumber of discs have been released, which show that he was a very good composer, and that there is every reason to explore his large oeuvre. One of the promoters of his music is Gunar Letzbor, who in 2012 recorded the Oratorium germanicum de Passione and was also involved in the production of a disc with arias from oratorios and operas, with Maria Ladurner as the soloist. She also participates in the oratorio that is the subject of the present disc.

Since early in the history of the Christian church Passiontide is one of the main events in the ecclesiastical year. A large amount of music has been written to be performed during Lent, and in particular Holy Week. This include the seven penitential psalms, settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Tenebrae Responsories connected with them, as well as the Stabat mater. A special category concerns the oratorio. Whereas the genres just mentioned were usually part of the liturgy, oratorios were also performed outside a liturgical setting. In Vienna, at the imperial court, there was a tradition of performing dramatic works on Good Friday, so-called sepolcri. Such pieces are known from several composers who were in the service of the emperors, such as Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Antonio Caldara.

The Oratorium germanicum de Passione mentioned above is such a piece. Another one is Gesù Cristo negato da Pietro, although Fux called it a componimento sacro per musica. However, the work was intended for performance on 7 April 1719, which was Good Friday. The subject matter of such sepolcri was different from, for instance, the Passions in Protestant Germany. The biblical narrative is ignored here. The libretto, written by the court poet Pietro Pariati, rather focuses on one aspect of the Passion story: the denial by Peter. He is the key figure, scored for a tenor. He is also the only historical figure, unless we also take Ballila as such. She is the maid who accused Peter of being one of Jesus's disciples. The character is historical, but the name is fantasy, and here she plays a much more important role than in the Gospels. The other three characters are allegorical: the hatred of the Jews (L'Odio de' Giudei; bass), Divine Love (L'Amor Divino; alto) and Sinful Mankind (L'Umanità Peccatrice; soprano). There is little drama; the libretto is more or less an account of the dialogue between the various characters. As was customary, the work ends with a chorus, which includes its morale: "Mortal, see yourself in Peter. Because he assumes too much, the unwary falls. But he gets up again innocent because a God's great goodness looks upon him. If you wish to obtain such a fate, make sure your heart's ready for such penance; and through the tears of Peter learn how to weep".

For the performance Gunar Letzbor has taken several decisions, which are partly due to artistic considerations, and partly due circumstances beyond his control. The recording was made in connection to a live performance at the Resonanzen festival, which takes place each year in January at the Vienna Konzerthaus. In the booklet Letzbor describes how the performance took place, which was modestly staged. A live recording was impossible as the microphones would have distracted the audience. Therefore it was decided to record the public dress rehearsal before the concert, and the next day a correction session took place. In this recording we obviously have to do without the staging, but otherwise it reflects the way it was performed (with one exception).

Letzbor decided to omit all the recitatives, except the last few of each of the two parts. "The recitatives of these works are extensive as appropriate for their religious and spiritual functions; this was where the poet could best demonstrate his skills. But what is actually the sense of presenting these recitatives to the audiences of today? Over 95 % of listeners - myself included - would find it quite difficult to follow the text to a sufficient degree. (...) For this reason, I decided not to perform a large proportion of the recitatives; instead of these extensive passages, the scenes, action and emotions of the protagonists would be presented in brief summaries. What is more, the singers would also recite the brief aria texts in German prior to their performance, thereby providing an impression of Pariati’s dramatic poetic text. We have included these intermediate texts in the libretto of the CD booklet where the flowery language of the period can also be admired". Something has gone wrong in the editing process, because at the start, before the opening sinfonia, we get the vocal introduction by Letzbor himself, and Markus Forster also introduces his aria and reads a German translation of the text. Obviously, these readings should have be removed.

Although I can understand Letzbor's motivation, I find it regrettable. What may work pretty well in a live performance, falls short in a CD recording, all the more when the booklet omits translations of the German texts. The listener who does not understand German, is left in the dark about the plot. Moreover, it is often especially in the recitatives that the characters express their emotions, and their omission means that the emotional development of the piece is largely lost. What we have here is not an oratorio, but a sequence of arias. For me, this recording is a bit of a missed opportunity, which is particularly regrettable as Fux's oratorios are not very well-known and are badly represented on disc. The arias give some idea about their quality. They deserve to be performed and recorded at full length.

Some of the decisions were also due to circumstances, on which Letzbor did not have any influence. The choruses are performed by the soloists. Letzbor is convinced that in Fux's time they were sung by a choir. Likewise, the instrumental ensemble plays with one instrument per part. Fux had a much larger ensemble at his disposal; Letzbor assumes that between twelve and fifteen violins may have participated in performances, which would also have its effects on the number of instruments in the other sections of the orchestra. "Regrettably, the court music director Johann Joseph Fux remains largely unknown amongst concert-goers and concert organisers currently cannot bank on filling large concert halls with programmes featuring his works. For this reason, performances with similarly extensive musical forces to the original scoring are not economically viable, particularly if no superstar is involved to attract a larger audience." It is to be hoped that this state of affairs is going to change in the future. It is regrettable that much money is spent on performances of pieces that are very well-known, and so little at music that may be of the same quality, but - due to various circumstances - does attract far less attention. I would wish for more curiosity on the side of music lovers, concert organizers and performers.

Things being as they are, this production is welcome anyway, not only because of the fine quality of the music, but also the level of the performances. Not often one finds such a consistency in the way a large-scale vocal work of the baroque period is performed. The five soloists are all first-class and deliver excellent performances of their respective roles. They convince not only in the way they portray their characters, but also stylistically. Without wanting to discriminate among the soloists, I would like to mention the sensitive performance of the role of Peter by Daniel Johannsen. The ensemble is of the same high level. Here Norbert Salvenmoser deserves special mention for the way he plays the obbligato trombone part in the aria of Sinful Mankind in the second part.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Daniel Johannsen
Maria Ladurner
Alois Mühlbacher
Ars Antiqua Austria

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