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Gregor Joseph WERNER (1693 - 1766): Der Gute Hirt

Ágnes Kovács (Das Verlorene Schäflein & Das Wider Gefundene und Sehr Dankbare Schäflein), soprano; Péter Bárányi (Der Gute Hirt), alto; Zoltán Megyesi (Der Gute Hirt in Inänlichen Alter), tenor; Lóránt Najbauer (Der Pilger), bass
Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi

rec: Jan 8 - 9, 2019, Budapest, Liszt Academy of Music (Grand Hall)
Accent - ACC 26502 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.24'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/HU; lyrics - translations: HU
Cover, track-list & booklet

Der so eifrig in sein Schäflein verliebte zugleich wegen dessen Verlust höhst betrübte anbei mit größter Sorg und Fleiß allwegeherum suchende Gute Hirt

[PC] Aliz Ballabás, Andrea Fekete, Eszter Halmos, Adriána Kalafszky (Echo), Katinka Kemény, Ágnes Pintér, Roberta Szklenár, soprano; Boglárka Balla, Eszter Balogh, Sára Dezsö, Anna Molnár, contralto; Zoltán Gavodi, alto; Lajos Fodré, József Gál, Márton Komáromi, Károly Pászti, Gábor Pivarcsi, tenor; Ákos Borka, Csaba Horváth, Zoltán Melkovics, Dömötör Pintér, bass
[OO] Róbert Šebesta, chalumeau; György Farkas, bassoon; Frenc Kócziás, trombone; Simon Standage, Ágnes Kertész, Ildikó Lang, Ottilia Revóczky, Balász Bozzai, Ildikó Hadházy, Mária Jakubik, Róza Lachegyi, violin; László Móré, Eszter Draskóczy, Szilvia Némethy, viola; Piroska Baranyay, Csilla Vályi, cello; György Janzsó, double bass; István Györi, theorbo; Augustin Szokos, harpsichord; Flóra Fábri, organ

Gregor Joseph Werner is one of the many composers of the late baroque period whose name is known, but whose music is badly represented on disc. He is best known for being Haydn's predecessor as Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court. As far as his oeuvre is concerned, some of his music for Christmas is available on disc. One work has attracted quite some attention: the Musicalischer Instrumental-Calender, a cycle of twelve Parthien on the months of the year.

Werner was born in Ybbs an der Donau, and started his career as an organist at Melk Abbey. He married in Vienna, where he may have been a pupil of Johann Joseph Fux. In 1728 he was appointed Kapellmeister at Esterházy. Just like German aristocrats of the late 17th century were impressed by the splendour of the French court under Louis XIV and aimed at imitating that at their own courts, their peers of the mid-18th century wanted to imitate the splendour of the imperial court in Vienna. Werner was selected with the purpose of creating something similar in Esterházy.

At the imperial court in Vienna a particular tradition had come into existence: the performance of so-called sepolcri. Such sacred dramas, connected in one way or another to the Passion and death of Christ, were performed at Thursdays during Lent. A more extended form of sepolcro was then performed at Good Friday. In Esterházy, Werner established a comparable tradition, and his oeuvre includes various oratorios which were written for such occasions. The present oratorio is one of them; it was to be performed on 28 March 1739 in the court chapel of Eisenstadt.

The libretto, whose author is apparently not known, is divided into two sections; in between a sermon was held. The title, in translation, is "The Good Shepherd, who is strongly in love with his little sheep, but at the same time very sad about its loss, and is looking for it with care and diligence". It is based on one of Jesus's parables from Luke 15, in which he compares himself with a shepherd who does everything in his power to find a sheep that has been lost. In the oratorio the sheep is portrayed not as someone who has gone missing by accident, but as someone who does not want to follow the shepherd. It rather prefers worldly pleasures, and in this respect the oratorio has the traits of a morality play. We meet the Good Shepherd (alto) who is looking everywhere for his sheep, and meets a pilgrim (bass), whom he tells about it. The latter meets the sheep and tries to convince it to follow the shepherd. However, it keeps resisting, and the first part ends with its aria 'Hinweg mit der Melancholie': "Away with the melancholy, (...) my only wish is to be happy and have fun". In the second part, the Good Shepherd turns for answers to an Echo - a compositional device known from operas and sacred works of the early 17th century. It is to no avail. We then witness a confrontation between the pilgrim and the sheep, culminating in a duet, in which the pilgrim expresses his hope in God, whereas the sheep says that it only values earthly things. In the second half the Good Shepherd presents himself at a more mature age; the role is now given to a tenor. In his recitative he reveals that he his Jesus himself, who has been crucified. The pilgrim, confronted with his fate, sheds tears and can't speak anymore. The Good Shepherd then quotes one of the traditional Tenebrae Responsories, O vos omnes: "O all ye that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow". He then urges for repentance. The sheep now changes its mind. It was first called "the lost sheep" and now "the regained and very grateful sheep". It does repentance and begs for mercy. After a chorus of shepherds, the prilgrim and the sheep kneel before the shepherd. The oratorio ends with a fugal chorus of sheep, urging for repentance, which will result in an entry into God's kingdom.

The oratorio is a sequence of recitatives and dacapo arias, and in that respect it is not any different from the operas of the time. The singers rightly insert short cadenzas at the end of the dacapos of their arias. Most of them open with a ritornello, but the aria of the sheep which closes the first part omits it. The accompaniment of the arias is mostly for strings and basso continuo, but in each part we find one aria with obbligato parts for chalumeau and trombone. That is another link with Vienna, as these two instruments were regularly used in vocal works performed at the imperial court. The second of these arias is the one of the 'mature' shepherd; it has no dacapo, and the strings play pizzicato.

Most of the recitatives are of the secco type. However, in the scena quarta in the first part, in a particularly dramatic episode the recitative turns into an accompagnato. In the second part a recitative turns into an arietta. Other accompagnato passages are all in the second part. The way the recitatives are performed deserve some attention. The first is by the sheep in part 1, and Ágnes Kovács sings it with the rhythmic freedom a recitative needs. Her other recitatives are performed the same way. In comparison, the recitatives of the two other characters are much more strict in time. This seems to be deliberate: Vashegyi may have intended to underline this way the difference between the sheep on the one hand and the shepherd and the pilgrim on the other. Obviously, I have no access to the score, so I can't check whether Werner has given any indications with this regard, but that seems rather unlikely, as the performance of recitatives was very much standard practice. To me, this difference seems a mistake. A performance of recitatives with little or no rhythmic freedom sounds rather unnatural. Moreover, they are often also rather slow, and that goes in particular for the second recitative in the first part, which takes 7'40". If it had been performed at a more natural tempo and in a more speechlike manner, this recording would have taken less time and maybe a single disc would have sufficed. It is also a serious omission that the German text is only translated into Hungarian, but not into English, which is especially problematic in the often long recitatives. This may well withhold non-German speakers from purchasing this production.

That would be a great shame, because it is a very well-written work, and I hope that in the years to come we will see more of his oratorios being recorded (*). The performers have done Werner a great favour by delivering such fine performances. There is a strong amount of stylistic coherence; the singers are all first class, technically and stylistically. The orchestra does very well in following them all the way, and being responsive to the various moods of this work. The choruses at the end of the work are performed by the Purcell Choir, which sings well. However, considering its very small role, I wonder whether originally these parts may have been performed by the soloists in ensemble.

Despite some issues, I urge anyone interested in the oratorio of the 18th century to investigate this production. Let's hope some day an English translation of the text will be available, which can only help to even more appreciate this piece.

(*) In 1992 Pál Németh recorded Debora; that disc seems not available anymore.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ágnes Kovács
Lóránt Najbauer

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