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Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637 - 1707): Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht, oratorio in 3 acts (BuxWV Anh 3)

Jakob Lutz, Richard Mauersberger (Geitz), Julian Twarowski (Hoffarth), Sebastian Urbanke (Leichtfertigkeit), treble; Alexander Schneider, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Friedemann Klos, Gotthold Schwarz (Die Göttliche Stimm), bass
Capella Cantorum; construmenti
Dir: Klaus Eichhorn

rec: July 4 - 7/September 20/October 2 - 3, 2005, Angermünde, St Marienkirche/Berlin Wilmersdorf, Lindenkirche
Ambitus - amb 96 886 (2 CDs) (2.25'45")

[CC] Justus von Balluseck, Erik Dömling, Victor Fetscher, Jakob Lutz, Alexander K. Nagel, Simon Vietzen, treble; Kalle Kroll, Michael Zierenberg, alto; Carsten Krüger, Benjamin Otto, Peter Zielonkowski, tenor; Florian Hutterer, Georg Lutz, Aaron Woelffer, bass; [construmenti] François Petitlaurent, Friederike Otto, cornett; Matthias Fooken, Irina Kisselova, violin; Waltraut Elvers, Bodo Lönartz, Ingrid Richter, viola; James Bush, cello; Juliane Laakeviolone; Christina Hess, Christoph Scheerer, trombone; Regina Sanders, dulcian; Ophira Zakai, chitarrone; Andreas Hetze, harpsichord; Klaus Eichhorn, harpsichord, organ, regale; Mark Ehlert, Jörg Jacobi, organ [Wagner]

Caroline Stam, Orlanda Velez Isidro, Johannette Zomer, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Andreas Karasiak, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Ton Koopman

rec: September 2005, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Challenge Records - CC72241 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (2.16'55")

Els Bongers, Vera Lansink, Caroline Stam, Orlanda Velez Isidro, soprano 1; Mariëtte Bastiaansen, Henriëtte Feith, Pauline Graham, Johannette Zomer, soprano 2; Annemieke Cantor, Margareth Iping, contralto; Stephen Carter, Peter de Groot, alto; Malcolm Bennett, Henk Gunneman, Marc van Heteren, Joost van der Linden, tenor; Donald Bentvelsen, Matthijs Mesdag, René Steur, Hans Wijers, bass; Margaret Faultless, Annabelle Ferdinand, Lisa Landgraf, Catherine Manson, Carla Marotta, Fanny Pestalozzi, Lilia Slavny, violin; Marc Cooper, Foskien Kooistra, David Rabinovich, Silvia Schweinberger, violin, viola; Catherine Jones, Jonathan Manson, cello; Alberto Rasi, ; Simen van Mechelen, Joost Swinkels, Charles Toet, trombon; Wouter Verschuren, dulcian; Mike Fentross, lute; Cathryn Kok, Ton Koopman, harpsichord, organ

La Capella Ducale; Musica Fiata
Dir: Roland Wilson

rec: October 18 - 21, 2005, Ribeauville, Église Protestante
Sony - 82876782652 (2 CDs) (© 2006) (2.10'37")

Gela Birckenstaedt (Leichtfertigkeit), Monika Mauch (Die böse Seele, Hoffarth), Cornelia Samuelis (Die gute Seele, Geitz), Rannveig if Sigurdardottir, soprano; Ralf Popken*, Arnon Zlotnik, alto; Markus Brutscher*, Lothar Blum, tenor; Wolf Mathias Friedrich (Die Göttliche Stimm), Thomas Sorger, bass; Fritjof Smith, Roland Wilson, recorder, cornettino, cornett, cornetto muto; Christine Moran, Anette Sichelschmidt, violin; Elik Eriksson, Christiane Volke, violin, viola; Hartwig Groth, viola da gamba, violone; Peter Sommer, Peter Stelzl, Henning Wiegräbe, trombone; Adrian Rovatkay, dulcian, greatbass shawm; Axel Wolff, chirtarrone; Christoph Anselm Noll, harpsichord, organ [(*) soli]

When Buxtehude took over the post of organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck he inherited the practice of performing public concerts in the weeks before Christmas, the so-called Abendmusiken, which had been started by his predecessor, Franz Tunder. During these concerts a large variety of music was performed, both vocal and instrumental. It is very likely not only compositions by Buxtehude were performed, but also the latest music from elsewhere in Europe, including Italy - still the trendsetter in Buxtehude's time. But during the Abendmusiken Buxtehude also performed large-scale vocal works which he specifically composed for these occasions. On the title page of one of his oratorios, Himmlische Seelenlust (now lost), Buxtehude described it as "in the opera style with many arias and ritornelli". How close these oratorios were to the style of the contemporary opera also becomes clear from a remark by the Hamburg clergyman Hinrich Elmerhorst, who defended his writing of libretti for the opera house in that city by referring to Buxtehude: "I can't fail to mention here how the world-famous Lübeck musician and organist, Diedericus Buxtehude, has performed more than one such opera for the customary Abendmusik, which takes place at a certain time of the year in public churches there". There is more which suggests a connection between Buxtehude's oratorios and the Hamburg operas. In 1678 the opera at the Gänsemarkt was inaugurated with Der erschaffene, gefallene und auffgerichtete Mensch, a sacred Singspiel.

Just one of Buxtehude's oratorios has been preserved: Wacht! Euch zum Streit gefasset macht, which is part of the so-called Düben-Sammlung, a large collection of German music, put together by Gustav Düben, and now in the library of Uppsala University. Gustav Düben was Kapellmeister in Stockholm and a friend and admirer of Buxtehude, which makes it understandable that this collection contains a large number of his compositions. Buxtehude even specifically composed music to be performed by Düben in Stockholm, like the famous cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri.
The manuscript of this oratorio is anonymous, and for a long time Buxtehude's authorship has been under debate. But there is almost unanimous agreement that it is indeed a composition by Buxtehude. "The many near citations from various Buxtehude cantatas as well as the fact that such long oratorios at this time were unique to Lübeck, makes the case for Buxtehude as the composer overwhelming. The surviving libretto of another oratorio by Buxtehude uses a similar combination of chorales, Bible quotations and free poetry" (Roland Wilson).

The oratorio consists of three acts. In Act 1 three allegorical characters appear: 'Geitz' (avarice), 'Leichtfertigkeit' (levity) and 'Hoffarth' (pride). The Voice of God ('Die Stimm Gottes') tries to warn the vices and get them on the straight and narrow. In Act 2 the characters have become nameless, but there is still a clear difference between the godless and the pious: the former leads a gay life, whereas the latter tries to be devout. Act 3 shows the people who are awaiting the Last Judgement. The pious are eagerly looking forward to eternal life, the godless are in great despair. Buxtehude has put together this oratorio with texts from the Bible, chorales and free poetry.

The oratorio is generally known under the title Das jüngste Gericht. This was an invention of its first editor, Willi Maxton, who severely cut and re-ordered the oratorio, which resulted in destroying its architecture. Instead of encouraging performances it made them rather less attractive since as a result of the editing the variety of this oratorio was largely wiped away.
Unfortunately the manuscript is incomplete. The title page, with the name of the composer, has disappeared and the first violin part of the second act is also missing and has to be reconstructed for a performance. The scoring is in 10 parts: 2 sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, 2 violins, 2 violettas and bc. But the score itself requires additional singers and players. There are three soprano roles, and the third act contains a short piece for three basses. The sources also indicate trombones ad libitum.

There are too few facts as to prove that Buxtehude has performed his oratorio in this or that way. It is an established fact that he sometimes used a large number of singers and players in his Abendmusiken. Sometimes even new wind instruments were bought for the performances. Buxtehude's colleague, the Kantor Pagendarm, considered it necessary to use them for performances in large spaces like the Marienkirche: "Well-made music cannot be presented in large churches without wind instruments any more than on an organ without any strong stops". It is an open question whether they were used in alternation or rather played colla parte with the strings. Roland Wilson uses them in both ways, and specifically deploys the instruments to characterise the different personalities: Leichtfertigkeit is supported by recorders, Geitz by cornetts and Hoffarth by strings. Klaus Eichhorn uses them only to play colla parte with the strings in the tutti sections, which "was a common practice right up to Bach and Mozart", he writes in the booklet. Ton Koopman, on the other hand, only uses strings, with a bassoon in the basso continuo and a trombone where the score asks for it.

Another matter is the number of singers involved. As written before the oratorio seems to require more singers than the scoring suggests. Either some participants were singing more than one role or playing more than one instrument - which was quite common in the circles of the Stadtpfeifer, which played an important role in music life in Northern Germany in the 17th century - or more than one voice per part was used (this doesn't exclude that the former happened too). The large space of the Marienkirche, where the Abendmusiken took place, makes it unlikely the oratorio was performed with soloists only. The recordings show the two different options in this respect: Koopman uses a choir of 20 singers, in which the three solo sopranos are also participating, Roland Wilson has just five additional ripieno singers. Klaus Eichhorn takes the middle ground with 14 ripieno singers, some of which not always participate. A special feature of the latter interpretation is the use of male voices only. "Buxtehude's music was performed with boy sopranos so why should we do it differently?", Klaus Eichhorn asks. But Roland Wilson believes that Buxtehude used male falsettists as soprano and alto soloists - without giving any evidence of it - "although boys might have sung as ripieno singers". The use of male sopranos in solo parts in sacred music in Germany is an established fact, but it can't be proven that they participated in Buxtehude's performance of this oratorio. Nor can the use of boys be proven, for that matter.

As we know next to nothing about the actual performance by the composer himself there is no way to decide as to which of the three recordings is 'historically right'. Therefore one may consider them as three interesting views on the same work which complement each other.

If I try to characterise the three recordings listed above I would label Ton Koopman's recording as a modern 'concert hall performance', whereas Roland Wilson's is the more theatrical, and Eichhorn's the most 'ecclesiastical'. Apart from all differences in vocal and instrumental scoring there is a clear contrast in regard to the way the characters in this oratorio are treated. I already referred to the fact that Wilson uses the different groups of instruments to characterise the personalities. But the singers also try to portray their respective characters in a theatrical way, and they do so quite convincingly. Unfortunately at one moment Wilson crosses the line of good taste and - more importantly - what is historically justifiable. The aria 'Ich kann nicht mehr' (No 54) is sung in a way which is reminiscent of the songs of Kurt Weill - and I find this quite ridiculous. Apart from historical considerations I fail to see how this performance is more expressive than what Buxtehude actually has written down. Ton Koopman's performance is considerably less dramatic, and there is far less text expression here as well. This has partly to do with the fact that Koopman uses several singers for one role - which makes it more difficult to give a consistent portrayal of the different characters.
As Klaus Eichhorn uses boys in the soprano roles his performance is not highly theatrial either - at least not in a way we normally consider theatrical. There is no lack of drama there, but more in a religious way. The tutti sections - and especially the chorales (stanzas from 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' and the hymn 'Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin') - make a strong impression here, which is not only the result of the singing of the vocal ensemble, but also of the consistent use of wind instruments and of a large organ - the Wagner-organ of the St Marienkirche in Angermünde. Of all three recordings this one makes the most lasting impression in this respect, although Wilson comes very close. Ton Koopman is most disappointing here, partly due to the fact that his tempi are mostly pretty fast - whereas in both other performances many tutti sections are taken at a more moderate speed, which leads to a better articulation and stronger expression of the text. But it has also to do with the choir which lacks transparency and doesn't communicate the text very clearly.

Another factor which creates a strong sense of 'authenticity' is the acoustics. Both Wilson and Eichhorn have recorded their interpretations in pretty large churches, which probably puts them quite close to the situation in the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Koopman's recording took place in the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam, which has excellent acoustics, but too dry in comparison to the others.

As far as the level of singing and playing is concerned, there is not that much between them, although I have to make some critical remarks in regard to some soloists in all three recordings. Ton Koopman uses three sopranos, which all sing well, although I always have some problems with Johannette Zomer. Her singing is considerably more stylish these days than it used to be, but she still can fall into the trap of using too much vibrato sometimes, and doesn't always stay away from the habits of traditional oratorio singing. Stylistically I just prefer Wilson - he has excellent sopranos at his disposal whose timbres are just different enough to tell them apart during the performance.
It is difficult to compare adult sopranos with trebles, but as they sing the same music it is inevitable to do so. Klaus Eichhorn is a vehement defender of the use of boys' voices in performances of early music, and I wholeheartedly agree. It is just a shame with his recording he doesn't make a strong case for it. Julian Twarowski has a lot of problems in singing the notes right, and I find it hard to understand how his contributions could ever get past the quality control. Could it be he was in the middle of his voice breaking during the recording sessions? Did he resort to using his falsetto register to sing the high notes? At the end of his section of 'Ihr schnöden Erdenkinder schweigt' (No 5) he goes down an octave, probably because the top notes were not within his reach. Whatever the cause may have been, this seriously undermines the overall quality of this recording. Fortunately he only participates in the first act. On the other end of the spectrum we find Richard Mauersberger, a member of the Thomanerchor Leipzig, who has a very beautiful and agile voice, and whose singing is stylish and expressive. The other two trebles are not without technical problems now and then, in particular in regard to intonation, but they compensate for that by some very expressive singing.

In the alto department only Klaus Eichhorn has a singer who fully satisfies: Alexander Schneider has a beautiful and flexible voice and blends well with the tenor and the bass with whom he has several trios to sing. Robin Blaze (Koopman) is technically faultless, but I don't like his voice very much and I find his singing a little bland and characterless. I can remember quite good performances by Ralf Popken (Wilson) from the past, but nowadays I find him most of the time rather unsatisfying, as his singing seems to become more and more unsteady and ridden by uncontrolled vibrato.
The tenor has very few solos - just one aria and a couple of short pieces, and otherwise only participates in the ensembles, in particular the trios with alto and bass. In Klaus Eichhorn's recording Jan Kobow gets an extra piece: the aria 'Ich kann nicht mehr' (No 54) which I wrote about before. The text as printed in the booklet of this production gives 'S II vel T' as scoring: soprano II or tenor. Jan Kobow gives an excellent account of this remarkable aria. Roland Wilson also has a fine singer for this part: Markus Brutscher. But Andreas Karasiak in Ton Koopman's recording is a disappointment: in his only aria 'Schäfflein, komm nur' (No 77) he hardly can keep up with the speed Koopman has chosen. As a result the articulation is under par.
The basses in these recordings are very different, but all excellent in their own way. Only Gotthold Schwarz (Eichhorn) seems to have some problems at the lower end of his part, as some of the lowest notes are a little too weak. But otherwise he gives an impressive performance of his part which mainly consists of singing texts from the Bible. This part is referred to as 'Die Stimm Gottes' (the voice of God) in the first part.

Lastly the instrumentalists. In general the level of playing is very high from all participants in all three recordings. The effect they achieve depends a lot on the acoustical circumstances, and - as I wrote before - here Koopman's recording is a little too dry, which means the instrumental sections don't have the power as in the other two recordings. Those also contain stronger dynamic contrasts in the instrumental playing and in general their sound is more colourful and comes closer to what I think is characteristic of German instrumental music of the 17th century. The basso continuo deserves special attention. It is here again that there is a difference between Koopman on the one hand and Wilson and Eichhorn on the other. The latter have opted for a strong scoring of the basso continuo part, and Eichhorn has the additional advantage of the use of a large church organ. Therefore both recordings have more depth than Koopman's. Whereas Koopman and Eichhorn use the regal to support the bass in his singing of biblical texts, Wilson stays away from it, and accompanies the bass with the 'conventional' organ. The regal was used in German church music of the 17th century, but was it also used in theatrical music? If not, then this could explain why Wilson doesn't use it, as his approach of this work is the most theatrical.

Let me sum up. The first time I heard this work was in a live performance by Ton Koopman during the Holland Festival Early Music Utrecht 2005. Although the performance was quite good, I didn't immediately fall for this oratorio. Having listened to these three recordings I have come to like it a lot more, and I realise that it is partly due to the performance whether it appeals to me. Others may have a different experience, but the recordings by Wilson and Eichhorn have revealed aspects of the work which I didn't notice before. Therefore I repeat what I have written before: these are three interesting views on Buxtehude's oratorio which complement each other. If I had to chose just one recording I probably would go for Wilson, as he offers the most consistent quality in singing and playing, and is the most theatrical. Eichhorn has a special place, as - the technical weaknesses notwithstanding - the use of all male voices and the more 'ecclesiastical' character of his interpretation puts this work strongly in the tradition of German sacred music of the 17th century, which I am very fond of. In comparison Koopman is too much 'middle of the road' to my taste: despite my critical remarks there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but on me it doesn't make a lasting impression. Roland Wilson's recording does, and that's why in the end I put his performance on top of the list.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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