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Georg Caspar SCHÜRMANN (1672/73 - 1751): Die getreue Alceste

Santa Karnite (Hyppolite), Katherina Müller (Céphise), Hanna Zumsande (Alceste), soprano; Alon Harari (Admetus), alto; Dustin Drosdziok (Phéres), Mirko Ludwig (Licomedes), tenor; Ralf Grobe (Cléantes, Hercules), Andreas Heinemeyer (Aeolus, Strato), bass
barockwerk hamburg
Dir: Ira Hochman

rec: Sept 2 - 4, 2016, Raven, Kirche St. Martin
CPO - 555 207-2 (© 2018) (61'63")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Idan Levi, Polina Gorshkova, transverse flute; Anabel Röser, Christiane Ascheberg, oboe; Steffen Voss, bassoon; Micaela Storch-Sieben, Rupert Dintinger, Christiane Hampe, Katrin Ebert, Galina Roreck, Urszula Zielinski-Brock, violin; Rafael Roth, Stephan Sieben, viola; Sven Holger Philippsen, Christoph Harer, cello; Bernd von Ostrowski, violone; Olga Chumikova, Ira Hochman, harpsichord; Frithjof Koch, percussion, wind machine

Opera was one of the main genres of the baroque period. In Germany, during the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, operas were mostly performed in the private theatres of the aristocracy. Only two opera houses were open to the general public: in Leipzig and in Hamburg. Leipzig opera was short-lived: it was founded in 1693 and closed its doors in 1720. In Hamburg, the Oper am Gänsemarkt was inaugurated in 1678 and went down in 1738, due to financial mismanagement and also as a consequence of a change in the musical taste of opera lovers. However, in between there were several periods in which its existence was under threat, mainly because of financial problems.

Some famous names are connected to the Hamburg opera: Johann Mattheson, Reinhard Keiser, Georg Philipp Telemann and George Frideric Handel. Not many music lovers will have ever heard of Georg Caspar Schürmann. Although he worked for most of his career in Wolfenbüttel, his opera Die getreue Alceste was performed in the Oper am Gänsemarkt in July 1719. Schürmann was a productive composers of operas, but unfortunately only three of his more than 30 operas have survived complete, whereas nine others have come down to us fragmentarily. The state of his operatic oeuvre shares the fate of that of most German opera composers of his time: the largest part of the operatic output of the composers I just mentioned has been lost.

Schürmann was born in Idensen, near Hanover. His career started in Hamburg, where he sang as a male alto in the opera and in churches. This period must have had a strong impact on his development as a composer and may have inspired him to focus on the composition of operas. In 1697 he travelled with the Hamburg opera to the court in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel for a series of guest appearances. It resulted in his being appointed as a singer at this court by Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg. He soon was also given the duty of conducting the opera and performances in the court church. Schürmann remained in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel until his death. There his opera Die getreue Alceste was first performed in February 1719.

The libretto was written by Johann Ulrich König, who adapted a libretto by Philippe Quinault (1635-1688), written for Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1674. Part of König's adaptation was the intoduction of a new character: Hyppolite, a woman disguised as a man and wearing male attire. He used this character to create a second romantic couple: Hercules and Hyppolite, alongside Alceste and Admetus. Another adaptation was that, whereas in Quinault's libretto Alceste's suicide is only mentioned, in König's version this was brought onto the stage "in order, through the visible presentation of such a heroic action and the tender thoughts added by me [König], to move the hearts of the spectators all the more powerfully - which, though it is the most difficult feat, is also the noblest one of theatrical poetry" (preface to the libretto). For the Hamburg performance Schürman adapted the libretto as well as his musical setting. Both librettos have survived, but only the music of the Hamburg version is extant. It allows for a comparison between them, which reveals that for Hamburg, Schürmann replaced a number of arias in German with arias in Italian, as was the custom in Hamburg. The Hamburg version includes fifteen Italian arias and a duet, whereas eighteen German arias (including an arioso and a duet) and nine choruses of the original version were preserved. Nine of the Italian arias have been identified as being taken from operas by Italian composers, such as Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Bononcini and Agostino Steffani. It seems likely that the unidentified arias are also from the pen of Schürmann's Italian contemporaries rather than his own.

In March 2016, Ira Hochman and her ensemble barockwerk hamburg presented a semi-scenic performance of Die getreue Alceste in Hamburg, which was received very well. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was financially unfeasible to release a recording of this abridged version, let alone the entire work. Therefore it was decided to create a CD version which is basically a collection of highlights. All 'foreign' additions have been left out; the arias in this version are all on German texts. Through texts in the booklet, the various fragments are connected to make sure that the listener can follow the course of the events. Even so, this is rather disappointing, considering that large sums of money are spent on all sorts of things which may be of less value than this work of art. If this disc reveals one thing, it is that Schürmann was an outstanding composer, which makes it all the more regrettable that the largest part of his operatic output has been lost. The work-list in New Grove mentions a number of sacred cantatas, and one wonders who is going to take care of them. This recording has made me very curious about other parts of Schürmann's oeuvre.

One thing needs to be mentioned: the role of Admetus, which Schürmann probably created for himself, as it is for an alto. It is a rather demanding part as far as its range is concerned. "It ranges from d to es2 [e#2] and on the whole is too high for a tenor (even for the type of the French haute-contre) trained in keeping with today's standards and is clearly too low for a male alto (countertenor) exclusively employing the falsetto register in the recitatives mostly notated in the tenor clef." (booklet) This may give us some indication about Schürmann's own voice. However, in Hamburg, the opera received 42 performances, and it seems unlikely that Schürmann participated in any but a few of these. Therefore more singers must have been capable of singing in this range. From that angle, this opera gives us some insight into vocal techniques of the time.

Stylistically, this opera is a specimen of the 'mixed taste', the combination of French, Italian and German elements, which was advocated by the leading composers of the time, such as Telemann, Fasch and Bach. Also notable is that Schürmann shows a full command of counterpoint, which comes to the fore in the overture and the instrumental accompaniment of the arias, which mostly have the dacapo form. And not to forget in the Chorus of the Wailers and Mourners from the second act, which is called an aria à tutti. It is one of the highlights of this programme of highlights from the opera.

I urge anyone interested in baroque opera, and especially in operas from Germany, to investigate this disc, especially as the performance leaves little to be desired. It is a shame that Alon Harari uses a bit too much vibrato now and then, but it is admirable how he deals with the requirements of this role. The playing of the ensemble is excellent.

This recording whets the appetite for a complete performance of this opera. Let's hope that some day it will be possible to record the entire work.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Ralf Grobe
Andreas Heinemeyer
Mirko Ludwig
Katherina Müller
Hanna Zumsande
barockwerk hamburg

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