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Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778 - 1837): Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer, oratorio in 2 parts (S 33)

Simone Kermes (Israelitin, Ein Mädchen), Veronika Winter (Eine Frau, Miriam), soprano; Hans Jörg Mammel (Aaron, Ein Jüngling, Würgeengel), tenor; Ekkehard Abele (Moses), Wolf Mathias Friedrich (Israelit, Ein Mann), bass
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 22, 2004 (live), Knechtsteden, Klosterbasilika
CPO - 777 220-2 (© 2006) (50'45")

In the late 18th and early 19th century sacred music wasn't a very popular genre. Most composers of that time are better known by their instrumental works or operas than by masses, cantatas or oratorios. And many works of that kind which they have written are today largely forgotten. Johann Nepomuk Hummel is an example: his has written a number of masses which only recently have been rediscovered and recorded, and the oratorio Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer was completely unknown. Until very recently it was even assumed it had disappeared altogether. But the manuscript of this oratorio has been in the British Library for over a hundred years. This is perhaps indicative of how sacred music from this period in music history is generally treated, as apparently nobody bothered to have a look at it, let alone to perform it. Fortunately there are people like Hermann Max who has performed and recorded sacred works by the likes of Dittersdorf, Ferdinand Ries and Andreas Romberg.

But as indicated above the lack of interest in this kind of repertoire is not a phenomenon of our time. Even in their own time it often was difficult to perform a cantata or an oratorio. Andreas Romberg's oratorio Der Messias was performed several times, but only in private circles, and his efforts to get it published failed. Hummel's oratorio was also never printed, and there even is no evidence whatsoever that it was ever performed. As the manuscript is undated it is impossible to tell when and where, or for what occasion, it was written. But it seems most likely it was written during the time Hummel was the leader of the orchestra in Esterházy (1804 - 1816), where he in fact acted as Kapellmeister, a post which was still officially held by Haydn. Hummel himself made a catalogue of all the sacred music in the court library when he was working there, which contains many compositions by, for instance, Handel, Haydn and Hasse. As Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer is unmistakeably influenced by the oratorios of Handel and Haydn, it seems likely it was written in Esterházy.

The subject of the oratorio is the liberation of Israel from Egypt. The oratorio consists of two parts: the first describes the suffering of the people in Egypt and the announcement of God's intervention through Moses. The second part describes the exodus from Egypt and the destruction of the Egyptian army. The events are mainly told in form of recitatives by an Israelite man. These recitatives are either secco, only accompanied by keyboard (here a fortepiano) or accompagnato, where the voice is supported by the orchestra. Hummel makes a distinction between these two: those parts of the recitatives which tell about the Egyptians and their pharaoh are secco, whereas those parts which regard the actions of God and the Israelites are mostly set in form of accompanied recitatives. Whereas the arias in 18th century oratorios are generally of a reflective nature, here they are used either to express the direct speech in the story as told in Exodus (ch 6 - 15) - for instance the words of God through the mouth of Moses ('Ich, euer Vater Gott', Part 1), or to dwell on elements of the story, like the aria of the Israelite woman in Part 2, 'Und Moses streckte aus die Hand.' There are very few arias, though, and all of them are with chorus. In addition there is a duet of Moses and Aaron: they speak to the pharaoh, and those two parts are almost completely written in parallels. This is probably a reflection of their roles as indicated in Exodus: Aaron is acting as the mouth of Moses, and therefore doesn't have an independent line.

It is in particular in the treatment of the choruses where Handel's influence shines through. That is especially the case in the vocal quartet with full chorus, 'Der Herr hat unser Trübsal geseh'n' (Part 2). In the orchestral effects there is a clear influence of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung, for instance in the duet where the plagues are illustrated, and in the next recitative where the strings vividly depict gnats and locusts. Very moving is the aria with chorus 'Ich schwebe auf des Todesfittich' in which the Destroying Angel describes how all firstborn in Egypt are dying. The falling intervals illustrate the text: "may Egypt's firstborn fall". The orchestra follows these falling intervals, then the upper part of the orchestra falls silent, and the piece ends with the lower strings and the timpani playing piano, until the sound just dies down. Here ends the first part of the oratorio; the second part then begins with a recitative which describes the mourning in Egypt and the decision of the pharaoh to let the people go. The second part ends with an extended chorus in which the praise of God is sung.

The mixture of various forms - two kinds of recitative, a duet, arias with chorus and extended choruses - makes this oratorio a very interesting and original piece. There is no reason to ignore it, and as other sacred works from the same time it deserves to be performed and recorded, and is a valuable addition to the vocal repertoire of the early 19th century. It was performed in 2004 during the festival in Knechtsteden, which is directed by Hermann Max, who almost every year presents a hitherto unknown vocal work. It was recorded live which means there are some background noises, but very unobtrusive. There are some technical irregularities now and then, but in general the technical level of this performance is remarkably good. The same can be said about the performance. Wolf Matthias Friedrich does very well as the Israelite man who tells the story; only at the beginning he tends to exaggerate the dramatic character of his part. Ekkehard Abele is perhaps a bit lightweight for the role of Moses, and his low register is a little weak, but otherwise he gives a fine account of his part. Hans Jörg Mammel in particular excells as the Destroying Angel. Both sopranos are first-rate: Simone Kermes deals very well with the virtuoso coloraturas in her aria 'Und Moses streckte aus die Hand'. Choir and orchestra have an important role to play, and both ensembles do so very well. The singing and playing is very dramatic when it needs to be, and the choruses are crisp and clear.

In short, this oratorio is an intriguing, and often moving piece of music. It fully deserves to be brought to life again, and one can only be thankful to Hermann Max and his team for bringing this to our attention.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Die Rheinische Kantorei

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