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Ferdinand RIES (1784 - 1838): Die Könige in Israel, oratorio in 2 parts

Nele Gramß (Michal), soprano; Gerhild Romberger (Jonathan), Ewa Wolak (Hexe von Endor), contralto; Markus Schäfer (David), tenor; Kai Florian Bischoff (Abner), Harry van der Kamp (Saul), Marek Rzepka (Samuels Geist), bass
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 22 - 23, 2005, Knechtsteden, Klosterbasilika
CPO - 777 221-2 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.49'55")

Some composers have a strong influence on later generations. Sometimes this influence persists a long time after their death. Beethoven is just one example: it took a while before Brahms did dare to write a symphony, as he wasn't sure he could live up to the standard Beethoven had set. Another is George Frideric Handel: although he was a man of the theatre and preferred to compose operas, it is mainly because of his oratorios that he was admired - and feared. Mozart was so impressed by Handel's oratorios that he arranged several of them, and Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung is unthinkable without the model of Handel's Messiah. The oratorio Die Könige in Israel by Ferdinand Ries shows how long Handel's influence lasted. It shows the traces of Handel's style and yet for all this Ries feared the standard Handel had set. This explains the story behind the oratorio.

Ries had first become acquainted with the genre of the oratorio when he studied with Beethoven in Vienna from 1802 to 1806. As he arrived in Vienna, just 18 years of age, Beethoven was working at his own oratorio Christus am Ölberge, and in return for free musical education he had to assist Beethoven with copying out the parts of the oratorio and assisting with the preparation of its first performance.

Die Könige in Israel isn't the first oratorio Ries has written. From 1825 he had acted several times as musical director of the Music Festival of Lower Saxony which took place every year at Pentecost in Aachen, Düsseldorf and Cologne alternately. In 1829 he was commissioned to compose an oratorio for this festival, which was Der Sieg des Glaubens. In 1836 the festival in Düsseldorf had presented Mendelssohn's oratorio Paulus, and so next year the festival in Aachen wanted to come up with something of the same standard. Ries was invited again to act as musical director and also to perform an oratorio of his own.

The first problem was to find an appropriate subject. It was considered to take the story of Esther, but Ries was afraid to do so because Handel had set the story as well. In a letter Ries wrote: "Now that [Handel] is a dangerous competitor; I cannot write in his style and would not want to do so either - if I did, my own positive qualities would go to the devil, and, vying with him, I would have to be the runner-up". Die Könige in Israel also has a subject which Handel had dealt with, Saul and David. But the main character in this oratorio from the outset is David, whereas Handel called his oratorio Saul. This is in line with what Ries had written in the letter just quoted: that if a subject had to be chosen which Handel had already used, it "must be undertaken in an entirely different manner".

The oratorio begins with an overture which is followed by a chorus which sings the praise of David. It already refers to David's future as king: "We greet you as king, now that God has repudiated Saul!" David then answers in his first aria by pointing upwards: "Might and victory wouldn't be mine if the power of the Most High didn't descend here to me". His wife Michal, daughter of Saul, then in an aria prays to God that Saul may stop pursuing David. To no avail, then next we hear Saul coming with his army to capture David. But he is saved by the Philistines which have entered the country. When the battle is going the Philistines' way Saul is driven back to seeking the advice of the late prophet Samuel, who is conjured up by a witch in Endor. He tells Saul: "Your kingdom will be taken from you". The Philistines beat Saul's army, and both Saul and his son Jonathan are killed. When the Philistines want to celebrate their victory ("We'll divide the spoils") David, with his own army, intervenes. In the last part of the oratorio David is becoming king. A spirit chorus of Patriarchs refers to the coming of Jesus: "Hail to you, you are the anointed of the Lord, a prefigurement of the one who is to come and has been from all eternity". In the closing chorus Jesus is praised as the son of David: "Worship him, the First and the Last; praise and honour to the Son of David!".

This is a typical romantic oratorio in that the orchestra is to establish an atmosphere which suits the text of the recitatives, arias and choruses, for instance through the use of dynamics. The most striking example is the scene with the witch of Endor, where the tremolo in the orchestra creates an eerie atmosphere in which Samuel is coming up from the underworld. At the same time there are clear traces of Handel's influence, or of the baroque oratorio in general. For instance, the character of Jonathan is scored for an alto - and giving a male role to a high voice was a feature of the baroque era. The choruses are often connected to a group of characters: David's warriors, the Philistines, Saul's warriors, the Maidens - just what Handel also often did in his oratorios.

There are also examples of a very direct illustration of the text. The word "zerschmettert" (smashed to pieces) in the chorus 'In düstrer Nacht' is sung and played forte. The orchestra depicts the footsteps of the soldiers of Saul's army when they come to capture David (chorus 'Er nah't'). When the chorus of the Philistines sing that Saul must fall the word "fallen" (fall) is sung and played forte and is followed by a pause, and on the word "fall" Ries has also set descending figures. Lastly Ries makes use of counterpoint: several choruses contain fugal sections, like in the second section of the closing chorus, and also in the chorus which ends Part 1. Here we find another feature of this oratorio: a dialogue between two choruses, in this case the Israelites and Saul's warriors on the one hand and the Philistines on the other.

There are relatively few arias in this work. Saul and Michal have two, David, the Witch of Endor and the spirit of Samuel just one. In addition David has two solos in choruses. The witch and Samuel play the main roles in the scene where the spirit of Samuel is conjured. It was this scene which made the strongest impression during the first performance, as Ries wrote in a letter to his brother Joseph: "The witch scene comes over extraordinarily, which made me very happy, because I was not entirely certain of my effect there; but several people said to me that it gave them a quite eerie feeling, and they looked around to see if something might not be coming up out of the ground".

This scene is also a highlight in this recording. That isn't only due to the orchestra, which realises Ries' effects very well, but also to Ewa Wolak who sings the role of the witch, and does to frightening realistically. Her part is pretty low, and in the lowest notes she goes down to a tenor range. Markus Schäfer has sung many roles in this kind of oratorios, and here he gives a fine account of the role of David. His clear and penetrating voice is very suitable for this role, and his diction is admirable. Harry van der Kamp, Nele Gramß and Gerhild Romberger are completely convincing as Saul, Michal and Jonathan respectively. Marek Rzepka and Kai Florian Bischoff are good in their respective roles of spirit of Samuel and Saul's general Abner, although in both cases I had liked a bit more powerful voices. The choruses are magnificently sung, with great command of the dynamic nuances Ries requires. All the orchestral effects are perfectly realised by Das Kleine Konzert.

This oratorio is a very interesting and musically enthralling composition. It is another treasure unearthed by Hermann Max and an important addition to the repertoire of sacred vocal music of the 19th century. The work fully deserves its place in the catalogue of romantic oratorios. No one who likes the oratorios of Mendelssohn or Schumann should miss this production.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Die Rheinische Kantorei

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