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Andreas ROMBERG (1767 - 1821): Der Messias, oratorio in 3 parts

Veronika Winter (Eva), soprano; Markus Schäfer (Eloa), Bernhard Scheffel (Benjamin), Immo Schröder (Jedidda), tenor; Ekkehard Abele (Adam, Stimme des Messias), baritone
Rheinische Kantorei, Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Feb 20 - 22, 2007, Cologne, Deutschlandradio (Studio Stolberger Strasse)
CPO - 777 328-2 (© 2007) (64'20")

With this recording of an oratorio by Andreas Romberg the German record company CPO starts a new series, called 'Musica sacra Hamburgensis 1600 - 1800'. Already announced are productions with music by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560 - 1629), Johan Philipp Förtsch (1652 - 1732) and chorale concertos and chorale variations from the first half of the 17th century.

Strictly speaking Romberg's oratorio Der Messias doesn't belong in this series. It was composed and first performed in Bonn, where Andreas Romberg - a violinist by profession - was a member of the court orchestra, together with his cousin Bernhard (not his father, as the English translation of the programme notes says), Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Reicha. It was the invasion of the French armies in 1793 - only a couple of months after the first performance of Der Messias - which forced him to leave Bonn for Hamburg, where Romberg stayed most of the rest of his life. It was here that he started to gain a reputation as a composer of instrumental works and sacred vocal music. Several of his sacred works were performed, mostly during concerts in private homes of the Hamburg élite. It is quite possible that this oratorio was also performed during such a concert, but there is no evidence of this. The assumption that it was indeed performed in Hamburg must have been the reason to include it in this planned series of recordings.

In 1802 Romberg asked his publisher to print Der Messias, but to no avail. His publisher, Simrock, probably didn't expect the oratorio to sell very well. Ironically it was Romberg himself who nourished that expectation. He characterised it as "something rare (...) that will be bought only by experts and genuine lovers of such a serious production, of which there are only a few around". The rejection was a major disappointment and rather than trying to send it to another publisher Romberg put it away.

The text of the oratorio is based on a long poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724 - 1803), arguably the most famous German poet of the second half of the 18th century. The poem enjoyed a wide circulation throughout Germany. That was the reason Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752 - 1814), also a composer, but mainly known as a writer about music, made a selection from the verses of this poem. This was published in a music magazine in 1782 and Reichardt encouraged composers to set it to music. Whether he has done so himself is not known, but it was Romberg wo used this abridged version for his oratorio.

It is divided into three parts. The first describes the cause of Christ's coming: the fall of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in paradise. In the second part Adam and Eve sing the praise of Christ for his redemption of mankind. In the third part Eloa - not a biblical figure, but acting here as the leader of the angels - describes the passion of Christ and then leads the heavenly choirs in singing his praise. There is no real action in this oratorio, it is more reflective than dramatic. Klopstock's poem is a typical product of the German Empfindsamkeit, and Romberg's music fits this very well. There is hardly any translation of single words into music, and there are no strong dynamic outbursts either. Even in the closing chorus the jubilation is rather restrained. In his music Romberg expresses the different moods through orchestral colouring, fine dynamic shadings and harmony. Often recitatives, ariosos and arias merge into one another, without any interruption. The orchestra reacts to what the characters are singing. For instance, in the chorus 'Wir wollen dereinst die Trümmern' in Part 1 there is a crescendo, with trumpets joining the orchestra, on the words "shall awake to new creation". The same happens in Eloa's recitative in the third part, on the words "will sit on the throne".

The scoring of choir and orchestra is rather modest: a choir of 16 voices and an orchestra of 8 violins, pairs of violas, cellos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with one double bass and timpani. But as this work has probably been performed in private homes this line-up seems rather too large than too small. Both ensembles have a vast experience in this kind of repertoire, and perform the score with great sensitivity and perfect understanding of Romberg's early romantic musical language. The soloists also give excellent performances. The text is always very clearly delivered, in particular in the recitatives. Markus Schäfer is impressive as always in the projection of the text and the delivery of the emotion of his part. Veronika Winter and Ekkehard Abele are matching very well as Eve and Adam. Bernhard Scheffel and Immo Schröder give fine accounts of their small roles as Benjamin and Jedidda respectively.

This is a intriguing and captivating piece of music which gives a good impression of the way sacred music was written around 1800. It is a different world from that of Telemann or even Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and one perhaps needs some time to get used to it, but in my view it is well worth the effort. This disc is a fine start of what promises to be a very interesting series of recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Die Rheinische Kantorei

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