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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Die Israeliten in der Wüste (Wq 238 / H 775)

Nele Gramß (Zweite Israelitin), Gudrun Sidonie Otto (Erste Israelitin), soprano; Hermann Oswald (Aaron), tenor; Michael Schopper (Moses), bass
Salzburger Hofmusik
Dir: Wolfgang Brunner

rec: Sept 2008, Salzburg, Solitär Mozarteum
CPO - 777 560-2 (© 2011) (75'46")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

In his liner-notes to Hermann Max's recording of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu the German musicologist Peter Wollny writes: "In the second half of the eighteenth century the German oratorio was marked by two characteristics. The tendency toward a highly individual depiction of emotions and the avoidance of dramatic operatic plots." Therefore composers turned away from stories from the Old Testament which were so successfully used, for instance, by Handel for his dramatic oratorios, and focuses rather on the person of Jesus Christ. Bach's oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste seems to contradict this statement.

He composed and performed this oratorio in the first season after he had become Musikdirektor of Hamburg, as successor to Georg Philipp Telemann. The subject is the trials of the Jewish people in the desert, after their departure from Egypt. In the opening chorus the people complain about their fate: "Our tongues cleave to dry palates, we scarcely breathe." And then the First Israelite woman asks: "Is this Abraham's God? (...) We hunger and thirst, we grow pale. (...) The Lord takes pleasure in our downfall; and he thinks no more of his own". Aaron then urges the people: "Refrain, refrain from filling the air with your laments". The Second Israelite woman even asks for the people to be brought back to Egypt: "O bring us to those walls far off from which we mourn, o bring us back to them!" This causes anger from Moses, who has led his people out of Egypt: "Ungrateful nation, have you forgotten his wondrous works, which for you your God has done?" He asks God for mercy: "Open, Lord, in this moment, the bounty of thy grace." God answers by giving water to the people: "O miracle! God has heard us! And fresh silver streams spring forth from this rock, to quench the pain that devours our breast". In the second part the people and the two Israelite women bring praise to God, and here we also find a reference to the coming of Christ in the words of Moses: "one day for Adam's sinful world another Man will plead with the Judge. (...) [He] comes and brings us peace, and blessing and salvation is his name".

In this oratorio Bach links up with tradition in several ways. The oratorio is in two parts, there is a reference to the coming of Christ - a traditional feature of many Italian oratorios - and the treatment of the subject is close enough to the biblical narrative to make sure the oratorio can be performed both in church and in the concert hall. With a subject like this one is inclined to compare Bach's oratorio with Israel in Egypt by Handel in which the way God liberated his people from the slavery in Egypt is so dramatically exposed. A comparison makes sense because of the parallels and the differences. Handel only uses the biblical text, in contrast to Bach - or rather the librettist, Daniel Schiebeler. In both oratorios the first part is dramatic and the second a song of praise. There is a clear difference between the drama in Handel's oratorio and in Bach's, though. Whereas the plagues in Egypt are vividly depicted by Handel, Bach's oratorio is dramatic in the way the protagonists and the people describe their fate. No events are depicted: when the water flows and the people are able to drink, the only 'dramatic' element are the figurations of the first violins in the orchestra which illustrate the streaming down of the water. The accompanied recitatives, the arias and the choruses may be dramatic in character, it is the emotions of the various characters they express, rather than actual events. And this shows that this oratorio fully fits in the aesthetics of the Empfindsamkeit. And like in other oratorios of this kind its ultimate goal is to affect the "Christian and moral virtues" of the audience, as an anonymous contemporary of Bach expressed it. The German theorist Johann Georg Sulzer underlined that the protagonist in an oratorio should express his sentiments about the subject. "The purpose of this drama is to penetrate the hearts of the listeners with similar sentiments."

It is the task of the performers to make sure this really happens. The interpreters in this performance are well up to that task. Gudrun Sidonie Otto and Nele Gramß give impressive performances of the parts of the two Israelite women. The former has the clearer and more dramatic voice, the second is a bit darker and sweeter, but they both do a great job in their respective roles. The soprano parts are technically quite challenging, in particular in regard to tessitura and the sometimes long coloraturas. The operatic arias of the second half of the century - for instance those by Mozart - are not far away. The part of Aaron is more modest in this respect, but challenging in a different way. Aaron begs the people not to be ungrateful to God, and the interpreter must find a way to express this without becoming too sentimental. Hermann Oswald manages to do just that. Michael Schopper is a seasoned performer of dramatic repertoire from the baroque period. He does full justice to the part of Moses who acts as a mediator between God and the people. Technically his singing is sometimes a bit problematic, especially in regard to intonation. The choir is consisting of 11 singers, including the four soloists. This seems in line with the number of singers Bach had at his disposal in performances in church. The liner-notes don't tell when and where performances have taken place. Apparently this line-up is based on the assumption that it was indeed performed in church. In this oratorio the orchestral part is very important as it plays a major role in expressing the emotions felt by the protagonists. Salzburger Hofmusik realises the score very well.

In short, this is an impressive recording which perfectly communicates the evocative way in which Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach set the libretto to music.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Nele Gramß
Gudrun Sidonie Otto
Salzburger Hofmusik

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