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Ferdinand RIES (1784 - 1838): Der Sieg des Glaubens op. 157, oratorio in 2 parts

Christiane Libor, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contralto; Markus Schäfer, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 17 - 19, 2009, Knechtsteden, Klosterbasilika
CPO - 777 738-2 (© 2013) (75'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

The oratorio was one of the main genres of vocal music in the baroque era. Once Giacomo Carissimi had laid the foundations of the modern oratorio as a musical drama on a sacred subject a large number of such works were written in the second half of the 17th and during the 18th century. In the decades around 1700 oratorios were especially performed during Lent and often include a reference to Jesus's Passion. Toward the end of the 18th century the genre seems to have lost some of its attraction. The number of recordings of oratorios from this period is rather limited, although in recent years more attention has been paid to compositions from this era. That is well deserved, because in fact quite a lot of oratorios were written in the classical era, albeit not by those composers who today are considered the main representatives of this period: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

The oratorio of the 19th century is even more neglected. Ask music lovers how many oratorios of the 19th century they know and most will probably mention the two by Mendelssohn - Elias and Paulus - and some also Christus by Liszt. Several works are not unknown but few people realize that they belong to the genre of the oratorio, such as Das Paradies und die Peri and Der Rose Pilgerfahrt by Schumann. The latter works have a secular subject, whereas the oratorio is almost exclusively associated with sacred subjects. However, one of the most famous oratorios of the classical era, Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten, is also basically secular, although in this case secular and sacred cannot be strictly separated.

Ferdinand Ries has become especially known for his close ties with Beethoven. For a number of years he acted as his assistent, especially in the capacity of copyist. He also copied parts of Beethoven's only oratorio Christus am Ölberge. He himself composed two oratorios, Die Könige in Israel and Der Sieg des Glaubens. Apart from the impression of Beethoven's oratorio it was the tradition of performances of oratorios by Handel which he had become acquainted with during his stay in London which inspired him. In Germany it was especially during music festivals that oratorios were performed. That is also the case with the two oratorios from Ries's pen. From 1825 Ries 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. The libretto was written Johann Baptist Rousseau who was the author of poems - some of which had been set by Ries - and also collected folk songs, sagas and legends. Ries was sceptical about the libretto at first as the subject was not from the Bible. Helga Heyder-Späth has entitled her liner-notes "A Philosophical Oratorio". "In Der Sieg des Glaubens Rousseau (...) did entirely without a continuous action and instead developed a philosophical discourse concerning the power of faith and the grace of God".

In German oratorios of the 19th century choruses take an important part which reflects the romantic penchant for massive performances, often including several hundred singers. That explains the prominence of the choral parts in this oratorio. Ries juxtaposes believers and unbelievers in the form of choruses. The first part begins with a female chorus of believers which expresses the thought of God's presence in nature. They are answered by a male chorus of believers which praises God's power. Musically Ries creates a strong contrast between these two choruses, reflecting the different aspects of God's presence which are exposed here. These two choruses are followed by a duet of soprano and tenor, representing a maiden and a youth which celebrate the love of God and express the thought that faith in God is the key to a better world. A chorus of believers and a tenor aria lead then to the closing chorus of the first part. Here we hear the unbelievers for the first time: "Your faith for us is scorn, our power is our God".

The second part opens - after an orchestral introduction - with a recitative and aria for soprano with chorus: "Does not the voice of God echo in your ears?" Then the dialogue intensifies in a 'threefold chorus': a male chorus of believers, a female chorus of believers and a chorus of unbelievers. An arietta of a believing woman (alto) is followed by a quartet of individuals: three believers (soprano, alto and tenor) and one unbeliever (bass). The latter then has an aria, acting as 'leader of the unbelievers': "If he is your God, whom we do nothing but curse, then let him show himself on this day". After a double chorus of believers and unbelievers the soprano in a recitative announces the arrival of the Seraph of Love and the Angel of Faith. In a duet they enunciate the blessings of the believers: "He who believes shall be blessed; he who loves is the same on earth: faith and love alone can save you!". The unbelievers succumb: "[We're] defeated. Illumine our path, O light of grace!" In a double chorus the believers praise God's greatness and the unbelievers recognize his might. The oratorio ends with a 'general concluding chorus' in the form of a fugue: "To the Lord be honour, praise and thanks!".

The choruses are the most impressive part of this oratorio, and the role of the orchestra is also very important. They are mostly responsible for the dramatic impact of this oratorio. Ries effectively contrasts choruses with musical means, not only the choruses of female and male believers I already mentioned, but also the double chorus of believers and unbelievers in the second part. The Rheinische Kantorei is much smaller than the choirs in Ries's time: just 28. The fact that they make quite an impression is partly due to their powerful singing but also to the pretty large reverberation in the basilica where this recording has taken place. The solo parts are certainly not unimportant: the duet of soprano and tenor in the first part takes seven minutes, and so does the aria for soprano with chorus in the second part. The solo parts are generally well sung. Christiane Libor uses a bit too much vibrato but fortunately that hardly damages her duet with Markus Schäfer. Both give fine accounts of their parts, and so does Markus Flaig who also sings some recitatives very nicely. Wiebke Lehmkuhl's part is rather small, but she has a nice voice and fits well into the ensemble.

With this recording both oratorios by Ries are available on disc. In 2005 Hermann Max already recorded Die Könige in Israel. The quality of these oratorios is such that there is no reason at all to ignore them. Max's interpretation is the a strong case for Ferdinand Ries's contributions to the genre of romantic oratorio.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Rheinische Kantorei

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