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Johann Wilhelm HERTEL (1727 - 1789): Der sterbende Heiland

Berit Solset, soprano; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Jan 10 - 12, 2013, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
CPO - 777 874-2 (© 2014) (79'41")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[ripienists] Johanna Neß, soprano; Melissa Hegney, Beate Westerkamp, contralto; Bruno Michalke, tenor; Nicholas Boulanger, bass

In recent years we see a remarkable interest in the oeuvre of Johann Wilhelm Hertel. Two years ago I reviewed a recording of his Christmas oratorio Die Geburt Jesu Christi and more recently a disc with various sacred works from his pen. The latest CPO release is a recording of his Passion oratorio Der sterbende Heiland which dates from 1764.

Hertel was born in Eisenach; it is likely that he received violin lessons from his father Johann Christian, who was a violinist and Konzertmeister of the court orchestra. He also received keyboard lessons from a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1744 he moved with his family to Neustrelitz where he became a violinist and harpsichordist in the court orchestra and his father was appointed as Konzertmeister. He had close contacts to Frederick the Great's court in Berlin and took violin lessons from Franz Benda. He also became acquainted with some poets who were exponents of the Enlightenment. For some time he lived in Hamburg where he wrote for a magazine. In 1754 Hertel became court and chapel composer in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, first under Duke Christian Ludwig II and later under his son Friedrich who had the nickname of 'Friedrich the Pious' because of his Pietistic leanings. With the court Hertel moved to Ludwigslust, the new residence of Duke Friedrich, in 1767.

Hertel was commissioned to compose his oratorio by Prince Ludwig, the younger brother of his employer. The libretto was written by Johann Friedrich Löwen, Ludwig's private secretary. For some time he had worked as a writer and had only entered Ludwig's service for financial reasons. He has become known as one of the founders of the German National Theatre in Hamburg in 1767 and was on friendly terms with the poet Lessing. During their years in Hamburg he and Hertel became close friends. They shared a vivid interest in the theory of poetry and music. In 1757 and 1760 respectively Hertel published two collections of songs on texts from Löwen's pen. When the composer settled in Mecklenburg-Schwerin Löwen sent several of his librettos to Hertel who used them for some of his cantatas.

Löwen and Hertel were both impressed by the oratorio Der Tod Jesu which Carl Heinrich Graun had set to a libretto by Karl Wilhelm Ramler. It was premiered on Good Friday 1755 in Berlin. Hertel wrote about Ramler's libretto: "I know nobody who might have brought it higher in this art". Löwen urged his countrymen to take Ramler's poetry as a model and to imitate it. He himself certainly did so in his writing of Der sterbende Heiland. In the tradition of the Passion oratorio - established by Barthold Heinrich Brockes in 1714 - the narrative of the gospels is omitted. Ramler and Löwen go one step further: the role of the Evangelist is completely omitted. Instead an anonymous observer reflects on some of the key moments in the Passion story. Der sterbende Heiland opens with an instrumental introduction which is followed by the chorale Ich will an deinem Kreuze and the chorus Er tritt die Kelter allein (He treads the wine press alone). Then the observer enters in a recitative: "Emanuel! For a world full of sinners you follow the cruel path of death and vouch for us depraved children, for whom no man, no angel can vouch. My faith, though weak, follows you to Golgatha and sees there in judgment's darkness the strongest beam of light". This gives some idea of the character of the recitatives.

It also reveals the difference between this oratorio and Ramler's, who portrays Jesus as 'friend of man' and an example of virtue to be followed. In Löwen's text Jesus is the Son of God who suffers at the Cross for the sins of men and "vouches for us depraved children". In this respect the text is much closer to orthodox Lutheranism than Ramler's. The idiom is also more baroque in its graphic and vivid description of the events. In her liner-notes Franziska Seils - specialist in Hertel's oeuvre - doubts whether this stance reflects Löwen's own view or rather that of Hertel's employer, Duke Friedrich. "[As] a young man he had fulminated against the 'spoiled and sure Christendom' in cantata texts of his own authorship and had kept sacred concerts in Ludwigslust open to the general populace in order to educate his subjects in firm faith".

The collaboration between Löwen and Hertel has resulted in an impressive Passion oratorio which is capable to captivate from the first note to the last. The recitatives are very expressive, and both in the vocal and the orchestral parts the text is depicted in often drastic ways. The arias are no less expressive. The bass aria Du Stolz, den Gottes Hauch zerschmettert is a good example, and the content is fully exploited by Andreas Wolf. Another highlight is the aria Kostbare Tränen wahrer Reue, which receives an incisive performance by Berit Solset. She is brilliant in the operatic aria Schalt, ihr freudigen Gesänge, which includes virtuosic coloratura. Nicholas Mulroy sings most of recitatives, and does it very well, although the lower part of his range is a little too weak. Moving is the recitative of the three voices, just before the final chorus, Der Held aus Juda siegt und stirbt (The hero from Judah triumphs and dies).
Some recitatives are rhythmically a bit too strict and in the chorus which I referred to above I would have liked stronger dynamic accents. But in the light over the overall level of interpretation these issues hardly matter.

This oratorio, which is presented here for the first time, is well worth being included in the standard repertoire for Passiontide and should find its way to the concert hall.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Nicholas Mulroy
Andreas Wolf
Kölner Akademie

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