musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Friedrich AGRICOLA (1720 - 1774): "Die Hirten bei der Krippe - Three Christmas Cantatas"

Berit Solset, soprano; Myriam Arbouz, contralto; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Matthias Vieweg, bass
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: June 5 - 7, 2014, Deutschlandfunk, Kammermusiksaal
CPO - 777 921-2 (© 2014) (81'07")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Score Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem

Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem; Kündlich groß ist das gottselige Geheimnis; Uns ist ein Kind geboren

[ripienists] Johanna Neß, soprano; Beate Westerkamp, contralto; Bruno Michalke, tenor; Manfred Bühl, bass

In 1999 the archive of the Berlin Singakademie was discovered in Kiev and two years later was returned to Berlin. Since then musicologists have been busy sorting it out. As a result various works considered lost have come to the surface. The present disc is an example of a production which would not have been possible without the rediscovery of the archive. Two of the works recorded here are marked as "lost" in New Grove given that the archive of the Singakademie was the only source. A considerable part of Agricola's sacred music is now available again and that allows us to get a more complete picture of musical life in Berlin in the mid-18th century.

Agricola was born in Dobitschen in Saxe-Altenburg as son of a government agent. In 1738 he enrolled in Leipzig University where he studied law. He became a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach and took part in performances of his church music and of the Collegium Musicum. At this time he also started to copy works by Bach. In 1741 he moved to Berlin where he took lessons from Johann Joachim Quantz. There he became acquainted with some of the main poets of the time and the leading composers of the day including Carl Heinrich Graun and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

For some time he enjoyed the patronage of Frederick the Great who appointed him as court composer in 1751. Their relationship was not without problems: Agricola married one of the opera singers, against Frederick's wishes who wanted his opera stars to remain single. In 1759 Graun died and Agricola succeeded him as director of the Opera, although without the title of Kapellmeister. Frederick was very critical of Agricola's operas, some of which he ordered to be rewritten almost completely. Agricola was an important composer of songs, a genre which enjoyed great popularity at the time.

He was also active as a performer: he worked as organist in the tradition of Johann Sebastian Bach and sang the tenor part in the first performance of Graun's oratorio Der Tod Jesu. This is a text he also set himself. It was part of a trilogy of oratorios or cantatas about the life of Jesus from the pen of Carl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-1798). Der Tod Jesu was the only part Graun composed. It was one of the most frequently performed oratorios in Germany, well into the 19th century, until it came to be overshadowed by Bach's St Matthew Passion. The first part was Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem and the third Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu. Only two composers set all three: Telemann and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. Agricola composed music for the first and the third part; the first had been thought lost until it turned up in the Singakademie archive.

In this piece Ramler mixes biblical references with idyllic images from the world of Arcadia. God is often called Schiloh - a name from the Old Testament - but also "God of shepherds". Ramler indicates that the cantata should open with a pastoral song for instruments; Agricola composed a piece without any reminiscences of a well-known Christmas song. Then we hear a recitative for soprano which begins with the words: "Here he sleeps, oh, how sweetly, and smiles in his sleep, the blessed Child". In the following aria the strings are joined by two flutes. Especially in the second recitative and the duet the Arcadian world is mixed with biblical images, for instance the peaceful living together of lion and lamb which we find in the book of Isaiah and a reference to Eden, the garden in paradise, when the world was still peaceful. The duet ends with the line: "May heaven and earth be as once they were, one song, one chorus". The cantata ends with "Glory to God in the highest", with an obligato part for organ.

It seems very likely that the first performance of Graun's Der Tod Jesu in 1755 inspired Agricola to consider writing sacred music himself which was mostly performed at St Peter's Church in Berlin. Die Hirten bey der Krippe zu Bethlehem dates from 1757 and seems to have been written under the direct impression of Graun's oratorio. Kündlich groß ist das gottselige Geheimnis dates from 1768. It opens with a chorus which is followed by a recitative, an aria, an accompanied recitative and another chorus. It closes with a second aria and a chorale, a stanza from the old Christmas song Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem.

It is not known when Uns ist ein Kind geboren was written; it is again a piece which was thought to have been lost but has turned up in the archive of the Singakademie. It opens with a chorus: "To us a child is born, a son is given to us". On the next line, "whose mighty rule is on his shoulder", the full orchestra enters. The ensuing aria is of an operatic character, with plenty of coloratura. Agricola effectively uses the various instrumental groups - strings with flutes, oboes and horns in various combinations - to underline elements in the text. The aria 'Holder Jesu' is of a quite different character as the text suggests: "Dear Jesus, your names are my balm in the world". The alto is supported here by strings alone. In the next aria the tenor and the strings are joined by a trumpet - a pre-eminently 'royal' instrument - which can be explained by the reference to "the Prince of Peace" in the A-part.

The sacred music from this time is something one has to get used to, especially if one is acquainted with the cantatas and oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is a different world. Agricola's contemporary Johann Adolph Scheibe (1708-1778) stated: "[It] is the main final goal of church music primarily to edify the listeners, to encourage them to engage in devotion, in order in this way to arouse in them a quiet and holy reverence toward the divine being." This seems a good description of the sacred music of the mid-18th century in Germany. This explains that the texts are often rather moralistic. However, the way these ideals are realized by Agricola is admirable. The three pieces on this disc, which are certainly all recorded here for the first time, are fine additions to the repertoire. If you are interested in music for Christmastide which is different from what you are used to, don't hesitate.

The performances are generally very good. Berit Solset has shown her qualities in previous recordings of repertoire from the same period. Her mastery of the sometimes quite demanding arias is admirable. Myriam Arbouz is a new name for me, but I like her singing here, especially in the tender aria mentioned before, 'Holder Jesu'. Nicholas Mulroy sings well, but I don't like his huskiness; the top notes sound a little stressed at times. Matthias Vieweg has a rather small part, but sings well. The choruses are performed by the soloists, with four additional ripienists. The orchestral effects are fully explored by the Kölner Akademie.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Nicholas Mulroy
Matthias Vieweg
Die Kölner Akademie

CD Reviews