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Georg Gebel d.J.: Der leidende, sterbende und begrabene Jesus (St John Passion)

Ika Kruse (Ancilla), Dorothee Mields (arias), soprano; Thomas Riede (Petrus), Henning Voss (arias), alto; Mirko Heimerl (Servus), Jan Kobow (Evangelist & arias), tenor; Sebastian Bluth (Jesus), Friedemann Klos (Pilatus), Klaus Mertens (arias), bass
Ensemble inCanto weimar (Tilo Krause), Weimarer Barock-Ensemble
Dir: Ludger Rémy
rec: July 7 - 15, 2002, Weimar, Redoute
CPO - 999 894-2 (2 CDs; 41'23"/61'25")

It doesn't happen that often that a totally unknown work turns out to be a real treasure. But in my view that is exactly what is the case here. The St John Passion by the German composer Georg Gebel the Younger is a splendid work to listen to. It is also a remarkable work from a historical point of view.

Georg Gebel was the son of Georg Gebel the Elder (1685 - c1750), who was organist at St Christophori in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). He was responsible for the musical education of his son. Later an anonymous biographer of Georg Gebel the Younger (published by Marpurg in 1754) criticised his educational methods. He seems to have pushed his son a lot. At the age of 6 Georg junior had quite a reputation as player of harpsichord and organ and as composer.
His first important post was that of music director of the court ensemble of Duke Karl Friedrich von Württemberg-Oels in Breslau. Although the orchestra wasn't very large, it contained many virtuoso players. Gebel started to compose a large number of works. Many of them have disappeared, a process which already began during Gebel's lifetime, as people who asked him for compositions never gave them back, obviously holding these in high esteem. The effect has been that Gebel and his works are almost completely forgotten in our times.
The next important stage was Dresden, where in 1735 he became the harpsichordist of the private ensemble of Count Heinrich von Brühl, prime minister of the Prince Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Here again he was highly valued by his colleagues, and he composed many works, not only instrumental pieces for all kinds of instruments, but also vocal works.
In Dresden he married Maria Susanna Göbel, a fact which had a great influence on his life. She was from an artistic family: her father was a copper engraver, and both her brother and aunt were painters, like herself. His brother-in-law encouraged Gebel to start painting himself, and he seems to have had a considerable talent in that department as well.
In 1746 he moved to Rudolstadt, where he became concertmaster in the orchestra of the Schwarzburg Residence. In 1750 he succeeded Johann Graf as music director here. And again, his music became favourite to both his employer and the orchestra. In order to prove himself he started to compose like mad. The enormous workload took its toll, mentally and physically. All measures taken to cure him failed, and he died on September 24, 1753.

The St John Passion recorded here is known to have been performed in Rudolstadt in 1748. It consists of 6 'Actus' to be performed as a kind of 'meditations' during the evening services held from Monday to Saturday during Holy Week. But the first version probably dates from Gebel's time in Dresden. The remark in the manuscript at the end of 'Actus 3' - 'Conclusion Before the Sermon' - suggests that this version was in two parts, the first of which to be performed before, the second after the sermon. This is a practice we know from Leipzig when Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Passions.

In more than one respect this Passion belongs to two worlds, both textually and musically. On the one hand there are some aspects which are old-fashioned, and are rooted in the world of J.S. Bach. On the other hand there are traces of the 'new' style which became fashionable from the 1730's on.
In a time when many composers turned to the libretto by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, 'Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus', Gebel - by choice or because he was asked to do so - composed a 'traditional' oratorio passion, in which the text of the Gospel - St John, Chapters 18 and 19 - is the backbone. Like Bach he added arias on free texts - the author of which is unknown yet - and a number of chorales.
Not only in structure there are similarities to J.S. Bach's Passions. For example, the content and even the text of the aria "Ja, ja, ich will mich auch bequemen, den Kelch von Gottes Hand zu nehmen" reminds of the aria in Bach's St Matthew Passion "Gerne will ich mich bequemen, Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen". The opening choruses share the same content: compare "Komm mit Jesu Seel und Sinn ... geh mit ihm nach Salem hin!" (Come with him, heart and mind ... go with him to Salem) with the opening chorus of Bach's St Matthew Passion. And the closing chorus shows similarities with the endings of both of Bach's Passions: "Now sleep at last, tired limbs, after the agony endured! Here my cares and worries lie down, this shall be my resting place ('meine Ruhstatt'). On the third day my sun will return again".
In an attempt to make his work as dramatic as possible the arias are kept relatively short, mostly consisting of just two lines of poetry. And the chorales are slight and simple.
Noticeable is the quotation from Isaiah (Ch 53, vs 3: "Er ist um unser Missetat willen verwundet und um unser Sünde willen zerschlagen"), composed in motet-style, which starts the fourth 'Actus'. This is very uncommon in Passions of the 18th century, which - in addition to the text of the Gospel - only contain poetry.
But in many ways the free poetic texts can be connected to the German Enlightenment. In Bach's Passions the arias are a direct reflection upon the events taking place and the meaning of them for the congregation, personified by the 'daughter of Zion' (soli) and 'the faithful' (chorus). This reflects the orthodox Lutheran view on the function of the Passion in the liturgy: the congregation should relive, as it were, the passion of Christ, and that way be reminded once again of its own sins and the necessity of Jesus' suffering and death. But here the majority of the arias take the events as an opportunity to make general statements, like the aria "Herz, willt du bei der Welt": "Heart, if you stand with the world and its fire, then, faith's ardor and love will soon be put out". This follows the moment when the evangelist tells that Peter is standing with the servants and warming himself. The literal meaning of the event is used in a metaphorical way in the aria. Other arias address the world (of sins and evil) ("Willt du mich, Welt, ergreifen oder binden"), mankind ("Mensch! Willt du dich so freventlich von deinem Jesu trennen?") and the heathens ("Ihr Heiden sollt durch diesen Heiland leben"). Instead of 'reliving the passion' Gebel's Passion concentrates on drawing moral conclusions from the events as told in the Gospel.

Musically Gebel's Passion reflects two different styles as well. The recitatives of the evangelist and the 'soliloquentes' are very expressive, realised first and foremost by the distinctive use of harmonic means - a characteristic 'baroque' approach. Gebel is at his most expressive in the choruses, the 'turbae'. And here there are strong reminiscences of Johann Sebastian Bach too. Gebel usually sets these choruses in polyphonic style, just like Bach. Some 'turbae' are especially striking because of the expressive use of harmony - for example "Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter". In his liner notes Manfred Fechner rightly states that from a dramatic point of view these choruses are not inferior to those of Bach.
At the same time Gebel's Passion makes use of a 'post-baroque' musical language. This is reflected in particular by the role of the instruments. Gebel uses them to enhance the dramatic character of the story. Whereas most recitatives are accompanied by basso continuo only ('secco' recitatives), sometimes Gebel uses accompanied recitatives (with strings) to underline very dramatic moments, for example when the evangelist tells that Jesus is handed over, led away and is crucified. In some 'turbae' the strings are used to a strong dramatic effect, like in the chorus "Nicht diesen, sondern Barabam". And in the arias Gebel creates special effects by asking instruments like the violins, but also the violone, to play 'pizzicato'. In this respect the duet "Noch wird sich ein Johannes finden" deserves to be mentioned: the cello gets a solo role with 'violini pizzicati unisoni' and 'violono pizzicato'. Surprising are the solo parts for the viola da gamba and the theorbo in some arias, considering the fact that these instruments were already getting out of fashion in Gebel's time.

The performance does this work full justice. Jan Kobow is excellent in his interpretation of the role of the Evangelist, with a very precise articulation and diction, realising the most dramatic moments very well. The passage - already mentioned - about the handing over of Jesus to be crucified is deeply moving. The other roles are also well sung. And the performance of the arias is very convincing, not only by the singers - among which Dorothee Mields and Klaus Mertens stand out - , but also by the instrumentalists. The 'turbae' are quite demanding, but the choir masters them very well.

I have two reservations. First of all, although the choir is expressing the text in the chorales quite well, otherwise they sing a little too much legato. The chorales should have been a little more 'spoken' than sung, with some stronger accents on particular words. And the realisation of the recitatives is open for debate as far as the tempo is concerned. I have the feeling that generally they are somewhat slow. But it is difficult to be outspoken on this as I haven't seen the score. Maybe the score gives reason to stretch some notes in the recitatives the way it is done here, even if it sounds a little unnatural to me. A bit more speed could have enhanced the dramatic development of the Passion.

Like I said before, this work is very interesting from a historical point of view. I hasten to add, though, that the music is excellent. In fact, of all the Passions from 18th-century Germany I have heard over the years, this St John Passion by Georg Gebel is one of the most interesting, enthralling - both musically and spiritually - and expressive. I rate it higher than the Passions of, for instance, Telemann.

To sum up: another excellent and highly interesting production by CPO, which has - as usual - a very informative booklet, which gives all the information one needs to put this work into the proper historical context. Needless to say that the lyrics are printed, both in the original German and in English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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