musica Dei donum
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
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
Johan van Veen (© 2003)