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Georg Gebel d.J.: Christmas Oratorio; New Year's Oratorio

Monika Mauch, soprano; Kai Wessel, alto; Nico van der Meel, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass
Cantus Thuringia; Capella Thuringia
Dir: Bernhard Klapproth
rec: June 2003, Ditfurth (Ger), Evangelische Kirche St Bonifatius
CPO - 999 993-2 (69'26")

Christmas Oratorio (Musikalische Andacht am Heiligen Christ-Abende, 1748); New Year’s Oratorio (Musikalische Andacht am Neuen Jahres-Abende, 1748)

This is the second time I have come across the music of Georg Gebel the Younger. The first time was a recording - also on CPO - of his St John Passion. I was very impressed by this work, so I was curious to find out whether these two oratorios were as good as the Passion.

Gebel was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). At a young age he was already attracting attention for his virtuosity at the keyboard. He worked in Breslau and Dresden, where he was held in high esteem, both as a performer and as a composer.
From 1746 to his death in 1753 he worked at the court in Rudolstadt. Here he composed the two works which are presented on this disc.

These two oratorios have the same structure. They are split in a number of sections which start with a chorus - or in some cases a recitative or accompagnato -, and end with a chorale setting. In between are a recitative, which is directly followed by a short passage which Gebel calls arioso, and an aria.

The Christmas Oratorio is comparable with the Passion oratorios as they were written from the 1740s on. That means that they are not telling the story as told by the Bible, but are some kind of paraphrase, combined with a message regarding the everyday life of the audience.
In this Christmas Oratorio the text of the Gospel is quoted only once: in the second section about the message of the angels to the shepherds (Luke 2,8-11). There are more quotations from the Bible, but not as part of a story, and not from the Gospels (with the exception of the chorus that opens the first section, the choir of the Angels from Luke 2,14).

There is a clear development in the oratorio. The first section concentrates on the joy of Jesus' birth and closes with the chorale 'Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen' (All my heart this night rejoices). The second section is - as has been said - about the shepherds and how they found the child in the manger. The third section, which begins with a quotation from Isaiah 9,1: 'The people that walked in darkness sees a great light', elaborates on the theme of 'light', for instance in the aria 'Nur im Lichte lebt das Leben' (In light only life can live).
The fourth section concentrates on 'love', the love of God in sending his Son.

The oratorio for New Year's Day also contains four sections. The first is about God as Creator, in particular of day and night and, as a result, of time. It ends appropriately with the chorale 'Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig', which stresses the vanity of all human things in the light of eternity.
The second section calls to thanksgiving with a chorus on Psalm 136,1: 'O give thanks unto the Lord', and ends with the chorale 'Nun danket alle Gott' (Now thank we all our God). The third section underlines the need for prayer. It contains the aria 'Gebet kann Gottes Majestät': "Prayer may move God's majesty to gentle father's graces".
The fourth and last section is about the new life of the believer: it starts with a quotation from 2 Corinthians 5,17: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature". This section also refers to the new Jerusalem in the aria 'Neue Stadt, ach komm': "New city, o come, ye beautiful one!".
After a chorus containing a request to God to listen to the prayers of his children the oratorio closes with another chorale.

Is this music as good as the St John Passion I was referring to before?
To some extent it isn't. But that is only natural: passion music tends to be more profound than Christmas music. And if I compare the two oratorios here I prefer the New Year's Oratorio, for basically the same reason: there is more depth, as it reflects on the human futility in comparison to eternity.
Having said that I think these two oratorios contain some very good music. There are fine arias in the Christmas Oratorio, like 'Geist der Andacht, sanfte Flamme' for tenor and the very vivid bass aria 'Nur im Lichte lebt das Leben' with virtuoso string parts, as well as the lovely duet for soprano and alto 'Komm, süsseste Hoffnung der ewigen Freude', with a beautiful instrumentation of transverse flute, bassoon and violins con sordini. The same instrumentation - only with the viola, instead of the violins, playing con sordini - is used in the recitativo accompagnato which describes the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, creating a pastoral atmosphere.
There are more places where Gebel uses the instruments to illustrate the text, like in the bass aria in the New Year's Oratorio 'Fliehe nur, gemessne Zeit' (Flee, measured time), where the first violin's semiquavers are expressing the fleetingness of time.

Like the St John Passion these oratorios contain 'modern' and 'old-fashioned' elements. To a large extent 'modern' is the text: as I said before it is a paraphrase of the story of Jesus' birth and in particular a message about its meaning for the audience. Also modern is the fact that most arias contain cadenzas and that the choruses are predominantly homophonic.
But there are also connections with the past. First of all the use of mostly traditional chorale melodies, like 'Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig' and 'Nun danket alle Gott'. A number of choruses are quotations from the Old Testament in motet style, which certainly is 'old-fashioned'. And so is the fugue in the second part of the chorus 'Danket dem Herrn' (New Year's Oratorio).

The fact that the St John Passion by Gebel impressed me somewhat more than these oratorios is also due to the level of the performance. On the whole this recording is very good. But there are a couple of things which are a little disappointing and which hold me back from labelling this performance as excellent.
Some recitatives are not taken with the necessary rhythmical freedom. The use of ornamentation is inconsistent: Kai Wessel adds them where it is possible, Nico van der Meel hardly adds any. The cadenzas – which I suppose are improvised by the singers – are not always very imaginative. The chorales are sometimes a little too fast and somewhat shallow, lacking a precise expression of the text.
But these are only small stains on an otherwise recommendable recording. It offers an interesting alternative to the usual repertoire for the Christmas season.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

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