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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Die Israeliten in der Wüste (Wq 238 / H 775)

Judith Gauthier (Zweite Israelitin), Joanne Lunn (Erste Israelitin), soprano; Samuel Boden (Aaron), tenor; Tobias Berndt (Moses), bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Barockorchester Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: May 14 - 16, 2014, Gönningen, Peter und Paul Kirche
Carus - 83.292 (© 2014) (75'35")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

During the last stage of his life Georg Philipp Telemann, Musikdirektor in Hamburg until his death in 1767, composed several large-scale oratorios. When Carl Philipp Emanuel succeeded him in 1768 he continued where his predecessor and godfather had left off. In 1769 the first performance of his oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste took place. It was followed in the next year by the Passion cantata Du Göttlicher, and in 1774 he performed Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu on the same libretto by Ramler which had been set in 1760 by Telemann. These three oratorios are the only extant contributions to the genre from his pen. An oratorio from 1736 written for the consecration of a church in Frankfurt/Oder has been lost.

It was part of the duties of the Musikdirektor to compose a Passion every year to be performed in the five main churches in Hamburg. Telemann had done so, and so did Bach, but in contrast to Telemann's Passions most of his were not original, but rather put together from fragments of oratorios and cantatas by other composers. That goes also for the above-mentioned Passion cantata which was a reworking of the St Matthew Passion of 1769 whose recitatives were largely based on Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion. However, the two other oratorios are entirely original. Like Bach's first oratorio of 1736 Die Israeliten in der Wüste was written for the consecration of a church, the Lazarett-Kirche. To that end the author of the libretto, Daniel Schiebeler, added - probably at the request of Bach - three movements to the text he had published already in 1767. These are the last of the oratorio, and in the second part of the accompagnato the reason of the performance is specifically mentioned, but only in the version of 1769. In later versions including the printed edition of 1775 this reference is omitted, and it is also left out in this performance.

The subject is the trials of the Jewish people in the desert, after their departure from Egypt. In the opening chorus the people complain about their fate: "Our tongues cleave to dry palates, we scarcely breathe." And then the First Israelite woman asks: "Is this Abraham's God? (...) We hunger and thirst, we grow pale. (...) The Lord takes pleasure in our downfall; and he thinks no more of his own". Aaron then urges the people: "Refrain, refrain from filling the air with your laments". The Second Israelite woman even asks for the people to be brought back to Egypt: "O bring us to those walls far off from which we mourn, o bring us back to them!" This causes anger from Moses, who has led his people out of Egypt: "Ungrateful nation, have you forgotten his wondrous works, which for you your God has done?" He asks God for mercy: "Open, Lord, in this moment, the bounty of thy grace." God answers by giving water to the people: "O miracle! God has heard us! And fresh silver streams spring forth from this rock, to quench the pain that devours our breast". In the second part the people and the two Israelite women bring praise to God, and here we also find a reference to the coming of Christ in the words of Moses: "One day for Adam's sinful world another Man will plead with the Judge. (...) [He] comes and brings us peace, and blessing and salvation is his name".

This oratorio is quite dramatic, but not in the way of the oratorios of, for instance, George Frideric Handel. There is basically no story, and none of the protagonists does anything. When the water flows and the people are able to drink, the only 'dramatic' element are the figurations of the first violins in the orchestra which illustrate the streaming down of the water. The drama here is the confrontation between the people of Israel and the two Israelite women on the one hand and Moses on the other, with Aaron as the one who tries to bring the people to their senses and warns them for Moses' wrath. This oratorio is full of emotions, which come to the fore in the way the protagonists express their feelings in their respective arias and in the choruses. A striking example is the aria of Moses in the first part (Gott, sieh dein Volk im Staube liegen) in which he addresses God: "God, see your people lying in the dust! O God of mercy, hear, hear my humble plea. (...) Eternal one, look upon us with mercy!" He is accompanied by an obbligato bassoon and strings, and the aria is dominated by Seufzer.

It attests to the important role of the orchestra which considerably contributes to the oratorio's dramatic character. That also comes to the fore in the Symphonie which forbodes the arrival of Moses, played here with strong dynamic accents. That is also the case in the B section of the duet of the two Israelite women, 'Umsonst sind unsre Zähren' which follows Moses' recitative in which he accuses the people of being ungrateful towards God. In the aria of the First Israelite woman in the second part, 'Vor des Mittags heißen Strahlen', one is almost reminded of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung in its depicting of nature through the colours of the orchestra.

An important issue regarding the performance of the music which Telemann and Bach composed in Hamburg is the number of singers and players involved. It is documented that they had to content themselves with rather modest forces, and probably had to perform their works with not more than two singers per part. It is known that in the first performance of 1769 seven singers participated; one was absent due to illness. In his recording Wolfgang Brunner used 11 singers, including the four soloists. In his liner-notes Wolfram Enßlin states that "[this] ensemble will have been quite adequate for the small Lazarett-Kirche. For performances in Hamburg's large principal churches, however, the small vocal ensemble in particular was unable to fill the building satisfactorily (...)." However, no such performances are documented. It is known, though, that in December 1769 a performance took place in the concert hall Auf dem Kamp. Telemann also performed his oratorios in concert halls, and it seems likely that at such occasions additional musicians, probably including singers, were hired. That seems a more plausible argument in favour of the larger-scale vocal forces used here - four solo voices and a choir of 22 singers - than speculations about Bach's own dissatisfaction at the number of musicians available to him which is impossible to prove.

Because of the larger choir the choruses are more forceful and have a stronger impact than in Brunner's recording. Otherwise there is little to choose between the two recordings. I admired the singing of the sopranos in Brunner's recording, but I am also satisfied with their two colleagues in this recording. The part of the Second Israelite woman seems a little lower in tessitura as in both recordings the sound is a little darker. Joanne Lunn's delivery is better than Judith Gauthier's whose texts are not always clearly audible. Samuel Boden has an excellent diction which is especially important in his recitatives. Tobias Berndt does well as Moses, although I would have preferred a little less vibrato. However, Brunner has Michael Schopper and he is hard to surpass. This role profits from the fact that his voice is a little darker. It is probably due to the fact that he is older that his singing has more of the authority one expects from this role.

That said, one can hardly go wrong with this recording. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach has written a really fine work which is well served by Frieder Bernius and his musicians.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Judith Gauthier
Samuel Boden
Tobias Berndt
Kammerchor Stuttgart

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