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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828): Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung (D 689)

Sarah Wegener (Maria), Johanna Winkel (Martha), soprano; Sophie Harmsen (Jemina), mezzo-soprano; Tilman Lichdi (Nathanael), Andreas Weller (Lazarus), tenor; Tobias Berndt (Simon), bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Hofkapelle Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: June 18, 2013 (live), Leipzig, Nikolaikirche
Carus - 83.293 ( 2014) (71'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Almost every composer before the 19th century wrote some sacred music, either for liturgical use (motets, cantatas) or for the stage (oratorios). That is quite different in the 19th and 20th centuries. One reason is that composers didn't have a position in the church as Kapellmeister or organist and were not expected to write religious music. A second reason is that various composers had a problematic relationship with religion as such, something which was rather rare in earlier times. Franz Schubert was certainly one of the latter as the omissions of textual episodes from his mass settings suggest. It could also be the reason that, apart from his masses, he hardly composed any religious music.

The piece which is the subject of the present disc is a bit of a surprise and has puzzled scholars. It was left unfinished, and that could well be explained by Schubert's problematic relationship with the Christian faith. The oratorio was one of the main genres in the baroque era, especially since Giacomo Carissimi laid down its basic form in the mid-17th century. Since then oratorios became increasingly dramatic, and in the mid-18th century there was little difference between oratorio and opera. Although Handel's oratorios were not staged, they were mostly performed in the theatre, and one could rightly consider them sacred operas. The same is true for Schubert's Lazarus which he composed in 1820. It is not known why he took up the idea to write a piece like this. In her liner-notes Christine Blanken states: "Unlike in Protestant Germany, performances of oratorios in Catholic churches were strictly forbidden in the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time. In early nineteenth-century Vienna, oratorios were virtually only performed as a means of bridging the tempora sacrata, when theatre was prohibited." In 1817 staged forms of oratorio were also prohibited. At the same time the fact that Schubert made a neat copy suggests that he had a performance in mind.

Another remarkable aspect of this piece is the choice of text. Schubert took a libretto by the German Protestant poet and theologian August Hermann Niemeyer which dates from 1778 and is modelled after Klopstock, the then most influential poet in Germany, and Pietro Metastasio, the author of many librettos for oratorios and operas which were used by composers across Europe. It is notable that Schubert left the libretto intact, and didn't change its text or structure. However, Schubert found a different solution to the division in recitatives and arias than Niemeyer might have expected. In his libretto he makes a clear difference between recitative and aria as was common in his time. Schubert omits this division: the recitives are all set as long episodes with orchestral accompaniment in which the various protagonists express their feelings. There is little difference between the 'recitatives' and the 'arias', except that in the former there is very little repetition of text, whereas some arias have a dacapo form or are completely repeated.

The libretto is divided into three parts. The first describes the process which results in the death of Lazarus and the reactions of people around him, especially his two sisters, Maria and Martha. In the second we meet a non-biblical character, Simon, who doubts about life after death, something Lazarus referred to in consoling his relatives. Simon is contradicted by Nathanael, one of Jesus' disciples. The third part tells how Jesus arrives at Lazarus' tomb and raises him from the dead. Schubert's score breaks off in Martha's aria in the second part. No fragments for the rest of this oratorio have been found, and it is assumed that Schubert never made an attempt to finish it. Lazarus was first performed in 1863, and was praised by Johannes Brahms.

Apart from the texture of Schubert's setting the music is also very different from what was common in Niemeyer's time. He lived in the age of the Empfindsamkeit which is sometimes considered 'pre-romantic', and it is certainly true that the music at that time showed a more personal emotion than in the previous age, based on the theory of the Affekte which could be more or less scientifically defined. But Schubert goes much further, especially by using the orchestra to create an atmosphere. Listening to this music one is reminded of the fascination of romantic poets and composers with death and graveyards. These aspects of the text must have had a special appeal for Schubert. That comes especially to the fore at the opening of the second part where the libretto says: "The setting is a green meadow full of tombstones, surrounded by palm and cedar trees. There is a copse in the background, and the road to Lazarus' dwelling can be seen in the distance." Here Schubert writes an instrumental introduction of about two minutes which illustrates the description of the scene. Then Simon "enters in wild agitation": "Where am I? Where am I? Woe me. Tombs all around me. (...) Death and destruction all around me."

It would have been interesting to hear what Schubert would have made of the third part which would have been the most dramatic as Lazarus is raised from the dead. The oratorio in its preserved form is not very dramatic as there are no sudden or unexpected events. It is more a dialogue between the various protagonists about death in general and Lazarus' death in particular. It is the task of the performers to express the emotion which is felt by the characters in this piece, and they have managed to do so quite convincingly. Much praise deserves Frieder Bernius in creating the right atmosphere, and his orchestra which produces the colours and dynamic shading which is essential to make the listener experience the atmosphere and the feelings of the protagonists. Andreas Weller does a very good job in his account of the role of Lazarus. He avoids any sentimentality without being bland or uninvolved. Sarah Wegener and Johanna Winkel make a good difference between the characters of Lazarus' sisters Maria and Martha, although I would have preferred more contrasting voices. Tobias Berndt effectively depicts the uncertainty of Simon. Nathanael is very different, convinced of immortality and not mourning over Lazarus, "for there was much grace in his death". That comes perfectly off in Tilman Lichdi's performance. Sophie Harmsen is well cast in the role of Jemina, the daughter of Jairus who was once raised from the dead herself.

From a stylistic point of view the use of too much vibrato in almost all the voices - Lichdi is the exception - is regrettable. However, that should not withhold any Schubert lover from purchasing this disc. Lazarus is hardly a masterpiece, but very interesting nevertheless and in various ways a typical product of early German romanticism. It is hard to imagine a better interpretation than we get here.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Tilman Lichdi
Sarah Wegener
Andreas Weller
Johanna Winkel
Kammerchor Stuttgart

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