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Johann Michael HAYDN (1737 - 1806): Der Kampf der Buße und Bekehrung

Sylvia Hamvasi (Gnade), Elisabeth Scholl (Christ), Tünde Szabóki (Weltmensch), Zita Várady (Gerechtigkeit), Mária Zádori (Freigeist), soprano
Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi

rec: May 14, 2009 (live), Budapest, [Palace of the Arts]
Carus - 83.351 (© 2014) (79'55")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Johann Michael Haydn was a highly respected composer in his time. Today he suffers from the fame of his brother Joseph, and as a result the largest part of his quite sizeable oeuvre has remained unexplored as yet. Some of his symphonies and his chamber music have been recorded, and there is also some interest in his sacred works for the liturgy, such as masses, but it would be wrong to claim that he is taken fully seriously. If one listens to his music one has to conclude that this is unfair. Over the years I have heard various pieces of outstanding quality. That also goes for the oratorio which has been released by Carus.

The word 'oratorio' is not quite correct: it is in fact only the second part of an oratorio which was written by three composers. The first part was by Anton Cajetan Adlgasser, the third by Johann David Westermayer. They were all at the service of the Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach of Salzburg. Haydn was Konzertmeister, Adlgasser court composer and Westermayer choir master. It was not the first time an oratorio was written by three composer: in 1767 Haydn wrote the second part of Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots; the first part was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the third again by Adlgasser.

Der Kampf der Buße und Bekehrung dates from 1768. The Archbishop returned from Italy in the company of three female singers from Venice and the oratorio was meant to give them the opportunity to show their capabilities. The cooperation of the three composers was due to the short space of time available. The libretto was written by Johann Heinrich Drümel, born in Nuremberg and after various jobs professor of jurisprudence in Salzburg, after converting to Catholicism. This libretto is a kind of dogmatic statement about the importance of obedience to God and the need to lead a righteous life. There are five characters: Christ (The Christian), Weltmensch (Worldly Man), Freigeist (Freethinker), Gerechtigkeit (Justice) and Gnade (Grace; called 'Clemency' in the libretto in the booklet). Although there are elements of a dialogue the text has much more of a statement of thoughts. The work opens with an aria by the Christian, who says that because of Jesus' passion and death he can follow his example and "live, suffer and die". In the following recitative he states that "the punishment of sin is discarded" and "in gratitude I take his Cross on me".

Worldly Man and Freethinker resist. The former doesn't want to accept that God "causes the most devout to suffer". "I would be glad if I knew of no Cross and had no burden to bear". Whereas he seeks happiness in religion, Freethinker wants to harmonize faith and reason. His resistance doesn't last long. After a long statement by Justice he replies: "Accursed be that which misleads and confounds me, to believe something other than Christianity. Woe unto him who is ruled by Reason alone, which always tries to deprive, to rob man of God's word". Worldly Man draws a somewhat different conclusion; in an aria he sings: "Your merciful hand lead us to the perfect state of joy". In the end he is convinced: "I come in true repentance, my Saviour, now to Thee". However, his conversion seems rather shallow. After another statement by the Christian he says: "I thank you well for your wise instruction (...) but now I have a duty: to see my good friends, marking an anniversary. That hinders me from listening to your troubling lessons any more today".

The oratorio shows some differences in style. After the overture the Christian sings a dacapo aria. The next aria (Freethinker) is strophic and comprises five stanzas. The third aria is for Worldly Man and choir; it is the only entrance of the choir before the closing chorus. The aria by Grace, 'Jesu, der den Tod besiegt', has a strong baroque flavour; it is another dacapo aria with an obbligato part for the horn. The next arias are characteristic for the classical period: they are very long - 7 or 8 minutes - and quite virtuosic, especially in regard to tessitura as the soloists have to explore the top of their range. That is even more the case in the duet of Grace and the Christian, 'Jesu Kreuz ist Lob und Ehre'. 'Ich komm mit wahrer Reue', the aria of Worldly Man, includes an obbligato part for trombone. This instrument was seldom used in the 18th century, except in Vienna and apparently Salzburg.

The trombone appeared previously in a description of the Last Judgment in the form of a recitativo accompagnato; Haydn very effectively uses the orchestra to depict the events on that day. Recitatives take a very important role in this oratorio. Both forms of recitative are used: the secco recitative is mostly used in passages of a direct dialogue between the protagonists, but when one of them, especially The Christian and Justice, proclaims his views Haydn turns to the form of the accompanied recitative.

Such long recitatives are quite challenging for performers. I have heard quite a number of performances of oratorios and operas where the interpreters didn't quite manage to keep them interesting. That is not the case here. That is due to Haydn's qualities as a composer but also to the skills of the interpreters. They really understand what the text is about and set the right accents, but they also take the right amount of rhythmic freedom. The statements of faith are presented as truely rhetorical arguments. Vashegyi makes the orchestra closely following them.

It is rather odd to hear a piece with no less than five sopranos, but they are different enough to keep them apart. Haydn's writing of the arias is such that there is no dull moment here. Everyone includes a cadenza, and these opportunities are well taken. I haven't heard any exaggerations which are in violation of the style of the time. Most of the singers use a little too much vibrato, although it is mostly not really obtrusive. Even so, especially the variation in pitch of Elisabeth Scholl is hard to swallow, and slighly damages the duet with Sylvia Hamvasi.

It is a shame that this is the only part of this oratorio which seems to have survived. According to New Grove, in the entry on Adlgasser, his part is lost. Westermayer is not mentioned at all in New Grove. We should be thankful that we have at least this second part which shows an unknown side of Johann Michael Haydn. It makes me very curious of other dramatic works from his pen. Let us hope that at some time we will see a true Michael Haydn renaissance.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Elisabeth Scholl
Orfeo Orchestra & Purcell Choir

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