musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Reinhard KEISER (1674 - 1739): Dialogus von der Geburt Christi

Rastatter Hofkapelle
Dir.: Jürgen Ochs
rec: June 21 - 24, 2008, Baden-Baden, SWR Studio
Carus - 83.417 (© 2008) (45'00")

Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): Magnificat in C; Reinhard KEISER: Dialogus von der Geburt Christi

Beate Spaltner, Ursula Benzing, soprano; Judith Ritter, contralto; Matthias Lucht, alto; Jürgen Ochs, Raimund Sturm, tenor; Johannes Happel, Claus Temps, bass; Georg Siebert, Anna Seidenglanz, oboe; Michael Maisch, Heiko Hörburger, Frank Zuckschwert, clarinos; Dietrich Schüz, Steffen Hamm, violin; Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Jörg Rieger, cello; Adina Scheyhing, violone; Szymon Jozefowski, bassoon; Hans-Jörg Bayer, timpani; Stefan Fritz, organ

It is always nice if an ensemble comes up with hitherto unknown repertoire, in particular for a time of the year when there is much need for music. Most concerts of Christmas music contain the traditional repertoire, like the Christmas Oratorios of Schütz and Bach or Handel's Messiah. Nothing against performances of those masterpieces, of course, but sometimes one longs for something different, something which isn't performed every year and recorded umpty times. Reinhard Keiser's 'Christmas Oratorio', or - as he called it - Dialogus von der Geburt Christi (Dialogue on the birth of Christ) could be a good alternative and become part of the standard repertoire for Christmas.

The first time I heard this work was in 2005, when it was performed by the Netherlands Bach Society, directed by Marcus Creed. I immediately got a positive impression of the work, and I was hoping it would be recorded some time. That has happened at last, although not quite as I had hoped. But more about that later.

First something about Reinhard Keiser, who is mainly known for being an opera composer - although his operas are seldom performed - and whose best-known work is his St Mark Passion. Keiser was born in Teuchern, near Weissenfels, where his father acted as organist. In 1685 Keiser became a pupil at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he received his musical education from Johann Schelle and probably also Johann Kuhnau. According to Johann Mattheson Keiser developed as a composer mainly under the influence of the Italian music he studied.

His first experiences as an opera composer were in Braunschweig, and somewhat later in Hamburg where in 1696 or 1697 he became director of the Theater am Gänsemarkt as the successor to Johann Sigismund Kusser. From 1703 Keiser was the dominating composer of operas in Hamburg, until 1718 when the Theater am Gänsemarkt went bankrupt. An attempt was made to make a restart, but that didn't lead Keiser to retain his former glory. He tried to find a job as Kapellmeister at several places, but to no avail. When Telemann was becoming director of the opera Keiser had new chances of composing operas. But that ended after some years because of another crisis in the Opera. In 1728 Keiser succeeded Johann Mattheson as Kantor of Hamburg Cathedral. The Cathedral had a specific position in Hamburg: it was extraterritorial, as since 1715 it was under the supervision of the House of Braunschweig-Lüneburg and therefore it wasn't the Musikdirektor of Hamburg - which at the time was Telemann - who was responsible for the music in the Cathedral. Since his appointment Keiser performed about 40 oratorios, according to Mattheson. Unfortunately most of them are lost.

The oratorio recorded here dates from 1707 - the year he left the opera because of its financial troubles. It is therefore difficult to say for which occasion it has been written or where it could have been performed. This, of course, has consequences for the way it is performed in our time, for instance in regard to the number of singers involved. The only version which has been preserved is a later extended reworking which was copied by Johann Georg Reichard (1710 - 1782), Hofkapellmeister in Schleiz from 1736.

The oratorio is divided into three parts. The first part is about the coming of Christ and begins with the first stanza of the chorale 'Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ': "Praise to you, Jesus Christ, that you are born a man". The next aria for soprano and bass with chorus says: "Welcome a thousand times!". Israel and the whole nature are asked to rejoice and to "praise the eternal goodness of the Almighty". The second part expresses astonishment that Jesus is willing to leave his Father's house and become a tiny child. In this part allusions to the shepherds are made. It concludes with a chorus saying: "Great God! You have shown the lowly shepherds what they longed for, the death of death". The third part begins with one of the most popular hymns in Germany, 'In dulci jubilo'. It is about the personal joy for the salvation through Jesus: "God has taken my flesh to himself, this is the end of all suffering". The alto aria sums up the effect of the salvation: "How does death harm me? My beloved is Christ, my father is God". The oratorio ends with the chorale 'Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich'.

The oratorio is called 'Dialogus'. With this Keiser links up with tradition: in the 17th century many dialogues were written, for instance by Heinrich Schütz. The dialogic character is reflected by the use of the tutti in exchange with the soli in, for instance, the second aria of the first part, and by splitting the tutti into two groups of 4 parts each, in particular in the aria for soprano and chorus, 'Israel, freue dich' (part 1, section 4). But otherwise Keiser is rather modern. There is little counterpoint, which was something Keiser wasn't particularly interested in. He is giving much more attention to attractive melodies and to a varied instrumental scoring. That is one of the characteristics of his operas, and of this oratorio as well. There is relatively little direct translation of words or turns of phrases into music; Keiser rather uses the instruments and melodic inventions to express the general character of an aria. A good example is the use of oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timpani in this piece, especially the choruses. The bass aria 'Heller Glanz von 's Vaters Licht' begins with violins and oboes playing in high tessitura to express the content: "A shining ray of the Father's brightness, a gleam through the grey of eternity now breaks through the night". A highlight is the trio in the second part, 'Es klopft noch unsre volle Brust': "Our hearts beat, torn between anxiety and joy", where the beating is expressed by staccato figures in the instruments. The vocal parts are a brilliant mixture of restlessness and joy. One could argue that Keiser was one of the first representatives of the new style which was to become fashionable several decades after Keiser wrote this oratorio. It doesn't surprise advocates of that style, like Mattheson and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, greatly admired Keiser.

The performance is, as I already indicated, not what I was hoping for. I just listened to my recording of the live performance I have referred to, and that was much better than what is delivered here. There is a general lack of contrast, the singing and playing is not very engaging - in fact it is rather dull. And as Keiser is still not fully appreciated, partly because he is compared to contemporaries like Bach and Handel, I'm afraid this disc is not going to enhance his reputation. I fear that many people listening to this disc will conclude that it isn't really worth the efforts to explore his oeuvre. I beg to differ, but I can't use this disc as an argument. Stylistically there isn't much wrong with this performance: all singers are good, both in their solo parts as together as an ensemble, and the instrumental ensemble is also playing well. Also the use of a small vocal ensemble of eight singers - four soloists and four ripienists - is very likely in line with what was most common in Keiser's time. It's just that the lack of energy and drama leads to this interpretation being pretty tame.

The addition of a composition of Christoph Graupner may seem a little surprising, but it makes sense: like Keiser Graupner was from Saxony and attended the Thomasschule in Leipzig. And like Keiser he was connected to the opera in Hamburg, where he acted as harpsichordist since 1706. He also composed some operas, but in 1709 he was appointed Vizekapellmeister at the court of Darmstadt; in 1712 he became Kapellmeister. Here he stayed until his death. He wrote numerous cantatas, but only one setting of the Magnificat has been preserved. It was not written for Darmstadt: it dates from 1722 which was the year Graupner tried to become Thomaskantor in Leipzig. He was elected, but his employer refused to let him go. The Magnificat is the work Graupner wrote to support his application.

Although Graupner is Keiser's junior he is in fact more conservative in that he makes more use of counterpoint and also more directly translates words and phrases into music. What he shares with Keiser is a varied and colourful instrumentation. There are no extended arias in this setting; the Magnificat is composed as a unity, in which the verses are divided between soli and tutti. It is a nice work which is - like Keiser's oratorio - recorded here for the first time, and again it is an important addition to the repertoire. Here the ensemble makes a considerable better impression, probably due to the different character of this work. The soli are sung well, although the soprano in 'Quia respexit' has problems with the lowest notes in her part.

It is difficult to give a final verdict on this disc: both compositions are substantial and important additions to the catalogue and are well worth listening to. It is such a shame Keiser's oratorio hasn't received a better interpretation, but as there is not much chance it will be recorded again in the foreseeable future - but one never knows - I recommend it to listeners who are willing to put their prejudices aside and try to discover the oratorio's merits. It's not only the mediocre interpretation which they have to swallow, but also the inacceptable short duration of this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

CD Reviews