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Johann Friedrich FASCH (1688 - 1758): "Passio Jesu Christi"

Mária Zádori (Tochter Zions), sopranoa; Zoltán Megyesi (Evangelist), tenorb; Péter Cser (Jesus), bassc
Schola Cantorum Budapestiensis (Tamás Bubnó)d; Capella Savaria Baroque Orchestrae
Dir: Mary Térey-Smith

rec: October 8 - 10, 2006, Szombathely (Hun), Don Bosco Concert Room
Naxos - 8.570326 (© 2008) (71'24")

Mich von Stricke meiner Sünden ('Brockes-Passion') (FWV F,1)abcde; Overture for 2 oboes, bassoon, strings and bc in d minor (FWV K,d5)e

Johann Friedrich Fasch was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, and that has seriously hampered the interest in his music. It was the German musicologist Hugo Riemann, who at the beginning of the 20th century made an attempt to restore his reputation. In his own time he was a man of fame, whose works were known far beyond the regions where he worked. One of the most important of these was Leipzig where he became a member of the Thomasschule at the age of 13. He came under the influence of Georg Philipp Telemann, who arrived in Leipzig at the same time. Fasch, who had taught himself to play the keyboard and the violin, started to compose like Telemann, which he did with so much success that some of his works were performed by the Collegium Musicum. In Leipzig he also got to know music from elsewhere in Europe, in particular the concertos of Vivaldi.
In 1708 he started studying law at Leipzig University, and founded a second Collegium Musicum, in which musicians took part who later ranked among the most famous in Germany. These included Pisendel, Heinichen and Stölzel. From 1712 onwards he travelled through Germany and worked in Gera, Greiz and Prague respectively, until he became Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1722. He refused the invitation to become Thomaskantor in Leipzig as successor to Johann Kuhnau. He stayed in Zerbst until his death in 1758.

The main part of his oeuvre which has come down to us consists of concertos and overtures. Although a player of the keyboard and the violin by profession, one of the features of his orchestral music is the prominence of wind instruments, in particular the oboe and the bassoon. An example is the Overture in d minor which is recorded here by the Capella Savaria. It follows the traditional pattern of the orchestral suite in that it opens with an overture, which is followed by dances and arias. Here there are two dances, a bourrée and a menuet, and three arias. The performance is alright, but nothing more than that. I am convinced that more can be made of this piece. The sound of the orchestra is rather thin and not very colourful. I also think that in the overture not all repeats are played (probably because of the playing time of the disc). The first section should be repeated before the second section is played, and this second section should also be repeated before the dacapo of the first section. That doesn't happen here. In orchestral suites like this the overture is always the longest and mostly takes about one-third of the time of the whole suite, but here the last two movements both last longer than the overture. Although there are not that many recordings of Fasch's orchestral suites I would like to recommend discs by La Stravaganza Köln on CPO and by Il Fondamento (directed by Paul Dombrecht) on the Belgian label Fuga Libera.

As Kapellmeister Fasch composed a large number of sacred works, among them nine cantata cycles all of which have been lost. Only a number of individual cantatas have survived, as well as some masses and mass movements. In addition Fasch composed the Passion which is the main work on this disc. But it seems it was not composed when Fasch was working in Zerbst, but rather between 1717 and 1719, when he worked at the church of Greiz. This could also explain the modest scoring, with only three solo parts. The original title is Mich von Stricke meiner Sünden, after the first line of the opening chorus. It is not based on one of the Gospels: Fasch uses the libretto Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, usually referred to as Brockes-Passion. The best-known Passions on this libretto are by Handel, Telemann and Stölzel. The first setting was by Reinhard Keiser in 1712. If Fasch's Passion was indeed composed somewhere between 1717 and 1719 his setting is one of the earliest in history. Fasch doesn't use the complete libretto, though. As the playing time suggests he made a number of cuts. He also changed some recitatives and added five chorales and two arias. In particular the cuts and the addition of chorales could well be motivated by his wish to make it more usable to be performed in church.

The part of the Evangelist is sung by a tenor on secco recitatives. The words of Jesus are sung - just like in Bach's St Matthew Passion - on accompanied recitatives, scored for strings and bc. In the orchestra the strings are added by two oboes. In the tenor aria 'Brich, mein Herz, zerfließ in Tränen' the scoring is for oboe with strings playing pizzicato. In this performance the oboe is replaced by a transverse flute "in order to balance with the pizzicato strings", as Nigel Springthorpe writes in the booklet. A most strange decision: if Fasch didn't see any problems here, why should modern performers? And the fact that the flute has nothing else to play makes it even more unsatisfying.

In the first part the soprano, referred to as Tochter Zions (Daughter of Zion), has two arias to sing, with the same musical material. There are also two arias for tenor and one for the bass, representing Jesus. Unlike those of the soprano these three are all da capo arias. In the second part the soprano has two arias and an accompagnato and the tenor has two. Only two arias have a da capo structure. The first part begins with a chorus and ends with a chorale, the second part begins and ends with a chorale.

This is the first recording of this Passion, and it is well worth listening to. I can imagine it being performed by an amateur ensemble, as the vocal parts seem not very demanding, perhaps with the exception of the tenor aria 'Ihr Augen, weinet Blut', which has a pretty high tessitura. The performance has its merits, but I am not very excited about it. Zoltán Megyesi gives good performances of the arias, but the recitatives lack in rhythmic flexibility, and his pronunciation of the German text leaves something to be desired. His diction is also often less than perfect. Péter Cser is much better in this respect. Mária Zádori has sung much German baroque music - for instance with the conductor Hermann Max - and has no problems in pronunciating the text. Her diction is good too, and she sings her arias with much expression.

The choruses and chorales are unsatisfying: the choir sings well, but is too large. The chorale at the end of this work is in three stanzas. The second is sung by a vocal quartet, and that is much better than the other two sung by the full choir. A performance of this Passion with one voice per part seems much more in line with what we know about the number of performers at courts and in churches at the time. And it is difficult to imagine that a local church like that in Greiz will have had a choir available as the one singing here. In addition there is too much legato singing in the chorales and important elements in the text are not emphasized, as they should have been.

As much as I am grateful for the fact that this work has been recorded I had liked it to be presented in a more idiomatic performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

International Fasch Society
Capella Savaria

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