musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Joseph FUX: Oratorium germanicum de Passione (E 61)

Jakob Kritzinger (Cassiopeia/Genus Humanum), Alois Mühlbacher (Perseus/Christus), soprano; Simon Boden (Andromeda/Anima), contralto; Markus Miesenberger (Nemesis/Justitia), tenor; Matthias Helm (Furor), bass
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: March 22 - 24, 2012, Augustinerstift St. Florian (Altomontesaal)
Pan Classics - PC 10284 (© 2013) (62'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Gunar Letzbor, Fritz Kircher, violin; Markus Miesenberger, Jolanta Sosnovska, viola; Peter Trefflinger, Thomas Wall, cello; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Mario Aschauer, organ

Johann Joseph Fux is first and foremost known as a theorist, especially thanks to his famous treatise Gradus ad Parnassum. However, he also left a large corpus of compositions in almost any genre of his time. The largest part was composed when he was in the service of the Habsburg emperors in Vienna. In 1698 he was appointed court composer by Joseph I. In 1711 the emperor died; that same year Fux was appointed vice-Hofkapellmeister and in 1715 Charles VI appointed him Kapellmeister. He held this position until his death.

One of the most popular vocal genres in the decades around 1700 was the oratorio. Since the last quarter of the 17th century a tradition had been established in Italy to perform oratorios during Lent, when the opera was closed. Such oratorios could have any (biblical) subject, but ended with a reference to the Passion of Jesus. At the court in Vienna which was under strong Italian influence this tradition was embraced, and many oratorios were written by, among others, Antonio Caldara, who was vice-Kapellmeister since 1717. The oratorio which is the subject of this disc probably belongs to a specific Viennese tradition: the performance of a sepolcro, an oratorio in one part, to be performed at the night of Good Friday. Such a sepolcro was scored for solo voices with strings and bc. It was performed on stage, like an opera.

In New Grove this oratorio, the last Fux seems to have composed, is marked as being lost. Until recently only a manuscript of the libretto was known, preserved in the archive of Kremsmünster Abbey. Klaus Petermayr, the author of this disc's liner-notes, discovered a composition which includes the same roles as in that libretto, in the library of the Benedictine Monastery in Ottobeuren. The title page names Caldara as the composer but his name was added later. The analysis of the score makes it very likely that Fux is the composer and that this work - despite minor differences in the libretto - is the same work which had been performed in Kremsmünster.

The names of the roles seems quite odd: one doesn't associate characters like Perseus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia with a Passion oratorio. The author of the libretto, Heinrich Rademin, uses the tale of Andromeda and Perseus from the Bibliotheca, written by someone known as Pseudo-Apollodorus, as an allegory of the suffering of Jesus. "The guilt of the mother (Cassiopeia) must be atoned for by the daughter (Andromeda) who is finally freed by Perseus who takes her as his wife. In the Christian interpretation, this signifies the forgiveness of original sin through the death of Jesus Christ and his marriage with the human soul, unequivocally referred to in the final chorus: (...) All grieving, all sighing are as nought because Christ has made you happy through his suffering, oh gladdened child of Eve" (booklet). This final chorus is also one of the few episodes with an explicit reference to the biblical account of the Passion. Earlier on there are several moments with biblical or religious references, such as the snake (Satan who tempted Eve in paradise), "mother of God" (referring to the Virgin Mary), the synagogue and the Jews, and - in the aria of Furor (an allegory of Satan) - to the Cross.

This oratorio is also notable for its German libretto: it is the only oratorio on a German text by Fux, and probably one of the first ever. At that time all oratorios were on an Italian text. The scoring for five voices reflects common practice and the closing chorus is also in five parts. This strongly suggests a performance by the five solo voices. Oratorios were usually performed by soloists, and in this case the soprano and alto parts are performed by boys. This is based on the assumption that boys from the Gymnasium (Latin school) participated in the performance in Kremsmünster, whereas the tenor and bass roles were sung by students from the monastery. The performance probably took place in a relatively small auditorium which speaks in favour of a scoring with one instrument per part.

This recording leaves a mixed impression. The role of Perseus/Jesus is given an impressive account by Alois Mühlbacher who was 16 or 17 at the time of recording. His performance is expressive and, if necessary, dramatic, and he sings with great ease and differentiation. The role of Cassiopeia/Genus Humanum is sung by Jakob Kritzinger, who has not such a strong voice, but sings well. Simon Boden seems overcharged in the role of Andromeda/Anima. Although he is a contralto, the lowest notes are too weak, and there is little expression in his account of this role. In particular his recitatives and arias seem also too slow, probably for technical reasons. This is a real shame, because Andromeda has one of the key roles in this oratorio. Markus Miesenberger takes the relatively small role of Nemesis/Justitia; he sings his only aria very well. Matthias Helm is excellent in his rudeness and aggression as Furor. Ars Antiqua Austria plays with zest and dramatic flair; the instrumental parts considerably contribute to this work's expressive features, and those are well conveyed.

This recording can't be considered an ideal interpretation of the score. Even so, I would like to recommend it because it has enough qualities to give a good impression of the character of this oratorio. It is in many ways original and unconventional, and a valuable addition to the repertoire for Passiontide.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Ars Antiqua Austria

CD Reviews