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Georg Philipp TELEMANN, Johann Heinrich ROLLE: "Die Befreiung Israels"

Miriam Feuersinger (Ziporaa), soprano; Elvira Bill (Mirjama), mezzo-soprano; Daniel Johannsen (Josuaa), tenor; André Morsch (Mosesa), bass
Il Gardellino Vocal Ensemble & Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Peter Van Heyghen

rec: August 16 - 19, 2022, Bruges, Psychiatrisch Ziekenhuis Onze-Lieve-Vrouw (chapel)
Passacaille - PAS 1132 (© 2023) (78'22")
Liner-notes: E/DF; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Score Rolle

Johann Heinrich ROLLE (1716-1785): Die Befreyung Israels (WacR I,11)a; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Das befreyte Israel (TWV 6,5)b

Jana Pieters, soprano; Jonathan De Ceuster, alto; Leander Van Gijsegem, tenor; Sebastian Myrus (solob), bass
Jan De Winne, Carlota Garcia, transverse flute; Marcel Ponseele, Nele Vertommen, oboe; Bart Aerbeydt, Johan Vanneste, horn; Sander Kintaert, Elena Torres, Yorick Roskam, trumpet; Eyal Streett, Gordon Fantini, bassoon; Johanna Huszcza, Laura Andriani, Madoka Nakamaru, Ortwin Lowyck, Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, Jacek Kurzydlo, Michiyo Kondo, Jorlen Vega, Josephine Lanord Prelonge, violin; Kaat De Cock, Amaryllis Bartholomeus, viola; Ira Givol, Phyllis Bartholomeus, cello; Hen Goldshobel, double bass; Kris Verhelst, harpsichord; Bart Rosseel, timpani

The exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, as described in the Old Testament book of that title, has been the subject of quite some compositions. In the course of time many composers set Psalm 113 (114): "When Israel went out of Egypt". The narrative of the exodus itself as well as the song of praise, led by Miriam, sister of the people's leader Moses, have also been the subject of compositions. The most famous example is George Frideric Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. The two pieces which are the subject of the disc under review are hardly known; Rolle's work very likely receives its first recording here.

There are several reasons why composers felt attracted to this story. Two are mentioned in the liner-notes. One is that "it provides colourful and pictorial material with great potential for dramatic realisation". The second reason is that "salvation from death in the depths of the sea is regarded as a model for baptism (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1) in Christian tradition". There is a third reason, which is only hinted at in the liner-notes: the exodus "is the event through which God makes clear that he has chosen the people of Israel as his own." It is useful here to point out that especially Protestants of the 18th century tended to identify with the Jewish people of the Old Testament, and considered themselves the chosen people of their own time. It is no coincidence that most of Handel's oratorios have subjects from the Old Testament.

It is interesting that Telemann with his oratorio Das befreyte Israel turned to the subject for a second time. The first time was in his cantata cycle of 1730/31, which takes a special place in his oeuvre, in that it consists of oratorios rather than cantatas. For the feast of John the Baptist on 24 June he set a text by Albrecht Jacob Zell, Gelobet sei der Herr. Zell rather makes a comparison between the salvation of the people of Israel from Egypt, as told in the book of Exodus, and the salvation of the believers from their sins. This work has been recorded recently by Michael Alexander Willens. Whereas this was intended for a performance during the liturgy, Das befreyte Israel was written for a public concert in 1759 at the Drillhaus in Hamburg, together with excerpts from two other oratorios written shortly before. This means that this work falls into the same period of Telemann's career as his other oratorios, such as Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu and Der Tag des Gerichts.

The text of Das befreyte Israel is from the pen of Justus Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae, an author and translator, who in 1757 had written the libretto for Telemann's oratorio Die Tageszeiten. In the libretto of Das befreyte Israel he confines himself to the aftermath of the defeat of the Egyptian army: it opens with a song of praise by the chorus: "Let us sing praise to the Lord, he has done the greatest of deeds!" In the course of the work the participants look back at what happened, for instance in the solo for bass, 'Egypten stand auf': "Egypt rose up, the rolling chariots, the iron-willed riders covered the grounds. The desert rose up in dust, all Israel was already their loot. The warriors were struck with fright and fear, the Lord looked down from his abode". The ensuing section, for bass and choir, expresses the thoughts of the Egyptians: "We want to hunt them [the Israelites] down, (...) our sharp swords shall strike them". The work ends with a chorus: "The Lord shall be king!"

This chorus is one of only two parts that have a dacapo. The other is the aria for soprano that precedes it. This work is different from other oratorios and from cantatas, in that there are no recitatives and arias. The piece is divided into solos, choruses and sections for a solo voice with chorus. There is also an instrumental section. The instruments play a substantial role here. Notable is the role of the transverse flutes and the bassoons. In two sections the text refers to heaven: the solo for alto, 'Da kam der Geist des Herren', says: "The spirit of the Lord descended with holy tempestuousness", and this may well explain the marked role of the flutes, which return in the soprano solo, which refers to "your cherub's wings". In the solo for bass mentioned above, the lower instruments, with a particularly important role of the bassoons, illustrate the threat of the Egyptian army, chasing the Israelites.

The second work is a logical sequence, not only because of its subject, but also because Johann Heinrich Rolle used the same libretto as Telemann. However, in this case it is preceded by a text which tells the story of the exodus itself.

Rolle was born in Quedlinburg as the son of the town music director. In 1721 the family moved to Magdeburg where Rolle's father became Kantor of the Old Town Latin School which Johann Heinrich also was to attend. In 1737 he went to Leipzig to study law and it is assumed that at this time he participated in performances of Bach's Collegium Musicum. By 1741 he entered the court orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin as a violinist. This brought him into contact with some of the major composers of the time, such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the brothers Graun and Benda. He left Berlin for Magdeburg in 1746 as he had been appointed organist of St John's, the town's principal church. In 1751 his father died and he succeeded him as Kantor of the Old Town Latin School; he held this position until his death. It is also in this capacity that he composed most of his sacred works, among them many cantatas and motets. His fame was mainly based on his musical dramas, a mixture of opera and oratorio: the subjects were largely biblical, but many scores include stage directions. When Telemann died in 1767 both he and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach applied for the post of Musikdirektor of Hamburg; the latter was selected with a majority of just one vote. This shows that Rolle was held in high esteem.

One of his musical dramas is Die Befreyung Israels. Whereas Telemann's work is called a 'musical poem' (Ein musikalisches Gedicht), Rolle calls his piece 'a musical drama' (Ein musikalisches Drama). And that exactly points out the difference between the two works. It may have been on Rolle's request that Christoph Christian Sturm, since 1769 second preacher at the Heilig-Geist-Kirche in Magdeburg, extended the text by Zachariae. Rolle also set poems by Sturm, as did later CPE Bach. The difference with Telemann's piece manifests itself right from the start. The work opens with a short instrumental introduction, which leads to the chorus of the Israelites: "Shepherd of Jacob, help your people! Awaken the fierceness of your arm!" The text is divided into recitatives, dacapo arias and choruses, and the four soloists are allocated to characters from the story as told in the book Exodus: Moses (bass), Joshua* (tenor), Miriam (contralto) and Zipporah, Moses' wife (soprano). The latter - who does not play any role in the narrative in the book Exodus - has the first aria: "I tremble, dearest [Moses], for your life, I see, I see it fading away as a victim of the people's anger" (as the people complain about having been led out of Egypt). The fear is illustrated by the violins' playing pizzicato. In his aria Moses prays to God for help; the B section where he urges him to "smite them [the Egyptians] with thy weather" is particularly belligerent. In the ensuing recitative he says: "Jehova listens! With confidence I stretch out my hand toward the sea. Ye peoples! Turn your face toward the sea". In a chorus, following attacca, the Israelites exclaim: "Look! how the floods move like in a tempest! Behold! how the piled-up sea roars on Pharao's chariots!" After a recitive by Miriam - "Come, o peoples, behold the works of God" - the work continues with the text by Zachariae. Here the various sections are set as arias, and that makes clear how much more operatic this work is in comparison with that by Telemann. Some of them are long and include virtuosic coloratura. The closing chorus is the same, but between this chorus and the last aria we get a recitative by Miriam, which is not in Telemann's setting.

Rolle's oratorio was performed in November 1772 as part of a subscription concert series which took place from 1764 until his death in 1785. Rolle published fourteen of his musical dramas as piano reductions, and many copies of the original printed editions as well as adaptations and arrangements have been preserved in many archives and libraries in northern and Central Europe, which attests to their popularity. If one listens to this particular oratorio, that is not hard to understand. In recent years a recording of motets by Rolle and of his St Matthew Passion have been released. Maybe the musical world is ready for a revival of his works. What is available on disc right now indicates that a further exploration of his oeuvre is well worth the effort.

We should also be happy about the performances under the direction of Peter Van Heyghen, who has been responsible for quite some fine recordings of vocal works of the 17th and 18th centuries in the last ten years or so. This is another one. André Morsch would not have been my first choice for the bass parts, because of his voice and his way of singing, but he is more satisfying here than at other occasions where I have heard him, and he is well cast as Moses in Rolle's oratorio. The dramatic nature of his part takes advantage of his powerful voice, and he is certainly no devoid of dramatic skills. Daniel Johannsen is excellent as Joshua, for instance in his recitative in which he expresses the fear of the people. Elvira Bill has relatively small parts in both works, but she is nice to listen to; she has a pleasant voice and she does very well in her recitatives and her only aria in Telemann. Miriam Feuersinger is marvellous as Zipporah in Rolle and the only dacapo aria in Telemann. The choruses are sung by the soloists with one ripienist in each voice group. As both pieces were performed in public concerts I wonder whether a larger ensemble may have been more appropriate in the tutti. However, there is no lack of dramatic power in the ensemble of this line-up. The orchestra plays a major role in both works, and as one may expect from Il Gardellino, its performance is outstanding in all respects.

In short, this disc is a major addition to the discography, and an entirely convincing acquaintance with two excellent vocal works which are very different but compelling in their own way.

(*) In the book Exodus Joshua is mentioned for the first time in ch. 17; he did not play any role in the exodus itself.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Miriam Feuersinger
Daniel Johannsen
André Morsch
Il Gardellino

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