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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu

Martina Linsb Barbara Schlicka, soprano; Paul Elliottb, Christoph Prégardiena, tenor; Gotthold Schwarzb, Stephen Varcoea, bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Oct 1984, Cologne-Rheinkassel, St. Amandus Kircheb; April 1986, Wuppertal-Barmen, Immanuelskirchea
Phoenix Edition - 456 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2011) (1.39'10")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (Wq 240 / H 777)a; Gott hat den Herrn auferwecket (Wq 244 / H 803)b

When Georg Philipp Telemann was director of music in Hamburg he composed music for liturgical use and sacred music for public performances. The reasons for this two-track policy were twofold. For performances in the churches of Hamburg he only had a limited number of singers at his disposal, and his instrumental forces were also rather small. For performances in the concert hall he could attract additional singers which allowed him to compose larger-scale pieces, with a full orchestra and a choir with more singers than just the soloists and a quartet of ripienists. The second reason was that the character of some sacred pieces was such that they would not be tolerated to be performed in church. When he was succeeded by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach this practice continued.

In his church cantatas Bach mostly used older material or put together material from cantatas by various other composers. I have explained this in my review of Ludger Rémy's recording of so-called Quartalsmusiken . He opted for a performance with solo voices, and that certainly reflects the common practice in the churches in Hamburg. But, like Telemann, Bach also composed music for public concerts which were not suitable for performances in church for reasons of scoring, length and lyrics. The oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu is an example of such a piece.

Today it is generally called an oratorio, but Bach himself wrote about his "Ramler cantata", referring to the author of the libretto, the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler, a representative of the German Enlightenment. His most famous libretto was Der Tod Jesu which was set to music by Carl Heinrich Graun but also by Telemann who performed it in 1755. In 1778 Bach performed his setting of Ramler's libretto Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu. It was received well; a German newspaper wrote that "our musical artists and singers sought to outdo each other in demonstrating their talents, conveying this powerful and highly expressive music". The oratorio found also appreciation outside Hamburg. In 1788, one year after the score was printed by Breitkopf, Baron Gottfried van Swieten organised two private and one public performance in Vienna, all conducted by Mozart.

In his liner-notes Peter Wollny points out how much the oratorio of the second half of the 18th century differed from earlier specimens of the genre. He sums up: "In writing an oratorio text, the author was called on to create a 'lyrical depiction' of an event, not to tell a story". The German theorist Johann Georg Sulzer underlined that the protagonist in an oratorio should express his sentiments about the subject. "The purpose of this drama is to penetrate the hearts of the listeners with similar sentiments." An anonymous author stated that the aim was to affect "our moral and Christian virtues". Because of this there was less interest in the often highly dramatic stories of the Old Testament which a composer like Handel so brilliantly set to music. It also explains that the text of the gospels is not used anymore.

The oratorio describes the resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to his disciples. His ascension is only treated rather shortly at the end of the work. In order to show how the subject of this oratorio is treated, let us look at two episodes. First of all, Jesus' appearance to Mary who thinks he is the gardiner. The very moment she finds out that she is talking to Jesus himself was always treated in a highly dramatic way, full of tension and emotion, by composers of previous eras. But here the bass soloist tells about it as if he was a newsreader, without any dynamic contrast or sudden pause. The orchestral part is the most dramatic, but here it is not the event itself, but rather the human emotion which is illustrated.
The second episode is the appearance to the men of Emmaus. Jesus joins them, and then the recitative reports at length how he teaches them that he had to suffer and die and then to resurrect. Only at the end it is told very shortly, almost incidentally, that the men recognize him and that he disappears. Again the role of the orchestra is almost more important than that of the singer, expressing the emotion of the men of Emmaus.
The importance of the orchestra explains that most of the recitatives are accompanied.

The arias deliver the comment on the events, and the audience is supposed to share the feelings which they express. Here again the orchestra plays a major role. The aria 'Ich folge Dir, verklärter Held' portrays Jesus as a "hero" who has defeated death, and that is reflected in the scoring of a part for trumpet. In the aria 'Ihr Tore Gottes, öffnet euch', following the description of Jesus' ascension, the bass is accompanied by an orchestra which includes three trumpets and three horns. The oratorio ends with a long chorus in three sections, ending in a fugue on the text: "Let all that has breath, praise the Lord".

It makes sense to add the Easter cantata Gott hat den Herrn auferwecket. This work dates from before Bach went to Hamburg, when he was still working at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. It is not known for what occasion it was written. Wollny suggests it could have been a commission or a piece for the application of a post as Kapellmeister somewhere. It opens with a chorus and closes with a simple chorale setting. In between are an accompanied recitative and an aria for bass, a recitative and arioso for soprano and tenor and a soprano aria. It is characteristic of Bach's style that in the B part of the latter aria every line has a different Affekt, according to the text.

These performances date from the 1980s when Hermann Max recorded several sacred compositions by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach for the German radio channel WDR3. These were then released on disc. At the time they were groundbreaking as Bach's sacred works were virtually unknown. It was mainly his keyboard and chamber music which was played. Since then ensembles and conductors have discovered the high quality and individual character of Bach's sacred oeuvre. Several of his cantatas and a number of sacred solo songs have been recorded. The discovery of the archive of the Berlin Singakademie in Kiev at the end of last century has brought several of his Passions to light, which have been performed and recorded as well. Still, the quality of these interpretations by Hermann Max is unsurpassed. I haven't heard a better performance of this oratorio. The line-up of soloists is impressive. Barbara Schlick - her part is relatively small - was at the peak of her career, Christoph Prégardien at the start of his, and already impressive in his technical prowess and his interpretational skills. Stephen Varcoe was then a seasoned performer and frequently sang German repertoire which explains his flawless pronunciation. The choir and orchestra are just brilliant in displaying the colourful and differentiated way in which Bach has set the text to music. In the cantata Martina Lins, Paul Elliott and Gotthold Schwarz give fine performances as well. The way Elliott interprets his recitative is impressive.

The reissue of these two recordings was rather overdue, and despite their age they can easily hold their ground. The record company should have edited the booklet more carefully. The lyrics contain several errors, the track-list only has the numbers of the outdated Wotquenne catalogue (I have added the numbers in the more up-to-date catalogue of Helm) and - worst of all - there is no English translation of the lyrics. The latter is not acceptable. It is also disappointing that the original liner-notes have been abridged, and that the essay on the theological background of Ramler's libretto by Elke Axmacher has been omitted completely.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Rheinische Kantorei

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