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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Die Israeliten in der Wüste (Wq 238 / H 775)

Anja Petersen (Erste Israelitin), Sarah Maria Sun (Zweite Israelitin), soprano; Daniel Johannsen (Aaron), tenor; Johannes Weisser (Moses), bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: June 14, 2014 (live), Leipzig, Nikolaikirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875016302 (© 2015) (75'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

The oratorio was an important genre in Europe from the mid-17th century onwards. But it took very different forms in various countries. In Italy and Austria many oratorios were about subjects from the Old Testament or about the lives of saints or martyrs. They were usually performed during Lent, when the opera was closed, and often ended with a reference to the Passion of Christ. The oratorios became increasingly dramatic, and one could rightly call them sacred operas, or 'sacred dramas' - the term Handel used for his oratorios.

The development of the genre in Germany was quite different. Until the early 18th century hardly any dramatic oratorios were written, and the form of the oratorio was mostly used for a specific form: the Passion. If other subjects were chosen they were usually connected to the life of Christ, for instance his resurrection or ascension. Those episodes from the Bible which were often the subject of Italian oratorios, were hardly used by German composers. As a result German oratorios were seldom dramatic in an operatic sense of the word. The reason could well be that very few German composers were active in the field of opera and there were hardly any public opera houses in Germany. For many years Leipzig and Hamburg were the only cities with such an opera, and the opera in Leipzig enjoyed a rather short life span. It can hardly be a coincidence that the first really dramatic oratorios were written in Hamburg by composers who also played a major role in the Oper am Gänsemarkt: Mattheson, Keiser and Telemann.

The number of the latter's contributions to the genre is limited and most date from the last ten years of his life. The last was from 1762, Der Tag des Gerichts. His successor as Musikdirektor in Hamburg, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, composed three oratorios, apart from the Passions which he wrote as part of his duties in church. The first dates from 1736 and has been lost. His second oratorio, Die Israeliten in der Wüste, was performed in 1769, just one year after the composer has taken up his duties in Hamburg. It is his only oratorio on a subject from the Old Testament.

It is about the trials of the Jewish people in the desert, after their departure from Egypt. In the opening chorus the people complain about their fate: "Our tongues cleave to dry palates, we scarcely breathe." And then the First Israelite woman asks: "Is this Abraham's God? (...) We hunger and thirst, we grow pale. (...) The Lord takes pleasure in our downfall; and he thinks no more of his own". Aaron then urges the people: "Refrain, refrain from filling the air with your laments". The Second Israelite woman even asks for the people to be brought back to Egypt: "O bring us to those walls far off from which we mourn, o bring us back to them!" This causes anger from Moses, who has led his people out of Egypt: "Ungrateful nation, have you forgotten his wondrous works, which for you your God has done?" He asks God for mercy: "Open, Lord, in this moment, the bounty of thy grace." God answers by giving water to the people: "O miracle! God has heard us! And fresh silver streams spring forth from this rock, to quench the pain that devours our breast". In the second part the people and the two Israelite women bring praise to God, and here we also find a reference to the coming of Christ in the words of Moses: "One day for Adam's sinful world another Man will plead with the Judge. (...) [He] comes and brings us peace, and blessing and salvation is his name".

Although this oratorio is certainly not devoid of drama it is not dramatic in an operatic way. It is telling that the moment God provides his people with water is not represented in the libretto, only indicated. The most dramatic part is the first when the people complain about their fate, together in the opening chorus and then through the two Israelite women, and provoke angry replies from Aaron and Moses. But this oratorio is first and foremost about the contrasting feelings of the protagonists which are reflected by greatly expressive arias. The arias of the two women and of Moses belong to the most brilliant part of this work: they are not only expressive, but also technically challenging. Bach didn't compose any operas but these arias would certainly not be out of place in an opera.

The soloists in this recording meet the challenges of their respective parts impressively. Anja Maria Petersen and Sarah Maria Sun sing their arias brilliantly and their voices blend wonderfully well in the duet 'Umsonst sind uns're Zähren' which is one of the most beautiful parts of this performance. The contrast between the A and B part of the aria 'Will er, dass sein Volk verderbe' is strongly exposed. Daniel Johannsen gives a good account of the part of Aaron: his diction and his speechlike singing result in an optimum audibility of the text in the recitatives and in his aria 'Bis hieher hat er euch gebracht'. Johannes Weisser sings with exactly the right mixture of authority and sensitivity in his portrayal of Moses. The choruses are incisive; the most dramatic is 'Du bist der Ursprung uns'rer Not' when the people accuse Moses of being the cause of their trouble. Bach has given the orchestra a significant role in regard to the exposition of the emotions of the various participants in the story, and Das Neue Orchester plays its part with vigour.

Two issues regarding performance practice need to be mentioned here. The first is the size of the choir. The Chorus Musicus Köln comprises 30 singers. This oratorio was originally written for the consecration of the Lazarett-Kirche. Only seven singers participated in the performance; the instrumental forces were probably also rather limited. Christoph Spering writes in his notes in the booklet that "I have deliberately ignored the conditions associated with church music in Hamburg in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's day but have preferred to use a medium-sized ensemble that allows us to bring greater colour to all of the work's expressive possibilities." This seems to refer in the first place to the size of the orchestra but can also be applied to the choral forces. In his recording Wolfgang Brunner came much closer to the original performing conditions with 11 singers in total, the soloists included. However, it is quite possible that this oratorio has also been performed later under different circumstances, for instance in a concert hall. That was also the case with some of Telemann's oratorios. For that kind of performances the number of singers and players may have been considerably larger.

This is the third recording I review on this site. Wolfgang Brunner delivered a fine performance and so did Frieder Bernius, whose choir is only slightly smaller than Spering's. I am not going to express a clear preference for one of these recordings. They are all very good; compare the reviews to find out where the differences are. With this new recording you certainly can't go wrong; it is a very strong case for this fine oratorio.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Daniel Johannsen
Anja Petersen
Sarah Maria Sun
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

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