REINHARD KEISER: Passion Oratorio According to St. Mark – Bernhard Hirtreiter, tenor I (Evangelist) / Hartmut Elbert, bass (Jesus) / Jochen Elbert, tenor II (Peter, Pilate) /Parthenia Vocal & Baroque Orch./Christian Brembneck – Christophorus

by | Aug 14, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

REINHARD KEISER: Passion Oratorio According to St. Mark – Bernhard Hirtreiter, tenor I (Evangelist) / Hartmut Elbert, bass (Jesus) / Jochen Elbert, tenor II (Peter, Pilate) / Tanja d’Althann, soprano I /Petra Geitner, soprano II (Magdalene) / Melinda Paulsen, alto (Judas, High Priest, Centurion)  /Parthenia Vocal / Parthenia Baroque / Christian Brembeck – Christophorus CHR 77323 [Distr. by Qualiton] 63:00 ****:

Composer Reinhard Keiser’s life intriguingly intersects and mirrors the lives of his more famous near-contemporaries Bach and Handel. Born in 1674, Keiser entered St. Thomas’ Seminary in Leipzig the year of their birth (1685) to study under the cantor of St. Thomas’, a role that Bach would assume in 1723. Around 1695 Keiser started writing operas for the Hamburg Gänsemarktoper, the first opera house in Germany. While in Hamburg, Keiser cranked out over 100 operas. (I think my rather pejorative verb is probably not amiss here). Obviously he was in great demand despite the fact that he was deemed arrogant and unruly. The story goes that he even came to sword blows with Handel and the tenor Johann Mattheson, both of whom were attached to the Hamburg opera in the early 1700s.

Like Handel later, Keiser foresaw the coming demise of the kind of opera he was writing. But whereas Handel’s Italian operas were done in by the English ballad opera, German opera in Hamburg fell to the arrival of the Italians in the form of the opera company Mingotti. Keiser had pulled out long beforehand, accepting the position of cantor for the Hamburg Cathedral, a position he held from 1728 until his death in 1739. So like Bach, he finally turned his hand to the sacred music with which his training began.

Another fascinating intersection between the lives of Bach and Keiser was occasioned by the writing of Keiser’s Passion Oratorio. It has been dated to 1717 based on the condition of the paper used to copy the vocal parts by which the oratorio has come down to us; the vocal parts are in the hand of none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, who must have presented the oratorio at St. Thomas’. Also obvious while listening to Keiser’s work is that Bach learned a good deal from it. From the treatment of the chorus to the use of the modest instrumental body that Keiser employs to the chorale treatment of the hymn Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (the aria for alto, No. 42 in the score), the influence on Bach seems quite evident. Despite the fact that the instrumental forces are lean (just strings and a solo oboe, plus continuo), Keiser manages to complement the dramatic actions of the oratorio with equally dramatic writing. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed how sparingly the oboe is used until its plaintive voice emerges in the moving soprano aria, No. 30 “O Golgatha!” A lovely touch that reminds one instantly of similar movements in Bach’s sacred works.
None of this is to say that Keiser’s oratorio rivals Bach’s work or that it should be a staple of the choral music repertoire. It’s a very fine piece but lacks the dramatic sweep and utter memorability of the St. Matthew Passion. I can say, however, that lovers of Baroque choral music will want to hear this work and that it certainly shouldn’t be absent from the repertory of choral ensembles. I would think its very compactness would be a plus; it could be presented with a hook, if need be—a short work by Vivaldi or Bach, perhaps. I’m sure audiences wouldn’t need the hook once they discovered Keiser’s work. Anyway, this is a word to any wise choral directors who may be reading.

Christian Brembeck and his forces seem to do almost total justice to Keiser’s oratorio. The Parthenia band (on original instruments) and chorus turn in a polished and highly enthusiastic performance. Among the soloists, Bernhard Hirtreiter, who has the lion’s share of solo numbers, is fine as the Evangelist. The three female soloists acquit themselves well, too, singing some of the most affecting numbers in the oratorio. However, Hartmut Elbert and Jochen Elbert (any relation?) sing with a vibrato-laden operatic approach that doesn’t always sit well with the less demonstrative style of the other singers—and Hartmut’s bass isn’t all that attractive to start with. But as I say, most of the solo singing is quite well handled.
Christophorus’s recording could be a primer on how to capture musical performance in a church setting. The ambience adds character without clouding or added stridency, a lovely job. Recommended.

– Lee Passarella

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