Notes and Editorial Reviews
Passionoratorium nach Matthias
Michael Willens, cond; Nikki Kennedy, Hannah Morrison (sop); Dorothee Merkel (alt); Gerd Türk (ten); Christian Hilz (bs); Kölner Akademie
RAUMKLANG 2506 (74:58
Text and Translation)
When it comes to music of the Baltic region during the Baroque period, there is some degree of tenuousness in attempting to define genres and people. To be sure, the region was relatively wealthy, thanks to the remnants of the Hanseatic League and their
descendants, but the music of the region was often dominated by religious views, such as Pietism, that mitigated against the development of large-scale musical establishments, such as could be found in Germany, Denmark, or even Sweden. Nonetheless, secondary cities such as Danzig, Riga, and Reval boasted an equally active musical life as the cities of Lübeck, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Today, with the latest political manifestations (after occupation by Sweden, Russia, and bouts of independence for Lithuania, Estonia, or Latvia), there seems to be a revival of sorts, and along with it a growing number of treasures by composers active in these regions are once more being heard. Such is the case with Johann Valentin Meder (1649–1719), who spent much of his career in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) as the
of the local parish church and school. He was trained in the post-Schütz Italian style, but had an early and somewhat checkered career as a singer in numerous central and northern German courts before winding up in Lübeck under Buxtehude. Thereafter he bounced all over the Baltic, before coming to rest in Riga (now in Latvia), where he composed the work under discussion in 1701, his version of the St. Matthew Passion.
Although little known today, Johann Mattheson considered him a major player in Protestant church music, and this particular piece was so popular that it continued to be performed in the region up through about 1800. Ironically enough, directors did not throw it over for the quintessential Passion work, Graun’s
Der Tod Jesu
, and instead even incorporated arias from it into Meder’s work to fill it out. It is clear that Riga did not have much in the way of musical forces, for the work requires only a pair of oboes (or recorders), a pair of violins, and a continuo to support the five-voice choir (SSATB). Indeed, so integrated are the parts, both instrumental and vocal, that this performance by the Kölner Akademie with only one on a part seems entirely appropriate. The oratorio itself follows the traditional Passion model of a series of active recitatives taken from the Gospel itself, usually narrated, interspersed by simple choruses and chorales, and the occasional didactic aria. But unlike, say, the Passions of Bach or Telemann, Meder inserts instrumental interludes, titled sinfonias, at places throughout to break up the action. This remnant of the older Monteverdian
makes the work much more fluid. At only one point does he actually paraphrase a well-known Easter chorale, “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid,” turning it into a combination
for soprano, which then devolves into a wonderful theme and variations once the tenor takes over the main tune, with a floating oboe countermelody. This makes the subsequent chorus a refrain of considerable delicacy, and then the whole thing is repeated for the next verse, this time with both oboes weaving in and out of the countermelody, before finally winding up with a homophonic chorus with a running bass/violin line. This section alone demonstrates Meder as a sensitive and inventive composer, a worthy forerunner of Bach.
The performance by the Kölner Akademie is brilliant. The players are in tune (and pitched very high at 465 Hz for the A, which corresponds with their temperament and the generally higher-pitched standards for the Baltic region, all of which tend to be above the normal 440 Hz), and their phrasing is extremely fine and nuanced. Indeed, conductor Michael Willens even varies his tempos enough to impart a certain energy to the Passion, something that makes it come alive. All of the singers know their craft well. The straight-tone singing is enlivened by just a touch of vibrato at the sustained lines, and they know both how to blend as the “chorus,” and how to emerge as solists. All in all, this is a must-have recording for those interested in the music of the Baltic region. It will complete your collection of Bach forerunners and will hopefully stimulate more works by Meder coming to light.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
Passions oratorium by Johann Valentin Meder
Hannah Morrison (Soprano),
Dorothee Merkel (Alto),
Nicki Kennedy (Soprano),
Gerd Türk (Tenor),
Christian Hilz (Bass)
Michael Alexander Willens
Written: 1700; Prussia (Germany)
Length: 74 Minutes 58 Secs.
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