Notes and Editorial Reviews
After their recent releases of Conti’s Missa Sancti Pauli and Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, conductor György Vashegyi and his Orfeo Orchestra and Purcell Choir present a world premiere recording of a passion by a today virtually unknown composer, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. The name of Stölzel does not ring a bell even with the keenest lovers of Baroque music, even though he was a significant figure in the musical life of Germany in the first half of the 18th century; he was held in highest respect even by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, just to name the greatest authority of all, as documents of the time show. The work recorded here is a so-called “passion oratorio”, a musical form
widely used in the German-speaking world in the 18th century built upon a series of lyrical contemplations resting on the story of Christ’s passion. The libretto for Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld was written by Stölzel hiself, and features a succession of recitatives, arias and chorales sung by the “Evangelist”, the “Faithful Souls” and the “Christian Church”. The work, premiered in Gotha 1720 and recorded here in the 1731 version, had such a great impact that it got performed in other German cities, including Leipzig on Good Friday of 1734 (where the church community did not relive Christ’s passion through Bach’s music but through Stölzel’s oratorio).
If you’ve heard enough Beethoven and want to switch it up, there are Wilms, Raff, Cherubini, et al. If you’ve heard enough Brahms, there are composers of extraordinary if secondary excellence like Bruch, Gernsheim, Herzogenberg, etc. And any baroque composer with a vaguely Italian name can likewise fill in for Vivaldi-less hours. But there’s no substitute for Bach.
Buxtehude, for all his qualities, is too sober. Telemann can prove marvelous, but more often than not lacks that super-added quality of Bach’s music that makes you feel like your soul is stretching toward heaven a bit. Handel is either too Italian or too perfumed; great but definitely no Bach. Earlier composers, starting with Schütz, are comparatively dry stuff and just inches after Bach begin the empty frills and the noodling of galant music. Zelenka comes close, laden with jubilation and incense. But I’ve heard no one come closer than Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel in his wildly magnificent Passion oratorio Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (“A lambkin goëth there and bears our sins”) from 1720.
This really shouldn’t be as much a surprise as it was, given that one of the more famous Bach arias, “Bist du bei mir” BWV 508, is actually an adapted Stölzel work. But it was. I remember now liking a set of two Serenatas—substantial secular cantatas—from a decade ago, but most of the meager Stölzel that has been recorded so far (80 percent of Stölzel releases are just renditions of “Bist du bei mir”; the rest comes down to five discs on CPO and one on MDG) has passed right by me. But the Orfeo Orchestra Budapest’s recording of this Passion hit me right from the opening chorale (sound clip). Splendidly performed and recorded, it should grab any baroque-and-Bach-lover by the lapel. The appeal of Stölzel’s music lies in its touching simplicity, melodic sweetness, and polyphonic lushness. No wonder his contemporaries named him in one breath with Handel, Bach, Hasse, Pisendel, and Graun, pointing to his specialty for “lovely” (or “sweet”) music.
Apart from a general proximity to Bach’s music, every so often an aria or a turn of phrase specifically reminds of something in Bach. On occasions that’s because both use the same chorale, sometimes because Bach (!) adopted Stölzel’s music for his own. The excellent liner notes helpfully provide the most obvious occurrence—“Nun führen sie den Herrn nach Golgatha”: it reappears in BWV 200—averting a frustrating chase through all the cantatas. Other similarities—like in “Allerhöchster Gottessohn”—may be incidental (sound clip). In 1734, Bach performed this Passion on Good Friday for his Leipzig congregation. There’s no reason to think that the worshipers wouldn’t have been just about as happy as with a Bach original—a few perhaps even more so, because at an hour’s worth of music it is, at least in this concise 1731 version, a good deal shorter than Bach’s great passions.
The Hungarian Orfeo Orchestra—also responsible for several Rameau and de Mondonville discs on Glossa and splendid Tartini on Hungaroton—plays with panache and HIP commitment, rich in timbre, and the notably natural horns are easily within the acceptable accuracy limit. Ditto the equally Hungarian Purcell Choir, with its native-quality pronunciation, and the cast of four relatively unknown Hungarian soloists is a happy surprise throughout.
If an evil alien force landed on this planet and had nothing better to do than force me to listen to only one composer for the rest of my life, the choice would be easy: Bach. So maybe he least needs a stand-in to “switch it up”. But then, short of such peculiar space invaders, there’s no reason to miss out on the supreme loveliness that “Ein Lämmlein” represents. Bound to be one of my favorite releases of 2019, this is a treasure waiting to be discovered.
– ClassicsToday (Jens F. Laurson) Read less
Works on This Recording
Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld by Gottfried H. Stölzel
Agnes Kovacs (Soprano),
Peter Barany (Countertenor),
Zoltán Megyesi (Tenor),
Lorant Najbauer (Baritone)
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