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American Record Guide, December 2006

In his lifetime Loewe achieved his greatest fame with his songs and ballads-a situation unchanged today. He did, however, also venture into opera and oratorio, as well as instrumental pieces. This oratorio, more accurately known as Das Sühnopfer des Neuen Bundes (The Expiatory Sacrifice of the New Covenant), dates probably from 1847. The strongest suggestion is of Mendelssohn, whose Elijah and Paulus are roughly in this language. Loewe, though, did know the Bach passions, as he conducted the St Matthew in 1831 (only two years after Mendelssohn) and the St John in 1841. This oratorio mixes arias, recitatives, choruses and chorales, set to texts drawn from all four Gospels. All of the piece reveals Loewe's thorough craft and sure dramatic instincts, e.g. in the scene in the garden of Gethsemane. But it is a little short of exciting music, and even I (I wrote my dissertation on Loewe) would admit it sounds a bit uninspired. It is a nice piece when taken in short excerpts. It also seems odd that this piece, which is mired in north-German Protestantism, should reach us in a concert performance from France, specifically from Saint­Jean-Baptiste in Villedieu-le-Chateau.

Nonetheless, as we would expect from conductor Reinemann, the performance is a good one. The soloists, most of whom have studied with Reinemann, all do well; the choral parts may not be very demanding, but they are effective, particularly in dramatic sections. This is a fine representative of the 19th Century German oratorio, and it is very well played and sung. Most listeners, though, will find it too devotional in spirit and lacking the lyrical qualities of Mendelssohn. For the adventuresome, though, it's a reminder that there are always new pieces around the corner.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, September 2006

Loewe’s Passion Oratorio followed closely on the Bach revival in Germany, one which was powerfully inaugurated by Mendelssohn’s famous performances of the St Matthew Passion. Loewe himself performed Bach’s work two years after Mendelssohn’s revival performances of 1829 and the importance of that pioneering work can be felt throughout his own Passion Oratorio, which can be provisionally dated to 1847.

Loewe splits the narrative amongst his soloists and employs a very small accompanying force – a string quintet, to include bass, and an organ. He sanctioned larger orchestral forces and also a version for accompanying solo organ but the version as recorded here seems to me to have the piquancy and intimacy of chamber forces allied to the gently reverential nature of the piece as a whole. There are certainly enough incidental string textures to add variety and colour to the accompanying passages and where necessary there are moments of expressive and theatrical power as well. Pizzicati sharply accompany Judas’s complaining; the strings interject strongly in the cry of Blasphemy in the Trial; there is plenty of strict contrapuntal writing. The chorales are simple and effective. Some are derived from Bach and some from older Lutheran sources. O Du Zuflucht der Elenden for instance was originally by Johannes Crüger and used by Bach in his Cantata No. 180. And Ach bleib mit deiner Gnade is a melody by M. Vulius, taken over and harmonised by Bach for Cantata 95. Nevertheless the sense of homage and renewal here is still palpable. There are however also contemporary stylistic allusions to Mendelssohn in the romantically descriptive moments such as Judas’s aria Weh’ mir.

The intimacy of the chamber forces extends to the choral as well – a choir of twenty-two. The choir is resonant and effective but lacks the ultimate in tonal refinement and blend.

Of the soloists three have studied with the conductor Udo Reinemann. Soprano Nathalie Gaudefroy has a very pleasant and well-focused voice; it’s a touch on the small side but nicely supported and technically adroit. Contralto Christianne Stotjin sounds considerably older than twenty-seven but contraltos as a breed tend to sound somewhat more matronly their years. The voice is a fine one albeit I find her vibrato, albeit well employed, rather too wide to match those of her companion singers. Of late I’ve noticed her taking on mezzo roles. As compensation she brings great gravity and seriousness to her role – try her in Part II’s aria Heil’ge Nacht.

Tenor Jacky da Cunha brings plenty of energy if also a certain amount of strain to his role. Henk Neven is the most impressive of the quartet – an eloquent, well-nourished and rounded voice. Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a bass from the chorus, takes the small part of Peter well.

The success of Lowe’s Passion lies in its simplicity and compression. At times one can even imagine oneself listening to chorales from the St Matthew Passion. The performance has its rough edges, as must be acknowledged. It’s also a live performance, though the audience is commendably quiet. Only a dropped programme (or something) alerted me to its presence, and the applause at the end. The notes give a synopsis of the chorales and arias but texts will need to be downloaded.

The Oratorio offers a creative sideline on Loewe’s far better known songs. It faces backwards, as it were, but with unselfconsciousness. And it bears with it a surety and sincerity that are very winning.

Goran Forsling
MusicWeb International, August 2006

Today Carl Loewe is almost exclusively remembered as a composer of songs and ballads, many of them settings of Goethe. He wrote more than four hundred, thus challenging even his almost contemporary Franz Schubert. But he wrote a lot more: operas, oratorios and other choral works, chamber and piano music and two symphonies. Even in his lifetime his fame rested primarily on his songs – being an excellent singer he often performed them himself. Those who have heard his songs know that besides a nice melodic gift he also possessed a natural feeling for drama – his setting of Erlkönig is worthy of a place beside Schubert’s. Thus it came as no great surprise to learn that he also turned to oratorio as a means of expression.

In Stettin, where Loewe spent most of his life as organist and musical director, he conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1831, only two years after Mendelssohn had revived it, and it is obvious that the Passion Oratorio is influenced by ‘the fifth evangelist’ with recitatives, arias, chorals and choruses. Where he differs from Bach is that he doesn't employ an evangelist, instead the narrative is allotted to different soloists. The tonal language is very much of its time, mid 19th century but there are baroque influences as well: several choruses are fugues. He also avoids ‘big’ numbers. There are no heavenly long choruses as the final one in St Matthew Passion and the arias are rarely more than 2–3 minutes.

The oratorio was written for fairly modest forces: a handful of soloists, a chorus (moderately sized – the group here has 22 members) and a string orchestra and an organ. Whether Loewe intended the orchestra to be of chamber music size I don’t know – here it is a string quartet + double bass. The lack of wind instruments lessens the possibilities to colour the music but it works surprisingly well with this pocket-size, too. The string group is balanced well forward with the chorus at some distance and the soloists seem to be somewhere between. Whether this was the sound the audience at this recorded concert experienced I don’t know, but it is good to hear so much of the strings and the inventive use of them: sometimes playing with mutes, sometimes tremolo effects to heighten the tension and also some pizzicato playing. In a few places there are obbligato solos behind the vocal proceedings, notably in the Chorus of the Daughters of Sion in Part III (CD2 tr. 3), where the cello provides some dramatic comments. Generally speaking Loewe achieves much with little and there is no lack of variation. The strings even have a little Larghetto on their own (CD1 tr. 7). Since this is a live recording there has to be some intrusive noises. These occur mainly when the chorus stand up or sit down. At a live performance this is part of the concept, for repeated listening it may be annoying to some. I noticed it and got used to it. The presence of an audience is noticeable only in the shape of applause after the final chorus.

Udo Reinemann, well known as a singer and teacher - some of the singers have studied with him - has picked a group of young musicians and singers for this occasion. It doesn’t say anywhere whether the Ensemble Instrumental and Vocal is a permanent group or a pick-up gang for this festival. Some rough edges in the choral singing leads me to think that they may not perform together on a regular basis. There is enthusiasm a-plenty, though and the dramatic choruses are done with nerve – and verve. The string group is really excellent. Always when hearing a piece of music for the first time, not spoilt by alternative readings or recordings, one has to trust that this is the way the music was intended – unless there are obvious mistakes and miscalculations. Knowing quite a few of Loewe’s songs I think that Reinemann and his forces have caught his intentions well and the overriding impression is one of sorrow, drama and contemplation in a varied score.

Of the soloists the bass, Henk Neven, has the heaviest burden and he also seems to be the most accomplished singer. He has a splendid bass-baritone, expressive, steady and his declamation is lively and involved. He becomes ever better the further the oratorio proceeds and the agitated recitative and bass aria in Part II (CD1 trs. 18, 19) show him at his very best. He is one to watch in the future. The tenor, Jacky da Cunha, has less to sing but his is an eager and lively delivery. The soprano, Nathalie Gaudefroy, has a light and bright and possibly fairly small voice, if the microphones can be trusted, but it can also be that she is positioned further away from the microphone than the others. Anyway she makes a nice impression and she has some of the most beautiful solos. Contralto Christianne Stotjin is equipped with a big vibrant voice; at first I thought it was a size too large and unwieldy with a vibrato one expects from a well-versed Wagnerian mezzo but it turned out after a while that the voice was under control and once she had settled she sang her part with feeling. Her Part II aria (CD1 tr. 15) is a fine calling card.

More experienced soloists and a more homogenous chorus might have given us an even stronger performance but there is something to be gained with this smaller scale as well and the obvious enthusiasm of all involved brings a lot of compensation.

The booklet gives us all the information we need, bar the complete texts, Keith Anderson’s detailed synopsis is a good substitute.

A rarity no doubt and probably not a forgotten master-piece, but a pleasing version of the passion story, enthusiastically performed by young musicians.

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