Review by: David Vernier
Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 9
The passions of Bach and the oratorios of Handel traditonally dominate the Baroque large-scale sacred-music repertoire. But thanks to new scholarship and the motivation of today’s investigatively-minded, determinedly adventurous musicians, we listeners are benefiting from the re-discovery of works by heretofore unknown composers, many of whose compositions can stand proudly alongside those of their more illustrious contemporaries. Such is the case of this St. John Passion by the German composer Georg Gebel the younger (1709-1753), who maintained a respectable career in Dresden–a major center of the arts during his lifetime–and later in Rudolstadt, Thuringia.
Gebel, who isn’t mentioned in any of the current music encyclopedias, clearly proves–on evidence of this very fine Passion–that he was worthy of acclaim (confirmed by various contemporaty sources) and was capable of original ideas and possessed the creative resources to write music of sustained drama and interest. While this passion setting is nowhere near as powerfully affecting in either the spiritual or theatrical sense as those of Bach, it does offer consistently appealing and emotionally meaningful musical realizations, spread among numerous arias, choral movements, and chorales. Gebel also was quite adept at colorful scoring, exemplified in his fascinating combinations of instruments such as horns, oboe, bassoon, violins (often pizzicato), and theorbo (highlighted in a solo during one of the arias late in the work).
In addition to some exciting choruses–most of them in the passion’s second half–we are graced with some wonderfully written arias throughout, including those for tenor (“Ja, ja, ich will mich auch bequemen” and “Die Weisheit kennt die Zeit zu reden”) and the absolutely exquisite soprano solos “Herz, willt du bei der Welt und ihren Feuer stehen” and “Auch dies will ich mir in das Herze schreiben”. There’s a beautiful soprano/alto duet (“Noch wird sich ein Johannes finden”) and a tenor aria notable both for its melodic interest and its scoring for flute, oboe, violin, and gamba. Much of the choral writing involves short, impressive fugal flourishes, and the numerous chorale settings are lovely.
The soloists are generally first rate, especially soprano Dorothee Mields, tenor Jan Kobow, and bass Klaus Mertens, with alto Henning Voss just too shaky in his runs and unsteady of technique to make an entirely positive impression. The chorus is solid and the orchestra completely in control of the score, and conductor Ludger Rémy moves everything along so that the 102-minute work flows with nary a dull moment. This is a really fascinating and enjoyable discovery, and anyone who loves German sacred music from this period should make a point of hearing it.
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GEORG GEBEL (the younger) - St. John Passion