Wolf: Jesu, deine Passion will ich jetzt bedenken

Hanna Herfurtner, Marian Dijkhuizen, Georg Poplutz, Mauro Borgioni SATB, Kölner Akademie, directed by Michael Alexander Willens
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[dropcap]A[/dropcap] native of Thuringia, the little-known Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792) studied at the University of Jena, where he became director of the Collegium Musicum in 1756. After periods in Leipzig and Naumberg, he settled in Weimar, where he worked his way through the ranks in the service of the Duchess Anna Amalia, eventually in 1768 being appointed Kapellmeister, a position he would retain for the rest of his life despite Goethe’s dislike of him and an offer from Frederick the Great to succeed C. P. E. Bach at Potsdam. Wolf’s substantial output includes both secular and sacred works, among them no fewer than 35 symphonies and 20 Singspiele, the overriding influence on him being that of his mentor and lifelong friend, C. P. E. Bach.

However it is not C. P. E. Bach who will most strongly be brought to mind by Wolf’s Passion oratorio Jesu, deine Passion will ich jetzt bedenken, but Graun’s Der Tod Jesu  (1755), one of the most frequently performed religious works of the 18th century and one Wolf is said to have learned by heart. Jesu, deine Passion  is likely to be an early work, probably composed during Wolf’s time at Jena. It belongs to the new form of Passion setting that eschews a direct telling of the story as related in the Gospels in favour of a free, often picturesque poetic text that frequently owes much to Enlightenment sentiment. Such texts avoided the unfolding drama of Jesus’ Passion, in favour of a more contemplative, moralizing context placed between fragmentary episodes from it. Thus, for example, in Jesu, deine Passion, a gracious duet for two sopranos is a supplication to Jesus as he hangs on the Cross to be taught forgiveness rather than the reflection on his suffering one might have expected at this point.

Like the Graun that served as its inspiration, the work is a flexible succession of recitative (mostly accompagnato), arioso, aria, chorales and choruses. In addition to the duet there are just three arias, but all are lengthy numbers cast in full da capo  form. Those for soprano and tenor are reflective in character, but that for the bass, the words of Jesus, is a strongly rhetorical number in which the call ‘Hear it, Christians’ is supported by commanding horns on the sole occasion they come to the fore. Perhaps the most striking passage is the penultimate number, divided into 14 brief sections that include alternating the bass’s upbeat arioso ‘Seid getrost’ (Be consoled) as a refrain with tragic canonic interjections for soprano and tenor set to a chorale. While no forgotten masterpiece – there are moments when blandness seems close – Jesu, deine Passion  is overall an affecting and often touching contemplation on the Passion story.

If there are a few reservations about the work itself, there are only minor caveats occasioned by the performance under Michael Alexander Willens, the American director of the Kölner Akademie, who draws from both instrumental and vocal forces a very well-executed and sensitive premiere recording. His soloists, who also sing in the small chorus, are all excellent. Soprano Hanna Herfurtner opens her aria with a lovely messa de voce, though at times her vibrato can be intrusive. The excellent tenor Georg Poplitz has the lion’s share of solo work, projecting recitative with vivid purpose, while also giving his ‘sentimental’, flute-inflected aria a fine sense of line. The alto and bass have less to do, but are both good, and the bass aria referred to above, the most vocally demanding in the work, is notable for some of the best articulation I’ve heard from a bass in some while in the hands of Mauro Borgioni. Definitely well worth investigating.

Brian Robins

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