This appears to be the first release of this video document. I could find no evidence online that this DVD is a reissue: Barnes & Noble, Allmusic, ArkivMusic, Amazon, and Naxos (its distributor) all list it only as a new release with no reference to a prior incarnation, but of course in 1994 it would have been on a VHS tape if it did come out.
If this is indeed its first release, it is a propitious one, as there are very few recordings of this work extant: Sigiswald Kuijken made the only other recording I could locate, in 1995. Neither the massive Brilliant or Warner Classics CD collections of C. P. E. Bach’s music include it, and this performance is superb in every respect. Die letzten Leiden des Erlösers
, or The Last Sufferings of the Savior
, is defined by the composer as a passion cantata, which puts it on the same plane as his father’s St. Matthew and St. John Passion s. It was the third full-scale religious work he wrote for Hamburg (1770—the first was The Israelites in the Wilderness ) after his arrival in 1768.
As I would hope everyone who likes C. P. E. Bach’s music knows by now, Hartmut Haenschen is the founder of the C. P. E. Bach Chamber Orchestra (actually, as the booklet shows, he took over an orchestra banned from performing certain works and so turned to C. P. E. Bach out of expediency) and one of the greatest conductors of that composer’s music
; thus this is a valuable document not previously available. In this respect I would like to quote from Haenschen’s statement on the aesthetics of performing early music as stated on p. 8 of the booklet:
“Historical tunings are inevitably experienced as transpositions, and thus the value of key characteristics becomes lost.
“Modern listeners have acquired the listening experience integrated with modern music, and therefore also possess a change in their listening thresholds. How is it then possible to achieve the same ‘effect’ incorporating historical instruments for a non-specialized audience? The proportions of the halls in which music is performed have also changed. The semantic components—or should we say, structural components—disappeared behind the stylized presentation. In contrast, the study of the sounds of earlier instruments for certain kinds of expression is an indispensable requirement (e.g. in the bowing approach for certain dance movements), and is often the only possible basis of our interpretations.
“To regard non-vibrato as a fixed principle of playing at this time is a contemporary historical error. On the contrary, all instrumentalists sought to emulate the singing voice which, as stated clearly by scholars ranging from Giulio Caccini to Johann Crüger, had to possess vibrato capabilities.”
Much of the music is slow in tempo and grave in tone, often sounding like a fully Romantic work, combining elements of his father’s Passions with later musical sensibilities. Only in a few places, such as the first tenor aria, does one hear the sort of religious oratorio or cantata style favored by Handel, at that time dead for only a decade; otherwise, this music is remarkably forward-looking
and, as usual with C. P. E. Bach, very creative
in its melodic contours as well as its harmonic movement. I was thus not surprised to read in the booklet that this orchestra was founded by musicians and a conductor whose roots were in contemporary classical music. As Haenschen puts it, “his music was really the avant-garde of the 18th century,” and he has done the composer a great service in the continual presentation and recording of his works.
Fortunately, the high performance quality
transcends all this video nonsense. Schäfer is in superb voice
, bright and ringing with plenty of expression. Contralto Elster’s voice is simply astonishing, so naturally deep that when she entered at one point in the opening duet with chorus I thought it was the tenor, and she matches Schäfer in both timbre and technique. Trekel is an excellent baritone ... Second soprano Schuring has a pure-toned voice of great warmth but not much bite, evident in her duet with Schäfer. ...
Since this was my first opportunity to see Haenchen conduct, I was a bit surprised that he does not use a baton. Of course, this was probably what many conductors in the 18th century actually did, but you get so used to modern-day HIP performers using a baton that when someone doesn’t it comes as a shock. And as usual, Haenchen works out the musical style perfectly
, making the strings sound warm and full even when they are leaning towards non-vibrato, phrasing with deep feeling and managing to inject energy into what is quite clearly a serious work whose topic is suffering and dying.
, then, for the musical content, not so much for the video presentation. Since this seems to be the only currently available video performance of this work, however, I think of it as indispensable for any lover of C. P. E. Bach.
Lynn René Bayley