Wolf Christmas 5555242

Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735-1792)
Auf, jauchzet ihr Christen – Christmas Cantatas
Willkommen, du sehnlich erbetener Tag
Seid böse, ihr Völker
Auf, jauchzet, ihr Christen
Willkommen, du schönster der Tage
Beate Mordal (soprano), Georg Poplutz (tenor), Matthias Vieweg (bass)
Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens rec. 2022
CPO 555 524-2 [76]

German sacred music written in the decades after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach has for a long time been almost completely neglected. Since the beginning of this century the oeuvre of Gottfried August Homilius has especially received serious attention, and recently other composers of his time have been the subject of performances and recordings. For many music lovers Ernst Wilhelm Wolf will be a completely unknown quantity. Often, composers who were held in high esteem in their own time, are completely forgotten today. That goes for Wolf too.

He was born in Grossenbehringen in Thuringia and attended the Gymnasien in Eisenach and Gotha. At an early age he came under the spell of the music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Carl Heinrich Graun. He went on to study at Jena University, where he became the director of the Collegium Musicum. Here he composed his first works. Next, he spent some time in Leipzig and Naumburg, and from 1761 until his death he was in the service of the court in Weimar, first as Konzertmeister, then as organist and from 1772 as Kapellmeister. He was in close contact with some of the leading figures in German cultural life, such as Goethe, Herder and Von Seckendorf. He was also close friends with CPE Bach. As a composer he was held in high esteem. It is telling that Frederick the Great invited him to enter his service (which he turned down) and his friends urged him to apply for the post of musical director of Hamburg, after the death of CPE Bach (which he did not).

His oeuvre includes several works for the stage (mostly in the Singspiel genre), secular cantatas and songs as well as sacred vocal music. Moreover he wrote instrumental music, especially for keyboard, both sonatas and concertos. The influence of CPE Bach is evident particularly in Wolf’s keyboard music.

The present disc includes four Christmas cantatas. The programme can be divided into two halves. The three relatively short cantatas are comparable in texture and style, but the fourth and longest work is a special case.

The three first cantatas open with a chorus, which is largely homophonic, and close with a chorale. In between are one or two recitatives and one aria. In content they are comparable in that they emphasize that Jesus’s birth means that the power of Satan – called “the prince of hell” (Willkommen, du sehnlich erbetener Tag) and “old serpent” (Auf, jauchzet, ihr Christen) – is destroyed and has no power over mankind. In Willkommen, du sehnlich erbetener Tag, the opening chorus is in ABA form, the chorus that opens Seid böse, ihr Völker is repeated once from start to finish; the closing phrase – “for Immanuel is here” – is singled out. The opening chorus of Auf, jauchzet, ihr Christen ends with the line “God himself has united himself with us”, which is sung in unison. It is an example of text illustration; more such examples can be found elsewhere, for instance on the words “thunderstorm” and “tremble” in the aria of Willkommen, du sehrlich erbetener Tag. The instrumental scoring is similar in the first and third cantata: pairs of trumpets and horns, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The second omits horns and timpani and has oboe and bassoon instead. The tenor has a minor role in all three, and has only a recitative to sing. In the first and third cantatas, the only aria is for bass, in the second cantata it is scored for soprano (not bass, as the track-list has it).

The fourth cantata is a special case. Whereas the year of composition of the three cantatas just discussed is not known, Willkommen, du schönster der Tage dates from 1783. That is to say: in its original form, because it was not conceived as a work for Chrismastide. On 2 February of that year Carl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar and grandson of Wolf’s employer, Duchess Anna Amalia, was born, and this cantata was written to celebrate this occasion. The time it was written has left its mark in one of its recitatives, which says: “Now awake, Nature, and sing a song of praise to your creator with the seraphim. Away with the gloomy cloak of winter!”. It is followed by an aria which clearly refers to spring, and here the soprano is appropriately accompanied by two transverse flutes. In the form in which this cantata has been preserved, the text has been adapted to make it suitable for Christmastide. That was not a major undertaking, as the cantata was originally written to mark the birth of a boy. A copy of the original cantata has been found in the archive of the Evangelische Brüder-Unität in Herrnhut, whereas the Christmas adaptation has been preserved in the Parish Archive of the Lutheran Church Community in Olbernhau im Erzgebirge. This version was copied around 1800 by Carl Gottlieb Kühner, who was then the local music director. He divided the cantata in two parts, to be performed at the first and the second Day of Christmas respectively. The first eight sections are for the first day, opening with a chorus and closing with a chorale. The second section opens with an accompanied recitative, followed by an aria, a second accompanied recitative, and an aria for choir and four solo voices. The last section is called Soli e Finale and this reminds us of the opera of the late 18th century. This is indicative of the character of this cantata, which is – more than the previous three cantatas – quite operatic. The aria in the second part is the longest and would not be out of place in a Mozart opera. Almost all the solos are for soprano, and it is likely that the first version at the Weimar court was sung by Wolf’s wife, Maria Carolina Benda, daughter of the violinist Franz Benda.

The music of Ernst Wilhelm Wolf is in the process of being rediscovered. Michael Alexander Willens recorded a Passion oratorio (CPO, 2018), the Pleyel Quartett Köln five string quartets (CPO, 2015) and recently a disc with keyboard works was released, again by CPO (played by Flóra Fábri on the tangent piano). The interest in his music is well deserved, as the present recording of Christmas cantatas shows. These four works are all well worth being performed and recorded, and especially as they are stylistically quite different from what we are used to hear in the field of German music for Advent and Christmas from the 18th century, this disc is a meaningful addition to the discography. It also helps to reassess the sacred music that was written in the second half of the 18th century, which is still unjustly – and mostly negatively – compared with Johann Sebastian Bach.

The main parts on this disc are sung by Beate Mordal and Matthias Vieweg. The latter is a seasoned interpreter of German sacred music of the Baroque and I greatly appreciate his voice and his singing. I only felt that now and then his voice was not quite strong enough, and in particular some low notes are not clearly audible. Beate Mordal is a new name to me; she is a young singer from Norway who made her debut in 2015. I quite like her voice, which is very clear and strong and well suited to this repertoire. The way she deals with the demanding solo parts in the large cantata is admirable. If one knows that her debut was in Mozart’s Magic Flute, one may not be that surprised. Georg Poplutz sings the recitatives very well, as was to be expected. The tutti are sung by nine voices (3/2/2/2); with the exception of Vieweg, the soloists participated in the tutti sections. The orchestral parts are given excellent interpretations by the Kölner Akademie, and especially the players of the trumpets and horns deserve praise.

This disc is another major step towards a reassessment of the oeuvre of Ernst Wilhelm Wolf.

Johan van Veen

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