Germany: Saturday 17 November 2001
Let's make it clear from the start: this performance was an absolute triumph! A double triumph in fact - not only for the performers, but also for Raff himself whose last major work was revealed as a mighty creation combining piety with grandeur, poetry with excitement.
The Oratorio Welt Ende - Gericht - Neue Welt is a huge work into which Raff poured all his genius. Its novel structure frames a fascinating mixture of the neo-baroque and the romantic.
Wiesbaden's exuberant large red brick Marktkirche was the surprisingly intimate venue for this, the last concert in the city's 15-concert Bach Weeks series. It was gratifyingly full on a chilly November night as conductor Martin Lutz spent a few moments introducing Raff and his strong Wiesbaden connections to an audience understandably mostly ignorant of both. Lutz and the Bach-Ensemble of Wiesbaden gave the orchestral introduction a ruminative character, the motto theme which pervades the whole work emerging gently from the almost pastoral atmosphere.
The success of any performance of this two hour long piece depends critically on the baritone who, as St. John, narrates in recitative Raff's reworking of the biblical Day of Judgement from the Book of Revelations. In this crucial role Berthold Possemeyer excelled. His voice combined lightness and clarity with a resonant authority which was ideal for the work. The lyrical delivery and slight vibrato made for excellent diction. His opening recitative and aria were sung perhaps slightly too quietly but he grew in authority as the performance progressed. His thunderous "Hölle" (hell) later in the work was a gloriously apocalyptic moment!
The 100-strong Schierstein Kantorei made their entry with the Angels' Chorus and they did not disappoint. They were utterly secure in their ensemble and gave every impression of having sung the work many times before. The dynamic contrasts were clear but the church's reverberant acoustic did prevent much of the text coming across with clarity. This opening chorus was only for women's voices and, in common with so many amateur choirs, the men were only perhaps a quarter of the whole.
They made up for this with powerful singing in the other items and the overall sound generally belied this imbalance.
The early gentle numbers gave an impression that Lutz's vision of the
end of the world might be of a whimper rather than a bang. Not so - he
was merely preparing us for the drama to come. The growing tension throughout
the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" section burst through
firstly in a thrilling reading of Raff's Mahlerian mini symphonic poem "War" -
Lutz made this a genuinely threatening orchestral march surpassing that
in Lenore for hollow heroics and jingoism. The "Death
and Hell" intermezzo was a tour de force - the Bach-Ensemble responding
to Lutz's energetic conducting with playing of power and passion which
belied their small numbers. The eternal winds were graphically portrayed
in a finely judged gradual climax to produce a hellish portrait to match
Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini". The release of tension
amongst the audience was palpable as the piece ended.
Alto Birgit Schmickler didn't have much to do, but what she did, she did well. A clear line, well judged dynamics and a clean pure sound all made for a solid contribution. After a further wonderful orchestral intermezzo "The last signs" in which Raff's daring modernity was well highlighted, came the choral highlight - "Fallet auf uns" in which Raff illustrates the terror at the prospect of approaching judgement. This was superbly carried off by the Schiersteiners who sang with forcefulness and drama, but also clarity, to produce as fine a sound picture of fear and apprehension as German romanticism produced!
If the "Judgement" and "New World" sections were understandably less spectacular than "World's End" they nonetheless contained many beauties - the double chorus "Mein Herr, ich hoffe auch dich", a beautiful orchestral transition from the "Judgement" intermezzo into the the lovely alto arioso, a delicate and benign "New World" orchestral intermezzo and a huge outpouring of joy and relief in the penultimate great chorus "Lass sich freuen allen".
Throughout the Bach-Ensemble played superbly and their brass section in particular was outstanding. A few more strings would have been an improvement in places to round out Raff's carefully judged sonorities. The Schierstein Kantorei coped with Raff's demands with vigour and evident enjoyment, although they were not helped by the church's rather soupy acoustic. For baritone Berthold Possemeyer this was a performance of which he should be justly proud. Martin Lutz's direction paced the work wonderfully well. He has done Raff a huge service by reviving this monumental and very satisfying work.