Johann Michael Haydn: Der Kampf der Buβe und Bekehrung
Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, György Vashegyi
Carus 83.351. 79’55
Despite being a lesser-known work by a lesser-known composer, the oratorio Der Kampf der Buße und Bekehrung (The Struggle for Penance and Conversion) is well worth getting to know. It is the second, and only surviving part, of a three-part oratorio, each part written by a different composer – not unusual in the fast-paced musical world of Salzburg at the time. The reason was the arrival of three sopranos bought back from Italy by the Archbishop of Salzburg in 1768. A piece was quickly required to show off their musical talents and, because of the lack of time, three composers agreed to compose a part of the libretto. Johann Michael Haydn (the younger brother of Joseph) took the central part, and this oratorio is the result.
The libretto was a stern treatise of the benefits of living a self-disciplined and righteous life, strictly in line with traditional Catholic teaching, rather than the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment. The oratorio has five characters, a repentant soul (Christian), a pious but doubtful ‘Freethinker’ (Freideist), a ‘Worldly Man’ (Weltmensch) who looks to the faith merely for joy and happiness, plus two more esoteric figures: Gerechtigkeit (Justice) and Gnade (Grace) who both help the previous two strugglers to keep the faith. Nothwithstanding the rather staid libretto and story line, Haydn manages to find some fine musical interpretations, inspired by the world of opera with several references to the earlier Baroque style of word-painting.
There are six arias, a duet and a final chorus, with the chorus also joining in one of the arias. The recitatives are far from workaday, notably the accompagnato Zuletzt ertðnt der schrðcklichsten Posaunen Schalle with its prominent trombone part. There is more trombone in the aria Ich komm mit wahrer Reue, which concludes with a cadenza for soprano and trombone. There is some lively horn playing in the aria Jesu, der den Tod besiegt.
As for the singing, you really do need to like operatic sopranos. Firstly because all five of the soloists are sopranos and secondly, because their singing style is, to say the least, ‘operatic’ and not, unfortunately, in a good way. Not only does their excessive vibrato cause havoc to tone, timbre and clarity of the melodic line, but their collective intonation is also frequently poor and their voices often shrill. The Purcell Choir are on good form in their brief appearances, and the Orfeo Orchestra are generally fine, although there are some intonation issues at times. György Vashegyi conducts with a good sense of forward momentum.
This live recording was made in Müpa, Budapest, (known at the time as the Palace of Arts), in 2009 and released on CD in 2014. The only real evidence that it is a live recording (apart, perhaps, from some of the issues raised above) is the applause at the end, although I am not convinced that including applause really adds much to a live recording.