ONE looks to a vital conductor for bold programming, and Robert Secret has always displayed both qualities. With vast experience and broad-ranging interests, Secret is also the music director of Stowe Opera, where he has ranged beyond the obvious repertoire to stage Verdi’s Don Carlos, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Dvoøák’s Rusalka. Such enterprise has always kept Stowe among the more interesting of provincial opera companies.
Enterprising, too, is his work with the venerable Oxford Harmonic Society, once led by the redoubtable Dr Reginald Jacques, and which still boasts as its Vice-President Sir David Lumsden, who, before heading the Royal Academy of Music, was organist of New College, Oxford.
Perhaps some of the more talented young singers he nurtured there will have encountered the Lieder of Carl Loewe (1796-1869), many of which aficionados place on a par with those of Schubert.
That Loewe composed oratorios, The Destruction of Jerusalem, Job, and The Raising of Lazarus among them, is less well-known. Among the most cogent — and once, like Spohr’s The Last Judgement, immensely popular — is his weighty Passion setting Das Sühnopfer des Neuen Bundes, or The Atonement of the New Testament, dating (most probably) from 1847. Secret and the Oxford Harmonic Society have just excitingly unearthed it, in a performance at Oxford Town Hall.
Loewe was one of those who joined the 20-year-old Mendelssohn in the Bach revival – in 1831 and 1841 he conducted both the St Matthew and St John Passions, and he himself was formerly a boy chorister at Cöthen, where Bach had been organist. His debt to the Baroque master, not least in the seriousness with which he approached mounting oratorios in his adopted town of Stettin (now the Polish Szczecin), where he directed the music for nearly 50 years, is obvious.
The sheer weight and substance of this 90-minute work, to a text in the best Baroque tradition by Wilhelm Telschow (1809-72), yet fresh and alive and not slavishly tied to any forerunner, and including, like Bach’s, a glorious swath of Lutheran chorales, are impressive. The orchestra — perhaps reflecting Stettin forces — was here restricted to strings and drum. Arguably, a fuller version, with woodwind at least duplicating, might have balanced the strongly motivated choir even better.
The choruses were resplendent: soothing, urgent, angry; and yet the triumph of this performance lay in the solo arias and recitatives. Secret had conjured up four of the best young singers from the current vocal and opera courses of the Royal Academy of Music: the soprano Nathalie Chalkley, the mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey, the tenor Iain Milne and the bass Frederick Long. They deserve buoyant careers.
The narrative recitatives are shared around, not reserved for a single Evangelist: soprano and bass share the story of the anointing at Bethany; and the latter takes the lead in the story of the Last Supper, one of numerous points at which Long’s fabulously rewarding tone conjured up moments of awesome beauty. One all-male chorus section was superbly intoned.
Anna Harvey’s “Heil’ge Nacht” (after the arrest in Gethsemane) proved easily the most exquisite passage of the second part, together with Long’s vivid “Weh mir, wo soll ich entflieh’n?”, where Loewe allots Judas a fretful accompaniment of almost Wagnerian urgency. Equally, the influence of Mendelssohn, or parallels with his style, can be felt. But the variety of moods that Loewe conjures up rests in his own musical acumen, not in borrowings.
Part Three offered a chance for Milne to shine as Simon of Cyrene, in an expressive passage evoking the long road to the Cross: elegant, flowing, effortlessly soaring, he, too, provided a highlight. The tensions of the crucifixion scene, like the debates that precede Christ’s conviction, are grippingly captured: the tenor and bass duet that follows Christ’s words “Vater, vergib ihnen” was especially moving.
Despite one or two moments when the temperature momentarily lowered, it would be hard not to praise this full-blooded, courageous revival of a “lost” work that ought to re-enter the standard repertory. The reproduction of Keith Anderson’s notes from the Naxos recording (8.557635-6) was another asset.