It is understandable why Ludwig Meinardus’ oratorio Luther in Worms has slipped from the consciousness, far less the repertoire. Even now we are made queasy by confident statements that “Der Reich muss doch bleiben”. But, consider the context in which it was written. Germany had been unified in 1871. Meinardus wrote his paean to the greater Reformer and the protestant Reformation in 1872, it was first performed in 1874 and, in 1883, the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth, it was widely performed in protestant towns throughout Germany. The work lies on the cusp of politics and religion.

Bernd Eberhardt © Anton Säckl
Bernd Eberhardt
© Anton Säckl

It opens with a rousing chorus that we are living in evil times, as the pilgrims travel to Wurms. In “Wo Gott, der Herr, nich bei uns halt”, while a quartet sings the chorale, the female chorus provides a rippling descant. On their way they release a group of nuns from the cloister, including Katarina, future wife of Martin Luther. The catholic music of the nuns’ Miserere contrasts with the four-square chordal chorale style of the pilgrims, setting a pattern for the rest of the piece.

The pilgrims are met by Glapo – an invented villain and messenger from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – who disputes with Luther. Glapo’s bass music is low and relatively monotone, compared with Luther’s (Andreas Scheibner) – bright, full of light and foreshadowing Ein’ feste Burg. But Luther has his supporters; a party of knights shouting “Luther and Freedom! Luther and Victory!” albeit one, Ulrich von Hutten, warns Luther of the dangers.

And so they arrive in Worms, with a brassy fanfare for Kaiser Karl (Clemens Löschmann). The Catholic supporters and the Protestants both try to shout each other down. The contrasting musical styles, set up with the nuns, is very evident now. The Kaiser cuts through it all – he gave Luther a safe conduct here, for his trial. After Georg von Frundsberg duets with Luther in a rich confession of faith, there is a sneer in the music when the Kaiser says “Wohlan, Mönch, Gib uns nun kurze schlichte Antwort!” Eventually Luther states: “Hier steh’ ich; ich kann nicht anders! Gott helf mir!”

While the vocal struggle between the two sides continues, the protestant side senses it is winning, with two glorious solos from Katarina (Stephanie Henke) and Marta (Anna Haase).  Finally comes Luther’s great moment: “Wir haben heute einem Baum gepflanzet”, which morphs into Ein’ feste Burg, as voices join till the second verse is a riot of ornamentation followed by a final jubilant chorale., ending with a ringing “Der Reich muss doch bleiben”.

Löschmann also sang Luther’s friend Justus Jonas, while multi-tasking bass Jürgen Orelly resorted to changing coloured scarves to differentiate between his four characters – often with only one burst of song from Luther to separate them.

The Göttinger Symphonie Orchester and Göttinger Stadtkantorei, conducted by Bernd Eberhardt, created a great sound - even if the words were sometimes indistinct - in a work with overtones of Wagner and Verdi, and some very Tchaikovskian harmonies.