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Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1620/23 - 1680): "Sepolcro"

Elizabeth Dobbin, Josie Ryan, soprano; Elsbeth Gerritsen, contralto; Koen van Stade, tenor; Hans Scholing, bas
Il Concerto Barocco

rec: Oct 26 - 28, 2006, Warnsveld (Neth), NH Kerk
Aliud Records - ACD HN 017-2 (© 2007) (67'29")

Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Requiem; Sonata VII a 5 [1]; Sonata VIII a 5 [1]; Sonata X a 4 [1]; Stärcke der Lieb, sepolcro

(Sources: [1] Sacro-profanus concentus musicus, 1662)

Jonathan Talbott, Kees Hilhorst, violin; Rachel Yates, David Woolfrey, viola; Andrew Read, violone; Hajo Neutkens, theorbo; Stephen Taylor, harpsichord, organ

Music was an important part of life at the Habsburg court in Vienna. The imperial court attracted some of the best musicians from several parts of Europe, and one of them was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. Due to a lack of documentation some aspects of his biography are still in the dark: we don't know the exact year he was born, nor when he arrived in Vienna or who his first music teacher was. In 1643 he was mentioned as being a player of the cornett in the Stephansdom in Salzburg, but at that time he must already have had ties with the imperial court where he apparently acted as a violinist since about 1635. It is as a player of the violin that he has become most famous and it is in particular through his compositions for strings that he is still known. That part of his oeuvre is often played and recorded. But his vocal output is much lesser known. Therefore this is an interesting production as far as the repertoire is concerned.

The two main compositions here are a Requiem and a so-called sepolcro. The Requiem has been preserved in the hand of the Moravian composer Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. Not much is told about this piece in the booklet. Schmelzer's setting is rather short and contains only the sections 'Requiem aeternam - Kyrie eleison', 'Sanctus - Osanna - Benedictus' and 'Agnus Dei'. According to the programme notes the scoring suggests it was meant to be performed in an intimate setting. I was wondering how this music has been performed: is it likely the parts Schmelzer did not set were performed in plainchant? Anyway, as it is performed here it works a bit like a torso - it would certainly be interesting to hear this music as part of a kind of 'liturgical reconstruction'. The performance is alright, although I find the tempo a bit on the fast side, which increases the feeling something is missing. In addition there are too few dynamic accents and the articulation leaves something to be desired. Had this piece be performed in a more solemn way it had made a stronger and more lasting impression.

The second vocal item is Stärcke der Lieb, a sepolcro. In New Grove the sepolcro is defined as "a 17th-century genre of sacred dramatic music in Italian related to the oratorio and performed on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the Habsburg court chapels in Vienna". But in the case of the sepolcro recorded here the text is not in Italian, as the title already indicates, but - according to the programme notes - "in local dialect". And this is where one of the problems of this recording comes out.

The booklet doesn't contain any lyrics. In the case of the Requiem that isn't much of a problem as these texts are well-known and can be easily found on the internet. The 'sepolcro' is a totally different matter. It is really unforgiveable that the lyrics are not printed; at least the record company could have made them available for downloading like Naxos usually does. For those listeners who don't understand German it is simply impossible to know what exactly this piece is about. I was able to understand quite a bit, also because of the clear diction of the singers. Normally that would be something to be thankful for, but in this case it is almost a curse in disguise, if I may exaggerate a little. The local dialect means the kind of German spoken in Vienna. I am not sure how the inhabitants of Vienna spoke German in Schmelzer's time, but if it was anything like the kind of speech of present-day Austria I should not be able to understand so much. In my ears it sounds too much like modern standard German. Yes, there are some vowels which sound a bit South-German or Austrian, but in a rather artificial way. I think any attempt to sing in Austrian-German should be left to native Austrians.

Apart from that the performance is again a bit disappointing. The singing is rather bland and unremarkable and the whole piece just drags on. In my view it should be more dramatic - although not in the operatic sense of the word - and certainly more expressive. It is a shame as some listeners will believe that it is an uninteresting piece which isn't worth performing. In particular in cases like this a first-class performance is essential to show the depth of a neglected composition, and that is not what is delivered here.

Lastly, the instrumental sonatas: as these are often performed and recorded they are not the most interesting part of this disc anyway, and they are available in better performances as well, in particular with stronger dynamic differences.

I think this disc is only recommendable for those people who have a special interest in music from the time of Biber and Schmelzer and are able to discern the quality of music despite a less than satisfying performance. Let's hope some ensemble is going to explore Schmelzer's vocal music, including the pieces recorded here.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Il Concerto Barocco

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