musica Dei donum

CD reviews


Damien Guillon, alto
Café Zimmermann

rec: May 20 - 23, 2019, Saint Michel, Abbaye Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache
Alpha - 626 (© 2020) (69'09")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Ach, wie sehnlich wart ich der Zeit; Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele [3]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704): O dulcis Jesu; Pars III in a minor (C 71) [5]; Passacaglia in g minor (C 105)a [4]; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Ricercar I in g minor (FbWV 408) [2]; Toccata II in d minor (FbWV 102)b [1]; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623-1680): Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Serenata a cinque

Sources: Johann Jacob Froberger, [1] Libro secondo di toccate, fantasie, canzone, allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue et altre partite, 1649; [2] Libro quarto di toccate, ricercari, capricci, allemande, gigue, courante, sarabande, 1656; [3] Christoph Bernhard, Geistlicher Harmonien erster Theil, 1665; Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, [4] Sonaten über die Mysterien des Rosenkranzes & Passacaglia, [n.d.] [5] Mensa sonora, 1680

Pablo Valetti (soloa), Mauro Lopes Ferreira, violin; Patricia Gagnon, Deirdre Dowling, viola; Petr Skalka, cello; Davide Nava, double bass; Shizuko Noiri, theorbo; Céline Frisch, organ (solob)

The lamento is one of the main genres of vocal and instrumental music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Although such pieces were written in previous centuries (such as the Déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem by Josquin Desprez), it was in particular 17th-century operas which included lamentos. The most famous of them is Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna. Soon they also made their appearance in sacred and in instrumental music. In the latter category, composers used this form to commemorate a patron, a colleague or a teacher. Such a piece is included at the present disc: Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III, referring to the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand III, who died in 1657.

In his liner-notes, Peter Wollny states: "In the 17th century, life and death were more closely intertwined than they are today. The Thirty Years' War and its aftermath, the epidemics depopulating entire regions, and the fact that medicine had scarcely developed since the Middle Ages, meant that human life had little more substance than a shadow. The constant presence of death governed almost all areas of public and private life, so it is scarcely surprising that human mortality was a central theme of the arts as well." This seems to suggest that the programme performed here is about death. However, that is only partly true.

One of the most famous pieces in this collection is the sacred concerto Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte by Johann Christoph Bach. The text has nothing to do with death, as the first lines reveal: "O that my head were full of water, and these eyes fountains of tears, that I might weep day and night for my sins". More generally, the programme is about the many trials and tribulations of everyday life, and that includes death, but also the reality of mankind's sinfulness and its effects. O dulcis Jesu, a piece which has been preserved without the name of the composer, but is generally attributed to Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, is also connected with the latter subject. It refers to Jesus' death, the ultimate effect of mankind's sinfulness. It is a typical product of Catholic pietism, as it opens with images from the Song of Solomon: "O sweet Jesus, o sweet love, o dear bridegroom! (...) I sought you in the garden and could not find you". It ends with the line: "Now, now I want to die with you, my Jesus!". We have to position the famous Mystery Sonatas by Biber in the same atmosphere. This collection of fifteen sonatas for violin and basso continuo ends with a passacaglia for violin solo. Its meaning is not entirely clear, but as the engraving preceding it shows an angel holding the hand of a child, it is often labelled 'the Guardian Angel'. A lamento it is certainly not.

Ach, wie sehnlich wart ich der Zeit by Johann Michael Bach fits in this programme, and here we have a more marked connection with death. However, it is not a complaint about death or a commemoration of a deceased person, but rather an expression of a longing for death, which means the end of the hardships of life and the beginning of life everlasting: "With longing I await the time when you, my Lord, shall come, and from this world of heartfelt pain shall lead me into heaven". It comprises four stanzas, and each ends with a refrain: "Ah, how fervently I await you: O come and fetch me". The last vocal item is Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele by Christoph Bernhard, one of Heinrich Schütz's most prominent pupils. It is a setting of the fifth verse of Psalm 42: "Why are you sad, my soul? Why are you so troubled within me?" Again, this has no specific connection to death, as it is inspired by life's tribulations.

I already referred to Schmelzer's Lamento; this is the only piece which directly refers to death. It includes imitations of the sound of funeral bells. This also appears in the opening piece of the programme, Schmelzer's Serenata a cinque. This seems rather odd, as it is a piece for carnival. Wollny explains: "The comic intention of the tolling funeral bell, the 'Campanella' framing the Lamento movement, is explained in its title, found in a separate concordance: The sorrowful mourning for the death of Saint Carnival in the year 1667. The topsy-turvy world now at an end, normal life resumed - until next carnival time." This mixture of joy and sorrow is in line with what he stated earlier: the idea of memento mori (Remember you must die), which took such a prominent place in the time's thinking, had its counterpart in carpe diem (Use well the day).

The remaining instrumental pieces are not directly related to the overall subject of lamento. Biber's Pars III from Mensa Sonora has nothing to do with it at all, except that it ends with a ciaconna, which - as New Grove explains in its article on the lamento - often was used for pieces of a lamenting nature. The Toccata II and the Ricercar I by Froberger are included because of their chromatic passages. Wollny admits that "their biographical context is unknown". It seems quite possible that there is no such context at all. Chromaticism was frequently used in 17th-century music, and that does not even always have a sorrowful connection. Whereas the toccata is performed at the organ, the ricercar - also originally intended for keyboard - is played here by the strings.

As one will have noticed, there is reason to take the title of this disc with a grain of salt and to not restrict the lamento theme to death. In this respect, the liner-notes may put the reader on the wrong track. Fortunately, the performances don't give any reasons to lament. On the contrary. Damien Guillon has a wide experience in German music and has a very good understanding of what it takes to bring out the emotional content of this kind of repertoire. His performances have exactly the right intensity it requires to have its full impact. His German pronunciation is outstanding. There is just one issue as far as that aspect is concerned: in Johann Michael Bach's Ach, wie sehnlich wart ich der Zeit his pronunciation of "verklärt" in the second stanza is correct, but just one of two possibilities. In this case he should have chosen the one which rhymes on "Erd" in the first line.

The name of Café Zimmermann refers to the coffeehouse in Leipzig, where Bach gave performances with the Collegium Musicum. This already indicates that music from the German-speaking world takes central stage in the orchestra's activities, and that shows here. The instrumental pieces receive excellent performances, and that includes the articulation and dynamic shading this music needs. Special praise deserve Pablo Valetti for his performance of the obbligato violin part in Biber's sacred concerto O dulcis Jesu and Biber's Passacaglia, and Céline Frisch for her excellent interpretation of Froberger's Toccata.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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