musica Dei donum

CD reviews

German sacred music from the 17th and 18th centuries

[I] "The Vale of Tears"
Theatre of Early Music; Schola Cantorum
Dir: Daniel Taylor
rec: April 2014, Toronto, Humbercrest United Church
Analekta - AN 2 9144 (© 2015) (49'50")
Liner-notes: E/F; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score BWV 165
Score Schütz

Johann Sebastian BACH 1685-1750): O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)a; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Hört auf mit Weinen und Klagen [1]; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin [1]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Musicalische Exequien (SWV 279-281)b

Source:: [1] Musae Sioniae, VIII, 1610

[soli] Agnes Zsigovicsab; Ellen McAteerb, soprano; Rebecca Claborn, contraltob; Kyle Guilfoyle, altob; Isaiah Bellb, Rufus Müllerab, tenor; Alexander Dobsonab, Geoffrey Sirettb, baritone
Cristina Zacharias, Kathleen Kajioka, violin; Patrick Jordan, alto; Christina Mahler, Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Alison Mackay, double bass; Sylvain Bergeron, lute; Christopher Bagan, harpsichord; Paul Jenkins, organ

[II] "The Heart's Refuge"
Theatre of Early Music; Schola Cantorum
Dir: Daniel Taylor
rec: April 2013, Toronto, Humbercrest United Church
Analekta - AN 2 9143 (© 2014) (49'10")
Liner-notes: E/F; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Buxtehude
Score Kuhnau

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben; Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Ich liege und schlafea; Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (BuxWV 62); Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Gott, sei mir gnädigb; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1623-1680): Harmonia a 5 in B flat

[soli] Agnes Zsigovics, sopranoab; Rebecca Claborn, mezzo-sopranob; Kyle Guilfoyle, altoa; Isaiah Bell, tenorab; Alexander Dobson, bassab
Cristina Zacharias, Kathleen Kajioka, Charlene Yeh, violin; Patrick Jordan, viola; Amanda Keesmaat, cello; Alison Mackay, double bass; Wesley Chen, harpsichord; Paul Jenkins, organ

These two discs span a period of about a century in German sacred music. The first disc opens with a piece from Michael Praetorius' collection Musae Sioniae VIII which was published in 1610 and ends with Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata O heilges Geist und Wasserbad (BWV 165) which probably dates from 1715. They embrace the other works in the respective programmes, from Schütz' Musicalische Exequien (1636) to Johann Kuhnau's Gott, sei mir gnädig (1705).

The title of the first disc is a phrase from the main work in the programme, the Musicalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz: "This life is but a vale of tears: fear, misery and affliction everywhere. Our brief stay upon this earth is but woe, and whosoever thinketh on it is in constant strife". It is a stanza from the hymn Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt (Johann Leon, 1582/89). It expresses a thought which was widespread in the time Schütz composed his work and was still very much alive when Bach composed his cantatas. His cantata BWV 165 refers to the cause of the trouble which mankind has to deal with: "The sinful birth of damned Adam's legacy bears God's wrath, death and destruction. For what is born of the flesh is nothing but flesh, infected by sin, poisoned and defiled".

The Musicalische Exequien belong to the most famous and most solemn of Schütz' works. It was commissioned by Heinrich Posthumus 'the younger' of Reuss-Gera, an educated and cultivated ruler. When he was over sixty he started to make preparations for his death. Part of these preparations was an exact plan specifying what was to happen at the funeral ceremony and in which sequence - including the music to be performed, for which he commissioned Heinrich Schütz. The Musicalische Exequien are not a sort of German Protestant version of the Roman Catholic Requiem. It was part of a funeral procedure which was rooted in pre-Reformation tradition of exequies (Latin: exequiae = accompanying a dead person out). It consists of three parts: the transfer of the body to the church, the celebration of the Requiem Mass and the procession to the grave. Being part of a funeral procedure this work could perhaps best be compared with Purcell's Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary.

The three parts are composed in different ways. Part 1, comprising 21 quotations from the Bible and from hymns are set in the form of a German Mass (Concert in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis-Missa). The quotations from the Bible are set as small sacred concertos, the hymns as 6-part motets. Part 2 is a sermon motet, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe. The text consists of the verses 25 and 26 of Psalm 73: "Lord, if I have none other than you, so shall I ask nothing of heaven or earth". It is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Part 3 is a setting of the Canticum Simeonis (Nunc dimittis), Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace). Here Schütz has added that this text should be sung by a five-part choir of lower voices near the organ, whereas two sopranos and a bass should sing the text Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord) from the back of the vault in which Posthumus von Reuß was laid to rest.

Unfortunately this indication has been ignored by Daniel Taylor. The third part is performed here in the traditional cori spezzati manner which takes away the special effect the allocation of the second 'choir' would create if Schütz' indication had been observed. That is not the only issue here. For the first part Schütz indicates six solo voices and a cappella of six additional voices. That is observed in that we hear six soloists and the choir. However, the latter comprises 26 singers including the soloists; that by far exceeds the size which Schütz required. The second part is scored for eight voices in two choirs. Considering that Schütz required 12 voices in total for the first part a performance with one voice per part in this section seems most plausible. Here probably the full choir is involved. The contributions of the soloists is various. The sopranos are very good and sing with great clarity but in some of the male voices a slight vibrato has crept in. That is not required here and especially damages the ensembles of two or three voices of which there are quite a number in this work.

The Musicalische Exequien are embraced by two harmonizations from the pen of Michael Praetorius, one of the main composers in Protestant Germany around 1600. The two chorales, Hört auf mit Weinen und Klagen and Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, were sung at the end of the burial service for Heinrich Posthumus. They are sung well and show the right approach to this repertoire which is also notable in Schütz. In is just a pity that the execution leaves something to be desired.

The disc ends with the cantata O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165) by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is an early cantata and probably dates from 1715 when Bach worked at Weimar. The text is from the pen of Salomo Franck who included it in his cycle of texts for the ecclesiastical year 1715; this cantata is for Trinity Sunday which was one Sunday after Whitsunday. One of the readings of that Sunday was chapter 3 from the gospel of St John, which describes a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Its central issue is the rebirth from the spirit. That rebirth is symbolized by baptism which explains the title of the cantata: "O holy washing of spirit and water". That is also the first line of the aria which opens this cantata. The third aria refers to "life, salvation and blessedness" which are the fruits of Jesus' love. The last aria is about Jesus' death as man's salvation. The line of thought in this cantata makes it a good companion to Schütz' funeral music.

The fact that this cantata comprises three arias, separated by two recitatives - one of them accompanied - and ends with a very short four-part chorale suggests that it was intended for a performance with four singers. In this respect the use of a full choir in the chorale seems unjustified. The three soloists in the arias do a good job. Agnes Zsigovics has a fine voice and deals well with the long melismas in the opening aria. The second aria is a prayer and Daniel Taylor sings it with much sensitivity. Rufus Müller is alright in the closing aria, but I find his slight vibrato disappointing. The two recitatives are for bass; Alexander Dobson's performance is not very subtle and rather undifferentiated. His German pronunciation is a bit of a problem.

Considering all aspects of this recording I am not overly enthusiastic. Schütz doesn't come off badly but the performance has some considerable weaknesses. There are better performances on the market; the most satisfying recording is that of Vox Luminis.That leaves Bach's cantata; even if it would receive an ideal performance - which is not the case - that would not be enough to recommend this disc.

One could consider the second disc a complement to the first (or rather the other way around, as the second disc was released before the first). These pieces are also about sin and about death as its consequence and deliverance through Jesus' death and resurrection. That is summed up in its title as well as the heading of the liner-notes: "Torment and consolation".

It opens with one of Dietrich Buxtehude's better-known cantatas, Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (BuxWV 62). It is called an aria and comprises five stanzas, allocated to one or several voices to an accompaniment of two violins, two violas and bc which also play the opening sinfonia. This piece has the form of a chaconne, a set of variations over an ostinato. It is a hymn of thanksgiving: every stanza ends with the words "I thank you a thousand, thousand times, dearest Jesus". The work ends with an "Amen". The fact that this piece is called an aria and that the stanzas one to four are scored for solo voice (1 and 3) or three voices (2 and 4) strongly suggests a performance with solo voices. Even Ton Koopman, in the case of Bach's cantatas not in favour of a one-per-part line-up, has recorded this cantata with four soloists. In this performance we hear all the stanzas with the choir or the relevant voice groups from it. That is historically implausible and musically unsatisfying.

The second work is another aria: Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben, one of the lesser-known pieces of Johann Christoph Bach. It is scored for four voices and comprises seven stanzas; the first two and the last two are sung here. It expresses the longing for death which is such a common subject in German music of the baroque era. Every stanza ends with the words "World, good night!" which is sung four times; the third exclamation includes a rising ninth in the upper voice which symbolizes the soul's rise to heaven. Again we hear the full choir which is less of a problem here but still not very convincing from a historical angle.

Johann Kuhnau was Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. He is generally considered a rather conservative composer and it is true that he didn't like the growing influence of modern Italian music in his days. That said, he did compose a number of cantatas with recitatives and arias, such as Gott sei mir gnädig. It opens and ends with a chorus; in between are recitatives and arias. This cantata is for Sunday Quinquagesima, also known as Sunday Estomihi which is part of Lent. This explains the choice of text: eight verses from Psalm 51 (50), one of the traditional penitential psalms. Here we hear the soloists for the first time. Once again Agnes Zsigovics is the soprano, and she confirms the positive impressions on the first disc. Rebecca Claborn is rather disappointing in her aria, 'Wasche mich', especially due to her incessant vibrato. I can repeat my criticism of Alexander Dobson; his vibrato and poor German pronunciation are among these recordings' shortcomings. Isaiah Bell is alright but tends to be a little larmoyant.

The programme ends with a cantata by Nicolaus Bruhns, best known as organist in Husum and one of the representatives of the north German organ school. Ich liege und schlafe is a funeral cantata for four voices, two violins, two violas and bc on verses from Psalm 4: "I lie down and and sleep in peace". It has the form of a concerto-aria cantata. It opens with a sinfonia and a four part chorus on the text of verse 9; these are repeated at the end. In between are three arias, for soprano, alto/tenor and bass respectively - this order symbolizes the descent into the grave -, separated by ritornellos. There is little so say about the performances which show the same virtues and weaknesses as the Kuhnau cantata. Kyle Guilfoyle is slightly better than his female counterpart.

What may have been the reason to include the Harmonia a 5 in B flat by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer is anybody's guess, considering that the vocal items are all from central and northern Germany whereas Schmelzer worked in Austria. The liner-notes don't give any reason for it. It has the common 17th-century five-part texture: two violins, two violas and bc. If this was included to demonstrate the instrumental counterpart to vocal music, then there would have been much repertoire to choose from which was written in the same regions as the vocal items. It is nicely played, and in general the instrumental parts represent the more convincing aspects of this and the previous recording.

All in all, these two discs are largely disappointing as they show considerable weaknesses in the performance and ignore important aspects of what we know about how this repertoire was performed in the time it was written.

The short playing time and the lack of texts with translations in the booklets don't make things any better. Even though the lyrics may be available on the internet, they should be part of productions like these. The booklets say that the lyrics are available on the Analekta website but I haven't found them.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Theatre of Early Music
Scherzi Musicali

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