musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Augustin PFLEGER (1635 - c1686): "The Life and Passion of the Christ"

Vox Nidrosiensis; Orkester Nord
Dir: Martin Wåhlberg

rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2018, Selbu kirke
Aparté - AP249 (© 2021) (72'29")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Ach dass ich Wassers gnug hätte

[in order of appearance] Jetzt gehet an die neue Zeit; Ach Herr, du Sohn Davids, erbarme; Der Herr ist groß von Wundertat; Merket wie der Herr uns liebet; Ach dass ich Wassers gnug hätte; O Freude und dennoch Leid

[VN] Natalie Pérez, Gunhild Alsvik, soprano; Samuel Boden, Victor Sordo Vicente, tenor; Håvard Stensvold, bass
[ON] Anna Rainio, Katarzyna Cendlak, violin; Malu Gabard, Nora Roll, viola da gamba; Joakim Peterson, double bass; Elisabeth Seitz, psaltery; Erik Skanke Høsøien, theorbo; Jean-MIguel Aristizabal, organ

In 2012 the German label CPO released a disc with music by Augustin Pfleger, performed by the ensemble Weser-Renaissance. It was the first part of a project devoted to music written for the court of Gottorf in Schleswig-Holstein, where Pfleger was Kapellmeister from 1665 to 1673. It is there that he has written most of the music that has been preserved. It is assumed that a considerable part of his oeuvre, in particular music he has written before he came to Gottorf, has been lost.

Pfleger was born in Schlackenwerth, near Carlsbad in Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic). Schlackenwert was the Bohemian residence of the dukes of Saxe-Lauenburg, and there he occupied his first post as Kapellmeister. Before that, he had studied in Nuremberg with Johann Erasmus Kindermann, who was strongly influenced by the Italian style. In Pfleger's oeuvre that influence is also clearly discernible. In the service of the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg he probably composed most of his sacred music on Latin texts, as the Duke had converted to Catholicism. From 1662 to 1665 he was in the service of Gustav Adolph, Duke of Mecklenburg-Güstrow, as assistent to the then Kapellmeister Daniel Danielis. He took over his position, when Danielis left Güstrow in 1664. A catalogue from Güstrow includes a list of 89 concertos on Latin texts from his pen.

What has been left of this part of his oeuvre is a collection of eighteen works, published as his Op. 1 in Hamburg in 1661 and a volume with occasional pieces. The largest part of Pfleger's extant oeuvre consists of pieces in German, written for the Protestant liturgy. The above-mentioned disc by Weser-Renaissance includes pieces in Latin and in German. It is a matter of good fortune that none of the pieces on that disc appears on the recording under review here.

Martin Wåhlberg came up with the original idea to select pieces which follow the life of Jesus, as the title of this disc indicates. It opens with the announcement of his birth and closes with his appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. It is a bit of a mystery why Merket wie der Herr uns liebet - which is about the men of Emmaus - is performed before Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte, which has the traces of a Passion.

The oeuvre of Pfleger has one specific feature: many pieces have a marked dramatic character, as he often sets biblical texts which include a dialogue. Obviously, in particular the gospels are full of dialogues between Jesus and people around him: his disciples, the sick and people possessed by devils, but also the Pharisees and scribes. One thing he does to emphasize the sense of drama is that the characters who participate in a dialogue first sing in alternation and then together. The comprehensive liner-notes discuss in detail the individual pieces. One of the aspects of Pfleger's cantatas that is particularly noticed, is the mixture of texts from the Old and the New Testament. However, that was very common at the time.

First, the Evangelists and Jesus himself frequently refer to or even quote texts from the Old Testament. Second, Martin Luther saw the Old Testament as a reference to Christ. This explains that texts from the Old Testament can be used in pieces about his life, as is the case here.

The disc opens with Jetzt gehet an die neue Zeit, which is about the announcement of Jesus's birth. Two tenors act as Faithful, who comment the events and put them into a context. Their statement at the opening illustrates what has just been said about the connection between the Old and the New Testament: "Now begins the new time, the time that is full of joy since God's promise has been fulfilled. The servile Old Testament has now come to an end. An angel brings us good news today and announces the sweet consolation to us: God will send from his high heavenly throne his dearest Son in reward to the world". In this piece there are also roles for the Angel (soprano), Mary (soprano) and God (bass). The piece ends with a chorus: "Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Hallelujah."

Whereas this piece is a mixture of biblical and madrigalian texts, Ach Herr, du Sohn Davids, erbarme, consists entirely of biblical texts. It is about the confrontation between Jesus and a Canaanite woman, who asks for mercy as her daughter is possessed by the devil. The story is told by Matthew (ch 15), where it is rather short. Here, Pfleger extends the dialogue for dramatic reasons: the woman several times repeats her appeal to Jesus, and he several times repeats his refusal. In the end he gives in. Apart from the text in Matthew, the piece includes several texts from elsewhere. The Canaanite woman says: "O Lord, I will not let you go unless you bless me". This is a quotation of Jacob, after his struggle with the Angel (Genesis 32). The disciples, who urge Jesus to send her away, react to the woman's mention of the devil with a quotation from the first letter of John (ch 3): "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." The work ends with a tutti section on a text which quotes Elizabeth during the Visitation of Mary: "Blessed are you who believed".

Der Herr ist groß von Wundertat is a cantata for the third Sunday after Epiphany. The gospel of the day is from Matthew 8, which tells about the healing of the leper and about the centurion of Capernaum, who asks Jesus to cure one of his servants. The 'comments' come from two Faithful (sopranos); the roles of the leper and the centurion are sung by tenors, and the part of Christ, as usual, by a bass. First the Faithful proclaim: "The Lord is great in wonders (...). He can (...) heal the sick, deliver them from leprosy". Christ then presents himself as "the shepherd of my sheep". Here we find another reference to the Old Testament, more specifically the book of the prophet Ezekiel (ch 34), where God curses the shepherds (bad rulers) of Israel for feeding themselves instead of caring about the people. At the end Jesus emphasizes that he has not come to save his people as a nation: "I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven".

Let's skip the fourth piece and turn to the fifth first. Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte has traces of a Passion, but - as the title suggests - it is not quite comparable with the Passions of the time. Whereas the latter - for instance those by Heinrich Schütz - are settings of the narratives of one of the gospels, in this piece texts from all the gospels are put together. In that respect it is comparable with the Christmas and Easter historiae by Schütz and his Sieben Worte. The sopranos represent characters that we meet in 18th-century Passion oratorios: Daughters of Zion. They sing what were to become arias in later Passions. One of the tenors acts as Evangelist, the second tenor takes the roles of Pilate and one of the thieves hanged with Jesus, whereas the words of Christ are sung by the bass. The opening words are taken from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, and are best known from the lamento by Johann Christoph Bach. However, here the texts takes a New Testamentary turn: "O that I head water enough in my head and that my eyes were springs of tears, so that I could bewail Jesus the crucified night and day" (instead of "for the slain of the daughter of my people"). Christ replies: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me. But weep for yourselves and for your children". It is not the entire Passion story that is told; we get only some fragments, such as Pilate's answer to the complaints about his inscription at the cross, and the dialogue between Christ and the thief who asks for mercy. Peter and Judas are entirely absent, as is Caiaphas. The crowds are represented by the entire ensemble. The work ends with the chorale O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig.

Returning to the fourth item, Merket wie der Herr uns liebet is for the second day of Easter. The two men from Emmaus are represented by tenors, and the bass sings the words of Jesus. A fourth character is the Soul, sung by a soprano. The latter opens the piece: "See how the Lord loves us, he who rose from the dead, who often lets himself be seen by his disciples in affliction (...)". Interestingly, in this piece several quotations from the Song of Solomon are inserted. Jesus, for instance, says: "Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone". Here a comparison is made between the end of winter and the resurrection, which is a kind of spring in the life of the faithful. However, we also see here the influence of Lutheran Pietism, which was quite strong in the 17th century (one could think here of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri). Another striking aspect of this piece is that the second man is quoted saying about Jesus: "He saved others; he cannot save himself". These are also the words of those mocking Jesus at the cross; this way he second man of Emmaus is portrayed as a complete unbeliever. The work ends with the reply of Jesus: "O foolish ones (...). Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things..." and then the tutti enter: "and enter into his glory?"

The last piece, O Freude und dennoch Leid, is for the third Sunday after Easter (and not of Easter, as the English text has it). It is about the meeting between Christ and his disciples after his resurrection. The gospel of the day was from John 16, where Jesus prepares his disciples for the time that he won't be among them. The opening words express their feelings after his resurrection: "O joy and yet grief". Again, the Song of Solomon is quoted, as the Soul says "Have you seen him whom my soul loves?" and the disciples reply: "Where has our beloved gone, O most beautiful among women?" Jesus then enters, and here several events described by the gospels are put together. When Jesus asks: "Have you anything to eat?", the Soul says: "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits", and Jesus replies: "I came to my garden, my sister, my bride!" The Soul quotes Paul's letter to the Romans (ch 8): "Who is to condemn? Christ is the one who died - more than that, who was raised - who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us". The disciples proclaim: "Great is Eastertide. We are free of sin". The work ends with the entire ensemble singing: "Here below is the time of grace, and yonder eternal bliss".

As one may have gathered by now, this is a most interesting recording of music by an intriguing composer, who should be much better known and whose music deserves to be explored, performed and recorded. His theatrical leanings clearly manifest themselves here, and it does not surprise that he has written an opera (which has not survived). His cantatas are also interesting with regard to the way texts from the Bible and from other sources were used and combined. Pfleger's oeuvre is a kind of link between the German sacred concerto and the concerto-aria cantatas by Buxtehude. This period in German music history has not been fully explored as yet.

The performances are not quite comparable with those of Weser-Renaissance, but that is a hard act to follow. What we get here is generally very good. I have very much enjoyed the singing and playing, and the performances certainly do justice to the character of these pieces. The bass takes a particularly important role. The bass parts require a wide tessitura, and Håvard Stensvold has what it takes to perform this part. Here and there he has to sing extremely low notes. The booklet, which is exemplary, does not tell at what pitch the music was performed. I am pretty sure that in Pfleger's time in Gottorp, the high Chorton was used, which obviously would make the singing of such low notes a little easier.

This disc is a very important one, both from a musical and a historical angle, and a substantial contribution to the discography of German sacred music of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Orkester Nord

CD Reviews