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Michael PRAETORIUS (1561/62 - 1621): "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott - Vocal- and Organ Music"

La Protezione della Musica
Dir: Jeroen Finke

rec: Nov 2020, Lemgo, St.-Marien-Kirche
Arcantus - arc 21027 (© 2021) (69'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Christe der du bist Tag und Licht a 2 [5]; Ein feste Burg a 2 [5]; Ein feste Burg a 3 [5]; Ein feste Burg a 5 [6]; Ein feste Burg a 8 [2]; Ein feste Burg pro organicoa [4]; Herr Gott, dich loben wir a 2 - 6 [3]; Lobet den Herren a 2 - 6 [3]; Vater unser im Himmelreich a 2a [5]; Vater unser im Himmelreich a 8 [1]

Sources: [1] Musae Sioniae, I, 1605; [2] Musae Sioniae, III, 1607; [3] Musae Sioniae, V, 1607; [4] Musae Sioniae, VII, 1609; [5] Musae Sioniae, IX, 1610; [6] Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, 1619

Malwine Nicolaus, Erika Tandiono, soprano; Uta Singer, contralto; Johann Jakob Winter, alto, tenor; Jeroen Finke, alto, tenor, baritone; Arthur Engel, baritone; Vincent Berger, bass; Lilli Pätzold, cornett; Iris Tjoonk, Andreas Neuhaus, sackbut; Daniel Seminara, archlute; Tobias Tietze, theorbo; Tom Werzner, regal; Lisa Bork, regel, organ (soloa)

This year (2011) the death of Michael Praetorius in 1621 is commemorated. There is every reason to pay attention to this fact, not only because of the quality of his oeuvre, but also because of his historical importance. The latter concerns firstly his role in the development of Lutheran church music, but goes far beyond that. His Syntagma Musicum is a rich source of information about instruments and performance practice of his time, and with his settings of dances, Terpsichore, he gave ensembles of our time a large collection of high-class instrumental music, which also sheds light on the influences of French music in Germany, as most of the dances are of French origin.

It is not entirely sure when Praetorius was born. "Around 1572" according to the booklet to the present disc, but New Grove states it was in 1571, and in that case we can also commemorate his birth. The place where he was born is known: Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, where his father, also called Michael, who had studied with Martin Luther, worked as a pastor. As he did belong to the strict Lutherans, he regularly lost his job and had to move. Two years after his son's birth he had to move again, this time to Torgau. Here Praetorius senior became a colleague of Johann Walter, one of the main composers of hymns, at the Lateinschule. His successor, Michael Voigt, was Michael junior's first musical teacher. He matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1582, where he became acquainted with Bartolomäus Gesius, another composer of hymns. In 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel as organist. In 1604 he was appointed Kapellmeister. When his employer died, his successor allowed him to work elsewhere for some time. He worked in Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle, Sondershausen and Kassel, and he visited Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth. It is probably due to overwork that his health deteriorated, which led to his death at the age of 49. His high reputation is reflected by the fortune he left, which was largely to be used to set up a foundation for the poor.

Chorales - as the hymns by Martin Luther and his followers are generally called - take a central place in Praetorius's oeuvre. In the many collections of vocal music that he published between 1605 and 1621 he arranged them in many different ways, from bicinium to large-scale polychoral vocal concertos. The latter are by far the most popular among ensembles, but they represent just one side of his oeuvre. He was well aware that only large churches and chapels at the most important royal and aristocratic courts could afford to perform such pieces with voices and instruments. The present disc offers pieces scored for two to eight voices, and the latter are performed with one voice per part. Some bicinia - pieces for two voices - are even performed a capella. This way we get an impression of how Praetorius's music may have been performed in smaller churches and chapels, with only limited forces.

Taking this into consideration, it is interesting to note that even in pieces for a very modest scoring, Praetorius shows himself to be open to modern trends. Those came from Italy, and concerned three features: the cori spezzati technique, which had been developed especially in Venice, the use of a basso continuo, and the monodic style in vocal writing. One usually associates the cori spezzati technique with large-scale pieces for many singers - with a minimum of eight - and often also instruments. However, even in smaller ensembles this technique could be used by splitting them into two opposing groups. An example is the fourth verse of Ein feste Burg, included in Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica of 1619. "This verse is, much like the first two, meant for two choirs, but here with two voices per choir only. Praetorius describes shortly, that if you have two organs, one for each choir, you set them up across from another".

Herr Gott, dich loben wir is an example of a piece where Praetorius takes the limited means of some churches and chapels into account. This is the German translation of the Te Deum, split into 27 verses of two lines each. Praetorius has arranged this hymn for two to six voices. In most cases the verses are clearly split, which allows for an alternation of Praetorius's settings for only a small number of voices and a plainchant performance of others. In Praetorius's music the basso continuo is usually optional, which documents that this practice was still very new in his time. Two of the collections of Musae Sioniae include bicinia with a basso continuo, and in Volume VIII Praetorius states that he wanted to add and publish a basso continuo to all bincinia. Lastly, elements of the monodic style can be found across his oeuvre in passages for a few voices, as is the case in the programme on his disc.

Praetorius was educated as an organist and also occupied such a position. However, no organ pieces from his pen were published separately, which is not surprising: organ music was seldom printed in a time that organists were expected to improvise. However, several collections of vocal music include organ works. Musae Sioniae VII closes with four hymn arrangements, which in the index have the addition "Pro Organicis: sine textu". They are printed in parts and from those the organist has to create his score. We get here Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Volume IX consists of bicinia and tricinia, and in the preface Praetorius suggests that the duos may be performed on two keyboards of the organ. That is what happens here: the programme opens with the bicinium Vater unser im Himmelreich, performed by Lisa Bork at the organ of the St. Marien-Kirche Lemgo.

This organ was built in the early 17th century by the organ dynasty Scherer and reconstructed in modern times. It substantially contributes to the 'authenticity' of this recording, as does the use of a regal, suggested by Praetorius himself. As I wrote, most recordings of music by Praetorius approach his oeuvre from the perspective of larger churches and chapels, and that includes the recent recording by the RIAS Kammerchor and the Capella de la Torre. This disc is a most useful addition to the discography, as here we get his music from the perspective of smaller institutions. It can easily hold its ground in smaller line-ups. The organ works come off splendidly at this organ, and Lisa Bork is a fine performer. Only now and then I would have preferred a clearer articulation. The vocal items are given outstanding performances by the ensemble, which comprises fine voices that blend nicely and have the flexibility this music requires. The contributions of the instrumentalists match the vocal performances in every way.

This disc offers a glimpse of the high quality of Praetorius's oeuvre, in which there is still much to discover.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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