musica Dei donum

CD reviews


Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble
Dir: Pablo Heras-Casado

rec: March 2014, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk, Kammermusiksaal
Archiv - 479 4522 (© 2015) (71'49")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Michael Praetorius

Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Magnificat 4. toni a 8 [6]; O quam pulchra es a 6 [7]; Quam pulchra es, amica mea a 8 [5]; Surge, propera amica mea a 8 [1]; Tota pulchra es a 12 [5]; Vulnerasti cor meum a 5 [7]; Jacob PRAETORIUS (jr) (1586-1651): Indica mihi a 6; Quam pulchra es a 5; Veni in hortum meum a 8 [2]; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Magnificat per omnes versus super ut re mi fa sol la a 8 [4]; Nigra sum sed formosa a 6 [4]

Sources: Hieronymus Praetorius, [1] Cantiones sacrae de festis praecipuis totius anni, 1599, [2] 16072; Michael Praetorius, [3] Musarum Sioniarum motectae et psalmi latini, 1607; [4] Megalynodia Sionia, 1611; Hieronymus Praetorius, [5] Cantiones variae, 1618 [6] Canticum Beatae Mariae Virginis seu Magnificat, 1622; [7] Cantiones novae officiosae, 16252

Cécile Kempenaers, Julia von Landsberg, Stephanie Petir-Laurent, Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, Julie Comparini, contralto; Beat Duddeck-Radons, Mirko Ludwig, alto; Bernd Oliver Fröhlich, Nils Giebelhausen, Henning Kaiser, Markus Schuck, Manuel Warwitz, tenor; Ulfried Staber, Andreas Werner, Hans Wijers, Dominik Wörner, bass
Rodrigo Calveyra, Matthijs Lunenburg, cornett; Henning Wiegräbe, Cas Gevers, Ralf Müller, sackbut; Monika Fischaleck, dulcian; Verena Sommer, Anna Mekonyan, violin; Brigitte Gasser, Frauke Hess, Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller, violone; Lee Santana, theorbo; Jürgen Banholzer, Michael Behringer, organ

From early on in his career Pablo Heras-Casado was interested in Protestant sacred music from the period before Bach, "an important period in European musical history. (...) For me, to record these pieces with the Balthasar-Neumann-Chor und -Ensemble is a dream come true". For this recording he has chosen mainly motets on texts from the Song of Songs, together with two settings of the Magnificat.

The three composers represented here all share the name of Praetorius; hence the disc's title. This was a very common name - the Latin version of Schul(t)z(e) - and there are various composers with that name. However, not all of them are related. Michael Praetorius is the composer of vocal music who was born near Eisenach and worked in Frankfurt an der Oder and then in Wolfenbüttel where he also died. In the meantime he also active in other places, such as Kassel and Dresden. At the Dresden court he substituted for the ageing Kapellmeister Rogier Michael. The best-known part of his oeuvre is his collection of dances, Terpsichore; these are mostly arrangements of dances written by other composers. Also famous is his treatise Syntagma Musicum which is a major source of information about performance practice and the then common instruments. His vocal output is exclusively sacred; the Lutheran chorales play a major role in his oeuvre. Some of his publications also have a kind of didactic character, for instance the collections with music for children's voices.

Hieronymus and Jacob Praetorius are not related to Michael. They are from a dynasty of organists who belong to the most important representatives of the north-German organ school. Hieronymus' father, Jacob (senior), was from Magdeburg and moved to Hamburg after converting to the Protestant faith. From 1554 until his death in 1586 he acted as assistant organist and then as first organist at the Jacobikirche. After his death that position was taken by Hieronymus who received his first lessons from his father. Having studied with other organists in Hamburg and in Cologne he became organist at Erfurt in 1580. Two years later he returned to Hamburg where he became assistant to his father. Although today he is mainly known as a composer of organ music relatively few organ works from his pen have come down to us. The largest part of his extant oeuvre comprises sacred vocal music. This includes works in the Venetian polychoral style. According to the Organistenchronik, an important history of German music and especially organists, by Johann Kortkamp (1643-1721) Praetorius' masses and motets were highly rated: "When the Pope in Rome heard them, the Cardinals said that it was a pity that the man is a heretic, a Lutheran".

Jacob (junior) was Hieronymus's second son and one may assume that he received his first organ lessons from his father. He then went to Amsterdam to study with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, one of the first organists from north Germany to do so. Sweelinck must have held him in high esteem: in 1608 he composed a motet for Praetorius' wedding. From 1603 until his death he was organist of the St Petrikirche in Hamburg. He was a sought-after teacher; one of his most famous pupils was Matthias Weckmann. He also composed vocal music which is even less known than his father's. Therefore this disc is of major importance in regard to repertoire.

All the pieces are in Latin. In the case of the Magnificat settings this can be explained from the fact that Latin still played a considerable role in the liturgy in Lutheran Germany. As far as the motets on texts from the Song of Songs are concerned, these pieces are not intended for liturgical use. In most cases they are occasional compositions written for weddings, such as Indica mihi, which was Jacob Praetorius' wedding present for his daughter who in 1635 married the Danish organist Johann Lorentz.

The Songs of Songs have been a major source of inspiration for composers in the 16th and 17th centuries. A famous example is the book with motets on such texts by Palestrina. In the seconda prattica the expressive features of these texts were thoroughly explored. Here one can think of Monteverdi's settings of Nigra sum and Pulchra es in his Vespro della Beata Vergine. Often such compositions by Italian composers are very close to the secular madrigal, especially in regard to word painting and the depiction of the emotions of the protagonists in this book from the Old Testament. The fact that traditionally these texts were interpreted allegorically - a description of the love between Christ and his church or between the believer and the Virgin Mary - did not make any difference in this respect. If we compare these Song of Songs motets by German composers with Italian settings, the former are more restrained. There is certainly some text expression but they have a more intimate and introverted character than Italian settings which often have traces of ecstasy.

It is remarkable that a number of settings are for eight voices. These attest to the influence of the cori spezzati technique which was one of the hallmarks of Venetian music of the decades around 1600. Michael Praetorius often made use of this technique, for instance in his Magnificat included here. It is a large-scale setting in which he uses the polychorality mainly for reasons of opulence rather than to explore its expressive possibilities. Notable are the lively figures on "et exaltavit" (exalted [the lowly]) and the dance-like doxology, especially the last lines (As it was in the beginning). In comparison Hieronymus' setting is very different. That is partly due to the fact that it is an alternatim composition: the verses are alternately sung polyphonically and in plainchant. But here we find a passage in which the composer uses the juxtaposition of the two choirs to depict the text: the fast repetition of the word "dispersit" (scattered) alternating between the two choirs has a strongly dramatic effect.

Also set for two choirs is his motet Quam pulchra es, amica mea. It doesn't prevent him from creating a highly sensitive and intimate setting. One wonders whether such pieces - not intended for liturgical use - should be performed with one voice per part as is the case in Jacob Praetorius' Indica mihi which is for six voices and bc. But here we also find the traces of the cori spezzati technique. Although the text doesn't include a dialogue - there is only one protagonist (the bridegroom) - Jacob Praetorius has split the ensemble into high and low voices which sing the opening verses in alternation and then join on "O quam tu pulchra es". Vulnerasti cor meum by Hieronymus is also performed with solo voices. But Jacob's motet Quam pulchra es is sung with the full ensemble. It is a token of the quality of this ensemble and Pablo Heras-Casado's understanding of this repertoire that it receives a very sensitive interpretation which does full justice to its character. Even so, I would have preferred a one-to-a-part performance of these pieces, and that also goes for Hieronymus' O quam pulchra es for six voices which closes the programme. Some short statements are intended for solo voices and are sung that way here but otherwise the parts are performed by the full ensemble. This creates a kind of contrast and I am not sure that this was intended by the composer.

Hieronymus' setting of Tota pulchra es is remarkable in that it is for 12 voices divided over three choirs. Here the polychorality is used to emphasize the text. The first lines - "all fair you are, my beloved, there is no fault in you" - is sung successively by the three choirs which has a cumulative effect. Very eloquent is also the repetition of the words "propera" (make haste) and "veni" (come) which emphasize the urgency of these appeals.

This disc includes music which is hardly known and settings of texts which one wouldn't immediately expect from Lutheran composers of the early 17th century. Jacob Praetorius' vocal music is hardly available on disc and that also goes for Hieronymus. In the latter's case I would like to mention the discs 'Vesper On St. Michaels Day' and 'San Marco in Hamburg' by Weser-Renaissance (CPO, 2000/2008). The performances of The Cardinall's Musick ('Magnificats & Motets' - Hyperion, 2008) are disappointing and too much from the angle of the stile antico. The participation of instruments playing colla voce in the present recording is certainly closer to the historical 'truth' than an a cappella performance like those of The Cardinall's Musick. But its main value is that the texts and the affects they aim to express are given full attention, not only through a good delivery but also through articulation, dynamic shading and colouring of voices and instruments.

In short, this is a disc to treasure.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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