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‘Sacred Music at the Munich Court’

Constanze Backes, Priska Eser-Streit, soprano; Susanne Otto, contralto; Hermann Oswald, Christian Zenker, tenor; Thomas Hamberger, Joel Frederiksen, bass
orpheus chor münchen; Neue Hofkapelle München
Dir: Gerd Guglhör

rec: Dec 15 - 16, 2002, Munich, Markuskirche
Arte Nova - 74321 98493 2 (70'06")

Johann Caspar Kerll: Gaudete pastores; Missa Superba; Regina caeli laetare; Rupert Ignaz Mayr: Confitebor tibi Domine; Jubilate Deo; Salve Regina; 'Vesper for the Blessed Virgin Mary' (Deus in adiutorium; Dixit Dominus; Laudate pueri Dominum; Laetatus sum; Nisi Dominus; Lauda Jerusalem; Magnificat)

The two composers whose works are recorded here both worked at the court chapel in Munich. This chapel was famous throughout Europe in the second half of the 16th century, when Orlandus Lassus was Hofkapellmeister. After his death, in 1594, the status of the chapel deteriorated. It was Johann Caspar Kerll, Hofkapellmeister from 1656 - 1673, who revived the chapel. He was educated as an organist, and went to Rome to study with Carissimi and Frescobaldi. He developed into one of the main composers of organ music in Germany, whose works were closely studied by Bach and Handel. In his vocal music he introduced the new concertato style in Munich, but made use of the ‘old-fashioned’ polychoral style – invented and developed in Venice - as well. Both elements are present in the Missa Superba, written for two vocal and instrumental choirs.

Rupert Ignaz Mayr was educated as a violinist, and started his career at the Prince-Bishop's court in Freising. He came to the court in Munich in 1683, and was sent to Paris by the then Elector Max Emanuel. There he met Lully, who strongly influenced his writing for the violin. In 1685 he was appointed composer and ‘First Violinist and Musician of the Chamber’ in Munich. In 1706 he returned to Freising to become Hofkapellmeister at the court. In his music Mayr attempts to unite the French and Italian styles. The motet Jubilate Deo, with which this CD starts, clearly reflects the influence of the French style. The Salve Regina, on the other hand, is a late baroque motet in Italian style, with the music closely following the text.

This is just very fine music, which is representative of the kind of music written in the second half of the 17th century - a period which is not getting the attention it deserves. And whereas Kerll's vocal works have been recorded before, as far as I can remember it is the first time I have heard any vocal music by Mayr. Therefore we should be thankful for this recording.

The performance is stylish: period instruments are used, played with competence by the Neue Hofkapelle München, among whose members are players who have also played with ensembles like Musica antiqua Köln. Apart from some technical insecurities here and there, the singers give very good performances as well. And the choir makes a good impression too.

But: I am somewhat disappointed by this recording. The main reason is that the concept of the performances seems to be wrong to me. The music here is considered to be written for soloists, choir and orchestra. I believe that the music clearly indicates a performance by a vocal and instrumental ensemble. There are no long soli here, just relatively short passages for solo voices, which are clearly meant to be sung by members of the ensemble. Since the choir is relatively large - that is how it sounds; nothing is said about the number of singers - the transition between soli and tutti is unnatural. And the balance between choir and instruments is anything but ideal. The choir, despite all its obvious qualities, also lacks the flexibility to deal with some sudden shifts in rhythm.

There are other things which are questionable. The order of pieces on this recording puzzles me. Why does the CD start with Mayr, who is the youngest of the two? The Vesper psalms by Mayr are put together like a Vesper for the Blessed Virgin Mary - fine, but why is it interrupted by a setting of the Salve Regina and the Psalm Confitebor tibi Domine, which have nothing to do with the Vespers? But one could argue that it doesn't matter that much, since these are not a 'real' Vespers anyway: the antiphons which precede and follow every part of the Vespers are lacking here. And why is the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts used?

Gerd Guglhör has written the informative liner notes. Unfortunately the person who translated them into English seems not quite to understand what he is dealing with: the first piece of the CD, Jubilate Deo by Mayr, is described in the English version as "the opening section", wrongly suggesting that this is the first part of the Vespers.

To sum up: an interesting recording, sympathetically performed, but showing some basic misunderstandings regarding the performance practice of sacred music in the 17th century.

N.B. This review first appeared on MusicWeb

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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