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"German Cantatas with Solo Violin"

Andrea Hill, mezzo-sopranoa; Jorge Navarro Colorado, tenorb; Nahuel Di Pierroc, Christopher Purvesd, bass
Ensemble Diderot
Dir: Johannes Pramsohler

rec: March 20 - 26, 2017, Fontevraud, Abbaye Royale (refectory)
Audax Records - ADX 13715 (© 2018) (77'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/JP; lyrics - translations: E/(D)/F
Cover, track-list & booklet*

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätteaefhi; Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbranntcefhi; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Laetatus sumcdefghi; Nisi Dominuschi; Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Mein Herz ist bereitchi; Daniel EBERLIN (1647-c1715): Ich will in aller Notb; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so vielcehi; Christ ist erstandenahi

Johannes Pramsohler, violin, violino piccolo; Roldán Bernabée, Joël Oechslinf, Isabel Juárezg, viola; Gulrim Choi, celloh; François Leyrit, double bassi; Philippe Grisvard, organ

One of the features of the new style which emerged in Italy around 1600 was instrumental virtuosity. Composers started to write technically demanding pieces for instruments in general, or for particular instruments, such as the cornett and the violin. Whereas the former lost its prominence in the course of the 17th century, the violin developed into one of the main instruments in Western music, a position it has held until our own time. It was especially in the German-speaking world that the possibilities of the violin were enthusiastically explored. It resulted in the birth of a violin school which had a unique position in Europe. In Germany, Austria and Bohemia large amounts of virtuosic violin music were written. The likes of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Johann Paul von Westhoff and Johann Georg Pisendel are associated with this school.

The violin was not only the subject of solo music, it also played a major role in vocal music. The latter is the subject of the present disc. Nowhere else in Europe were sacred concertos written with such brilliant violin parts as in Germany and Austria. The violin's role is much more than just accompaniment: it is hardly less important than the voice and sometimes seems to be even the main part in a piece. These violin parts were more than an opportunity to explore the technical skills of the player. They were instrumental in the expression of the content of a sacred concerto. Johannes Pramsohler, in his liner-notes, explains the role of the violin in the pieces he selected for this recording.

Interestingly, Eisenach plays a key role in the programme. Daniel Eberlin, the least-known composer in the programme, was in the service of the court there as Kapellmeister for several periods. From time to time he moved to other places, probably partly due to conflicts with his colleagues, as he seems to have been a rather difficult character. During the 1670s and 1680s he came into contact and cooperated with some other musicians in Eisenach. From May 1677 to May 1678 Johann Pachelbel was court organist. During that year he became acquainted with the Bach dynasty. Johann Ambrosius, Johann Sebastian's father, was the director of the town waits, and a violinist, like Eberlin. Johann Christoph Bach was the court's harpsichordist and also the organist of the Georgenkirche.

He is the composer of what are probably the best-known pieces in the programme. Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt and Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte are two lamentos, a particularly popular genre in the 17th century, and often part of operas. It was also used in sacred music, and these two pieces are among the most expressive sacred concertos of German 17th-century music. Johann Sebastian admired Johann Christoph, calling him a 'profound' composer, and these lamentos attest to that. The scoring of the former lamento is for bass, with an ensemble of violin, two viole da gamba and bc, that of the latter for alto, three violas and bc. In the former piece the viola da gamba parts are performed on violas. In German 17th-century music viola and viola da gamba are often interchangeable. Both pieces include a virtuosic part for the violin which strongly contributes to the expression of the respective pieces.

Johann Pachelbel is known in the first place as an organist and composer of keyboard music. In particular his chorale partitas and some arias from his collection Hexachordum Apollinis are part of the standard repertoire of today's keyboard players. And many ensembles, even from before the time of historical performance practice, have played his Canon and gigue, one of the very few instrumental works in his oeuvre. Much larger is the vocal part of his output, which has received little attention to date. Therefore the inclusion of two of his sacred concertos is most welcome. In particular in Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel, a setting of Psalm 3, in which King David laments about the revolt of his son Absalom, the violin takes a major part in the expression of the text.

Today Daniel Eberlin is a largely unknown quantity, but he was a highly virtuosic violinist, undoubtedly on an equal footing with Biber. The violin part in Ich will in aller Not includes passages with double stopping and florid written-out ornamentation. It is likely that he wrote the violin part for himself. That probably also goes for the violin part in Nicolaus Bruhns's sacred concerto Mein Herz ist bereit. He learnt to play the organ as well as string instruments and developed into a virtuoso on the violin and on the organ. The German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson reported that Bruhns sometimes played both instruments at the same time: while playing the violin he realized the basso continuo part on the pedal of the organ. The violin part in this concerto is technically demanding, and includes double stopping and virtuosic figurations.

It is comparable with Biber's concerto Nisi Dominus, which opens this disc. Here the vocal and the violin parts are equally important. The violin eloquently depicts elements in the text. Those who are familiar with Biber's Mystery sonatas will know what to expect. The concerto Laetatus sum closes the programme. It is for two basses, who are accompanied by violin, three violas and basso continuo. Although this piece is scored for seven voices and the violin is part of an ensemble, it still plays a major role. This is Biber, after all, and there can be little doubt that he intended this part again for himself.

It is crystal clear that this disc is intended to demonstrate the violin in its expressive qualities. It played a marked role in vocal music written in 17th-century Germany, Austria and Bohemia. Johannes Pramsohler is the right person to bring this music to life, and one can only admire his playing, not only technically, but also with regard to interpretation and text illustration. That makes it all the more regrettable that the vocal contributions are largely unconvincing and disappointing.

Neither of the singers is from Germany, and as far as I know they have little experience in this kind of repertoire. That shows: their interpretations are not idiomatic, and I even wonder whether they really understand the texts of the pieces they sing. Andrea Hill not only performs Pachelbel's soprano cantata Christ ist erstanden, but also Johann Christoph Bach's lamento Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte. The tessitura is hardly a problem, but I would have preferred the darker colours of a real alto here (**). Her singing is rather unbearable, due to her wide and incessant vibrato. Jorge Navarro Colorado is alright in Eberlin's cantata, but falls short on expression. Most of the vocal parts are sung by Nahuel Di Pierro, and his contributions are very disappointing. His slight vibrato is the lesser problem. Much more serious is a lack of text expression. There are so many passages where a singer has to do something with the text. But that is only possible if you really understand what it is about and how the composer intended to express that in his music. Di Pierro largely ignores these indications. His singing is too much legato and not very declamatory, and there is little differentiation between good and bad notes. This music needs to be performed in a really speechlike manner, but Di Pierro's performance is far away from that. There are quite some singers who really know how to perform this kind of repertoire, such as Klaus Mertens, Harry van der Kamp or Peter Kooij, to mention just a few.

As much as I admire Pramsohler's playing, the lack of expression in the vocal parts make it hard to really commend this disc. It is largely a missed opportunity.

(*) In the digital booklet the lyrics are omitted
(**) The booklet calls her a soprano, the digital booklet a mezzo-soprano; the latter seems correct

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Andrea Hill
Jorge Navarro Colorado
Christopher Purves
Johannes Pramsohler
Ensemble Diderot

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