musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Gregor Joseph WERNER (1693-1766): Requiem

Magdalene Harer, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass
Voktett Hannover; la festa musicale
Dir: Lajos Rovatkay

rec: Jan 21 - 24, 2022, Hanover, Neustädter Hof- und Stadtkirche St. Johannis
Audite - 97.808 (© 2022) (57'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D*
(*the digital booklet includes only English liner-notes and omits the lyrics)
Cover, track-list & booklet

Absalon (III,3) (introductio); Der verlorene Sohn (III,6) (introductio); Ecce vidimus eium (Eisenstadt); In monte Oliveti (Eisenstadt); Job (III,7); Miserere mei Deus (III,264); Requiem in c minor (III,37); Sonatina in g minor (III,272)

[VH] Esther Tschimpke, Felicia Nölke, soprano; Lea Wolpert, Susanne Veeh, , contralto; Steffen Kruse, Justus Barleben, tenor; Sebastian Knappe, Steffen Schulte, bass
[lfm] Alexander Brungert, Cas Gevers, trombone; Anne Marie Harer, Jörn-Sebastian Kuhlmann, Alexandra Wiedner, Daniela Gubatz, Hannah Visser, Adam Lord, violin; Maria Pache, Karoline Stemberg, viola; Christoph Harer, cello; Niklas Sprenger, double bass; Daniel Trumbull, organ

This is the second disc in a project which aims at presenting a survey of the oeuvre of Gregor Joseph Werner. To date he is little more than a footnote in history, as he was Haydn's predecessor as Kapellmeister to the Esterhazy family. The recordings that I have heard recently show that he should be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. Haydn certainly did that, as he published a set of six fugues for string quartet by Werner at the last stage of his life, a clear token of appreciation for his predecessor.

Werner was born in Ybbs an der Donau, and started his career as an organist at Melk Abbey. He married in Vienna, where, according to the traditional view, he may have been a pupil of Johann Joseph Fux. However, Lajos Rovatkay believes there are good reasons to assume that it was rather Antonio Caldara who was his teacher. In 1728 he was appointed Kapellmeister at Esterházy. Just like German aristocrats of the late 17th century were impressed by the splendour of the French court under Louis XIV and aimed at imitating that at their own courts, their peers of the mid-18th century wanted to imitate the splendour of the imperial court in Vienna. Werner was selected with the purpose of creating something similar in Esterházy. Part of his duties was the composition of oratorios to be performed during Holy Week. Werner wrote eighteen such oratorios on German texts, which are largely unknown.

In 2020 Accent released a recording of Der gute Hirt, and in 2021 Christopher Rousset performed Job. It is to be hoped that the latter is going to be released on disc, and that more of Werner's oratorios will be performed and recorded. The three introductions included here are very promising. They consist of two movements: the first is slow, the second a fugal movement in fast tempo. This was a common form in Werner's time (we also know such pieces by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Johann Adolf Hasse) and there can be little doubt that it had its origin in the Corellian trio sonata, which also opened with a slow movement, followed by a fugue. In the introductions to his Holy Week oratorios Werner makes extensive use of harmonic means for expressive reasons, which very much suits the occasion. Interestingly, the six pieces that Haydn published in a setting for string quartet are based on such introductions. For a long time it was not known where Haydn had got them, and it was even suggested that he had written the slow introductions himself. Their true origin was discovered in the 1960s. Here we get performances in Werner's own scoring for two violins, viola and basso continuo.

Three of the vocal items in the programme are also intended for Holy Week. In monte Oliveti (lyrics) is the first of the nine responsories for Matins of Maundy Thursday. It is a setting of great intensity, again due to the use of harmony and a careful setting of the words. Werner's mastery of counterpoint, which he demonstrates in the oratorio introductions, comes to the fore here as well. This piece includes a fugal setting of the closing words (caro autem infirma). The second responsory, Ecce vidimus eium (lyrics), the third for Matins of Maundy Thursday, is of the same character, and also includes a fugal section.

Miserere mei Deus is one of the seven penitential psalms, traditionally sung during Holy Week. The Miserere is one of the most frequently-set, and one of the most famous is the setting by Gregorio Allegri, which was Werner's inspiration for his setting, as the title indicates (*). It is a homophonic alternatim composition; the even verses are sung on one note by the bass. This work, and the two responsories, are written in the stile antico, which was still in use in Werner's time, and also frequently used by Italian composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in particular in Rome, as the Church did not appreciate the modern concertato style, which was associated with opera. However, like his Italian colleagues, Werner did include the expressive devices of his time. His music may be written in a style associated with Palestrina, but in the realm of expression his music moves from his illustrious colleague of the late 16th century.

The Sonatina in g minor seems to have no specific connection to Holy Week; it is one of fifteen such pieces by Werner, written in the style of the church sonatas which were in vogue in Vienna. In its texture it is comparable with the oratorio introductions: a larghetto is followed by a fugue, marked vivace. Because of its harmonic language it perfectly fits in this programme. The opening movement includes a descending chromatic line, whereas the second has a number of Seufzer of two notes.

The largest work is the Requiem in c minor, the latest of three settings; it dates from 1763. Its text includes some elements of the Office for the Dead, but on the other hand omits some parts of the traditional Requiem text. The scoring - four voices (solo and tutti) and an instrumental ensemble - is notable for the inclusion of two trombones, which play a substantial part. As one may expect, they have a prominent role in the Dies irae, but elsewhere they also clearly manifest themselves. The key of C minor and Werner's effective use of harmony result in a work of great intensity and expression. It seems to me that this setting deserves its rightful place alongside better-known Requiem masses, such as those by Biber, Gilles and Mozart, to mention just a few. I hope that the other two Requiems will also be available on disc some time in the near future.

Recently I reviewed the first disc in this project and I was quite impressed by Werner's music and by the performances. My impressions are fully confirmed here. If one wants to convince an audience that a little-known composer deserves to be better known, one needs top-class performances. And that is exactly what we get here. The four soloists are excellent, as one can hear especially in the Requiem. Voktett Hannover, a vocal ensemble of eight voices, and la feste musicale also deliver outstanding performances.

I am looking forward to further recordings of music by Werner, a composer who to date is seriously underrated. That should change, and if these performances don't convince music lovers and performers that he deserves more attention, nothing will.

(*) Miserere mei Deus, da cantare al Sabbato Sancto per il Matutino a 4 voci in Contrapuncto Semplice alla imitatione Romana del Signore Gregorio Laeti Italiano del Gregorio Werner del Anno 1764 (Laeti is Werner's latinization of Allegri's surname).

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Markus Flaig
Magdalene Harer
Voktett Hannover
la festa musicale

CD Reviews