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Johann KUHNAU (1660 - 1722): "Complete Sacred Works II"

Opella Musica; camerata lipsiensis
Dir: Gregor Meyer

rec: July 2013 & July 2015, Rötha, St. Georgen
CPO - 555 020-2 (© 2016) (67'24")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christ lag in Todesbanden; Gott, der Vater, wohn uns bei; Lobe den Herren, meine Seele [I]; Lobe den Herren, meine Seele [II]; Schmücket das Fest mit Maien

[OM] Heidi Maria Taubert, N.N., soprano; David Erler, alto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Friedemann Klos, bass
[cl] Friederike Otto, Sebastian Kuhn, Arno Paduch, François Petitlaurent, cornett; Kentaro Wada, Falko Munkwitz, Yosuke Kurihara, trombone; Kornelius Unckell, Christina Weewald, transverse flute; Norbert Kaschel, Markus Müller, oboe; Axel Andrae, György Farkas, bassoon; Friederike Lehnert, Birgit Schnurpfeil, Yumiko Tsubaki, violin; Caroline Kersten, Magdalena Schenk-Bader, viola; Ulrike Becker, cello; Tilman Schmidt, double bass; Stefan Maass, lute; Gregor Meyer, organ

Johann Kuhnau does not enjoy a very good reputation in our time. Mainly due to some of his writings, he is considered a rather conservative composer who resisted modern trends in church music, in particular the influence of Italian opera. However, a thorough examination of his oeuvre reveals that this assessment is not justified. The present disc is part of a project concerning the recording of his entire sacred music. What has been released to date shows a remarkable versatility in styles and composition techniques. When this project is finished, its effect may well be that the whole image of Kuhnau is turned upside down.

This versatility is partly due to the fact that Kuhnau lived and worked in a time of stylistic change. On the one hand, we find in his oeuvre the traces of the style of the 17th century, when the sacred concerto was the main form of church music. On the other hand, Kuhnau composed pieces which point in the direction of the cantata which takes such a dominant place in the oeuvre of the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Telemann. Kuhnau was not the only one, whose oeuvre attests to this change. His contemporary Johann Philipp Krieger is another one, and, like Kuhnau, he has not received the attention he deserves. It would be nice, if he would be the subject of a recording project after the Kuhnau project is finished.

Four of the pieces included in this second volume are part of the so-called Bokemeyer Sammlung, a collection of sacred music by German composers, put together by Georg Österreich (1664-1735), who from 1689 until his death worked as Kapellmeister at the court of the Dukes of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, and continued by his pupil Heinrich Bokemeyer, Kapellmeister in Wolfenbüttel. Most of them date from early in Kuhnau's career. The differences between the young and the elder Kuhnau can be demonstrated by comparing the two works based on Psalm 103, Lobe den Herren, meine Seele. The longest of the two opens the programme. Its scoring for five voices, five-part strings (with split violas) and five-part winds (two cornetts and three sackbuts) reminds us of the 17th century. It is a sacred concerto which begins with a sinfonia, followed by a chorus, which are both repeated at the end of the piece - another feature of 17th-century sacred concertos. It is one of the few pieces by Kuhnau which have been preserved in autograph. The other piece on this same Psalm is very different, and may well be one of his latest works. It has been preserved as a copy which mentions a performance in Grimma in 1722. It is scored for alto, bass, violin, oboe d'amore and basso continuo. The participation of an oboe d'amore suggests a late date of composition, as this was a relatively new instrument. In this work, Kuhnau makes use of the form of the recitative. It opens with a sonata and closes with an extended "Alleluja".

Christ lag in Todesbanden is also an early work, which takes Luther's Easter hymn as its starting point. It shows some similarity with Bach's cantata on the same hymn (BWV 4), but whereas Bach sets all the stanzas, Kuhnau selects only a few. It is scored for four voices, two cornetts, five-part strings and basso continuo. The piece opens with a sinfonia, followed by a section for two cornetts and basso continuo, in which the soprano sings the cantus firmus. In the next sections, the chorale melody is largely ignored. The soprano solo is followed by a chorus on the text "Alleluia, it is a victory!" Next are three solos for soprano, tenor and bass respectively, separated by ritornellos. The work ends with the last stanza, 'So feiern wir das hohe Fest'.

Another piece based on a hymn by Martin Luther is Gott der Vater wohn uns bei; the melody is from the pen of Johann Walter. The hymn comprises three stanzas which have exactly the same text, except the invocation: "Gott, der Vater", "Jesus Christus" and "Der Heilige Geist" respectively. In his cantata, Kuhnau has conflated them into a single stanza. It is scored for four voices, oboe, two violins, viola, bassoon and basso continuo. The work opens with a sonata, based on the chorale melody, which is played on a tromba da tirarsi. In the ensuing chorus, its place is taken by the oboe. This is a brilliant piece, in which Kuhnau makes use of the stile concitato, when the text refers to the devil and his schemes.

The disc ends with a cantata for Whitsuntide, Schmücket das Fest mit Maien, scored for four voices, two recorders, two oboes, four violins (two concertato and two ripieno), viola, bassoon and basso continuo, which may have been written in 1708. The libretto, as almost always in Kuhnau's cantatas from the pen of an unknown author, is quite original. It has the form of a wedding cantata, and the author uses images and quotations from the Song of Solomon - about the love of a man and a girl, according to tradition called Shulamit - to describe the descent of the Holy Ghost. The bridegroom represents God, whereas the bride plays the role of the congregation. These are sung by bass and soprano respectively, who take nearly all the solos - arias and recitatives plus one duet. The first solo is for tenor, and there are also some choruses. The cantata ends with a hymn, the third stanza of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (Philipp Nicolai, 1597), which has the form of a chorale arrangement.

This disc confirms the impressions of the two previous discs I reviewed here (Vols. I & III). Even those pieces which date from relative early stages of Kuhnau's career show a remarkable versatility in form and scoring. They are all very well written, and that makes this disc a quite compelling one. That is also due to the performances; I had slight reservations in the case of the previous volumes, but here the interpretations leave nothing to be desired. These are engaging performances which make a lasting impression. Both singers and ensemble are in top form here.

It is a shame that the booklet includes quite a number of errors and omissions. The first setting of Lobe den Herren meine Seele has two soprano parts, but the second soprano is not mentioned, neither is the player of the tromba da tirarsi in Gott der Vater wohn uns bei. In Schmücket das Fest mit Maien, the scoring mentions two violas, wheras it has just one viola part, and in the track-list the title of the opening chorus is wrong. Every disc, but especially an important project like this one, deserves a production whose quality reflects that of the music and the performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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