musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Michael PRAETORIUS (1571/72 - 1621): Chorale Concertos

[I] "Erhalt uns Herr bey deinem Wort - Lutheran Choral Concerts"
Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes
rec: Feb 1 - 3, 2016, Bassum, Stiftskirche St. Mauritius und St. Viktor
CPO - 555 064-2 (© 2017) (74'04")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein a 20 [4]; Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort a 17 [4]; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin a 13 [4]; Nun freut euch lieben Christen gmein a 2, 4 & 12 [2,4]; Veni Sancte Spiritus: Halleluia, Komm heiliger Geist a 11 [4]; Vater unser im Himmelreich a 18 [4]

Monika Mauch, Manja Stephan, Marie Luise Werneburg, soprano; David Erler, Alex Potter, alto; Nils Giebelhausen, Mirko Ludwig, Georg Poplutz, tenor; Ulfried Staber, Dominik Wörner, bass
Annette John, Simone Nill, Tanja Ofterdinger, recorder; Gebhard David, cornett; Tural Ismayilov, Simen Van Mechelen, Detlef Reimers, sackbut; Eva-Maria Horn, dulcian; Veronika Skuplik, violin; Katharina Holzhey, Ekaterina Kuzminykh, Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Margit Schultheiß, harp, organ; Detlef Bratschke, organ, regal

[II] "Gloria sei dir gesungen - Choral concerts"
Gli Scarlattisti
Dir: Jochen M. Arnold
rec: Sept 27 - 30, 2016, Reutlingen-Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.482 (© 2017) (71'41")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir [1]; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott [4]; Halleluja. Christ ist erstanden [4]; Komm heiliger Geist [5]; Magnificat deutsch (Meine Seel erhebt den Herren) [5]; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin [4]; Nun freut euch lieben Christen gmein [4]; Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren [4]; Teutsch Et in terra (Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr) [4]; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [4]; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme [4]; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [3,4]

Anja Bittner, Iris-Anna Deckert, Susan Eitrich, Konstanze Fladt, Patricia Grasse, Melanie Thamm-Beck, soprano; Tabea Fischle, Juliane Gaube, Gudrun Köllner, contralto; Beat Duddeck, Jan Hermann, Thomas Nauwartat-Schulze, alto; Christoph Claßen, Nils Giebelhausen, Karsten Krüger, Tobias Meyer, Dietrich Wrase, tenor; Jan-Christoph Bädeker, Matthias Begemann, Jens Hamann, Willie Pirzer, bass
Silke Gwendolyn Schulze, recorder, dulcian; Friederike Otto, Thomas Friedlaender, cornett; Max Eisenhut, Christine Brand, Bastian Greschek, sackbut; Alfia Bakieva, Felix Vérry, violin; Laura Frey, Franziska Finckh, Ulrike Klamp, viola da gamba; Thorsten Bleich, lute, theorbo; Stephan Leuthold, organ

Sources: [1] Musae Sioniae ... erster Theil, 1605; [2] Musae Sioniae ... siebender Theil, 1609; [3] Musae Sioniae ... neundter Theil, 1610; [4] Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, 1619; [5] Puericinium ... darinnen 14 teutsche Kirchenlieder und andere Concert-Gesänge, 1621


In his time Heinrich Schütz was generally considered the father of German music. That label was certainly justified. However, it is remarkable that the Lutheran hymn, one of the dominant factors in the music of Protestant Germany, plays a relatively minor role in his oeuvre. This is not the place to speculate about the reasons for that. The present discs focus on a composer whom Schütz knew well: Michael Preatorius, who from 1613 to 1616 worked at the court in Dresden. Few composers have done so much for the dissemination of the Lutheran hymn as Praetorius. He was also one of the main promotors of the Italian style in Germany.

Praetorius was born in Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, where his father, also called Michael, who had studied with Martin Luther, worked as a pastor. As he did belong to the strict Lutherans he regularly lost his job and had to move. Two years after his son's birth he had to move again, this time to Torgau. Here Praetorius senior became a colleague of Johann Walter, one of the main composers of hymns, at the Lateinschule. His successor, Michael Voigt, was Michael junior's first musical teacher. He matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1582, where he became acquainted with Bartolomäus Gesius, another composer of hymns. In 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel as organist. In 1604 he was appointed Kapellmeister. When his employer died his successor allowed him to work elsewhere for some time. He worked in Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle, Sondershausen and Kassel, and he visited Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth. It is probably due to overwork that his health deteriorated, which led to his death at the age of 49. His high reputation is reflected by the fortune he left, which was largely to be used to set up a foundation for the poor.

Praetorius was one of the first who embraced the Italian style. In the third part of his Syntagma Musicum, a kind of encyclopedia of instruments and compositional styles, he shows a thorough knowledge of Italian music. In his own compositions he mixed the German contrapuntal tradition with the Venetian polychoral style, and in his latest collections he incorporated the stile nuovo, with its monodic vocal writing and instrumental virtuosity. By applying these elements in his settings of hymns he played a crucial role in the introduction of the Italian style in music for the church. He also showed that hymns were not something of the past, but part of an ongoing tradition, and could be adapted to the latest trends.

With the exception of Terpsichore, a collection of dance music, Praetorius only composed sacred vocal music. No fewer than 22 editions came from the press between 1605 and 1621. Nearly all of them are arrangements of Lutheran hymns. The scoring varies from simple harmonisations to polychoral concertos for voices and instruments. One of the editions, called Puericinium, includes pieces especially written for boys' voices. Obviously at that time sacred music was never intended to be sung by women. The specific reference to boys' voices indicates that this collection had an educational purpose and was to be used in schools. Komm, heiliger Geist is taken from this collection. These pieces are relatively simple and not technically demanding. That is very different in some of the larger scored concertos, which dominate the present discs.

Most of the hymns included in the programmes are from Luther's own pen, at least as far as the lyrics are concerned. Often he adapted traditional melodies to his texts, but sometimes he wrote a melody of his own. One of them is Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein. It exists in two versions. The hymn dates from 1523 and received a different melody in 1529. Weser-Renaissance offers two different arrangements of the first melody. The stanzas 1, 2 and 8 to 10 are sung in a version for twelve voices, stanza 5 is performed in a setting for two sopranos and bc. The remaining stanzas (3, 4, 6 and 7) are included here in four-part harmonisations. The latter were certainly intended in the first place for use in schools. Gli Scarlattisti includes arrangements of both melodies. Stanzas 1 and 5 are sung to the melody of 1523, the stanzas 6 to 10 in the version of 1529. The latter was mostly used by composers of the 17th and 18th centuries.

These hymn arrangements show some similarity to the chorale variations by representatives of the North German organ school, which was also under the influence of the Italian style. The chorale is varied both in melody and in rhythm. We find here the same kind of embellishments - but then adapted to the human voice - as in these organ works. The fact that a hymn melody is the same for different texts, reduces the possibility of text expression; that was not common in the 16th century anyway. But in his arrangements a composer can single out some words or phrases with musical means. An impressive example is the large-scale concerto for 18 voices Vater unser im Himmelreich, Luther's versification of the Lord's Prayer. Praetorius has arranged all eight stanzas, divided into four pairs; every pair is followed by Luther's extended version of the "Amen" as a ritornello: "Amen! that is: So let it be! Strengthen our faith and trust in thee. (...) We say Amen, now hear us, Lord!" This concerto offers a sampling of the means a composer of that time had at his disposal, and Praetorius uses them brilliantly. The phrase "mit Harfen und mit Zimbeln schon" (with harps and cymbals) in the third stanza from Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is vividly illustrated in the music. In the Magnificat deutsch (Meine Seel erhebt den Herren) the first words of the phrase "und lässt die Reichen leer" (and the rich he hath sent empty away) are sung by the tutti; after a short pause the word "leer" (empty) is then sung by a bass on a low note. This passage is sung twice, another way to emphasize its importance.

Luther did not completely break away from tradition. He wanted to keep what was good, provided it was in line with his own doctrine. The piece which opens the CPO disc is a good example. Veni Sancte Spiritus: Halleluia, Komm heiliger Geist includes two melodies: the first, on the original Latin text, was strongly adapted to Luther's German translation. The inclusion of both melodies allows a direct comparison between the two.

The Book of Psalms took a central place in the Reformation. Luther rated it very highly, calling it a 'little Bible', a synopsis of the whole Bible. But whereas his colleague John Calvin preferred a versification of the Psalms - which resulted in the Huguenot Psalter, set polyphonically by, for instance, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck - Luther only paraphrased some of the Psalms. One of the most famous specimens is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, a paraphrase of Psalm 46 and often called the 'national hymn' of Lutheranism. Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein is a paraphrase of Psalm 12. As Carsten Niemann writes in his liner-notes to the CPO disc, it includes some clearly 'war-like' elements. It is about the threats from the side of the enemies of the true faith: "With frauds which they themselves invent thy truth they have confounded. (...) For this, saith God, I will arise, these wolves my flock are rending." Several stanzas include fanfare motifs. The hymn ends in a triumphant mood which is clearly illustrated in the music.

Luther also made versifications of the Canticles, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. The latter is represented by Mit Fried und Freud, a hymn in four stanzas, which Praetorius arranged to a sacred concerto in 13 parts. One of the performing forces is a so-called cappella, a group of ripienists which at certain moments comes in to support the solo voices. This was a wide-spread practice at the time in Germany, which was also frequently used by Heinrich Schütz. Originally intended for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, this hymn was often sung at the occasion of funerals. Despite its scoring Praetorius's setting has a certain intimacy, inspired by the text. The aspect of joy is emphasized here.

Various hymns by Luther are still sung today in churches across the globe, both in German and in translations. In some cases elements from the text are removed, because they are too closely connected to Luther's own time. That is certainly the case with Erhalt uns Herr bei deinem Wort. The first stanza says: "Preserve us, Lord, with your word, and control the murderous rage of the Pope and the Turks, who would want to cast down Jesus Christ, your son, from his throne." It has three melodies, because Praetorius set a version with the two stanzas added later to the original hymn by Luther from 1541: Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich (Grant us peace graciously) and its sequel Gib unsern Fürsten (Give our rulers and all lawgivers peace and good government). The version performed here is based on Johann Walter's publication of 1566.

In his later sacred music Praetorius gave instruments an increasingly prominent role. Whereas in earlier collections the instruments were ad libitum and could play colla voce, in the latest editions he included ritornellos for instruments. The booklet to the Carus disc is a little disappointing in that it mentions the scoring of the various pieces, but doesn't make it entirely clear which is the scoring indicated by Praetorius himself and which the line-up chosen by the interpreters. In Magnificat deutsch the opening episode - "Meine Seel erhebt den Herren, und mein Geistm freuet sich Gottes, meines Heilandes" - is used as a ritornello, repeated after every section. In one instance it is performed instrumentally, and I just wonder whether that is indicated by Praetorius. My guess is that this is the decision of Jochen Arnold.

These two discs deserve a wholehearted welcome. The programmes have been well put together. They are also different in various respects. Weser-Renaissance focuses on the more lavish part of Praetorius's output. The composer's oeuvre is so large and varied that one could easily put together a completely different programme, for instance with more straightforward and technically less challenging pieces. Specimens of the latter category are included in the programme which Gli Scarlattisti has recorded. The latter also perform arrangements of chorales written by other poets: their programme is embraced by two famous hymns from the pen of Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. These discs are impressive testimonies of Praetorius's brilliance as a composer of sacred music. They are also models of performances that bring out the emotions which Luther and his followers, among them Michael Praetorius himself, must have felt while writing and singing these hymns. The composer himself emphasized that it was the underlying theology which was his main motivation.

Considering the different programmes it doesn't make much sense to compare these two discs. I am especially impressed by the performances of Weser-Renaissance. Among all the discs which have been released as part of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation this is probably the best. This is the way German sacred music of around 1600 has to be performed. Gli Scarlattisti's performances are not entirely of the same level, but are still very good overall.

I have just one critical note to make: the translations in the booklets. Carus omits them completely, which is a shame. CPO does better, but unfortunately offers English paraphrases rather than exact word-for-word translations. That is very regrettable because of the connection between text and music. I advise to search for (more precise) translations at the internet.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Gli Scarlattisti
Weser-Renaissance Bremen

CD Reviews