musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Georg Friedrich KAUFFMANN (1679 - 1735): "Rüstet euch, ihr Himmelschöre - Complete Sacred Works"

Isabel Schicketanz, Elisabeth Müksch, soprano; Britta Schwarz, contralto; Tobias Hunger, Christoph Pfaller, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass
Collegium Vocale Leipziga; Merseburger Hofmusik
Dir: Michael Schönheit

rec: May 17 - 21, 2021 & Jan 3, 2022, Merseburg, Stadtkirche
CPO - 555 365-2 (© 2023) (1.46'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Auf Christi Himmelfahrt (Rüstet euch, ihr Himmelschöre), oratorio; Die Liebe Gottes ist ausgegossen, cantata; Komm, du freudenvoller Geist, cantata; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen gib Ehre, cantata; O, ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen, cantata; Unverzagt, beklemmtes Herz, cantata

As I have noticed in several of my reviews, the amount of music written by German composers in the baroque era is remarkable, even more so if one takes into account that a considerable part of what was written, has been lost. The oeuvre of Georg Friedrich Kaufmann is a case in point. It is very likely that he was a prolific composer, as the writing of cantatas was part of his duties as Kapellmeister in Merseburg. However, only five cantatas and an oratorio have been preserved. Ann-Katrin Zimmermann, in her liner-notes, assumes that part of his output has felt victim to devastation and plundering at the end of World War II. It is known that several of Kauffmann's colleagues owned copies of his cantatas for performance in their own churches, such as in Halle and in Leipzig.

The latter city has played a substantial role in Kauffmann's career. When in 1722 the post of Thomaskantor fell vacant, Kauffmann was one of the contestants to succeed Johann Kuhnau, who had died that year. He was from Ostermondria in Thuringia, had been a pupil of Johann Heinrich Buttstett in Erfurt and of Johann Friedrich Alberti in Merseburg. The latter was organist at the court and the cathedral, but from 1698 Kauffmann took over his duties, when Alberti suffered a stroke. In 1710 Alberti died, and Kauffmann was appointed as his successor. However, the working conditions were not without problems, largely due to the behaviour of his employer, Duke Moritz Wilhelm. He often came into conflict with people around him, and Kauffmann became involved in them. That may well have encouraged him to look for an opportunity to leave. He requested to be a contestant for the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig, although he thought that Christoph Graupner was "better than himself". On the first Sunday of Advent, he presented one of his cantatas in Leipzig. The outcome of the contest is known: Johann Sebastian Bach was elected to succeed Kuhnau.

Kauffmann has remained unknown to the music world at large, with the exception of organists. At the end of his life he started the publication of a collection of keyboard arrangements of chorales; due to his death in 1735 it was in danger of not to be finished, but his widow took care of it, and this resulted in the Harmonische Seelenlust musikalischer Gönner und Freunde, printed between 1733 and 1736. It was not an immediate success, but after some years the value of the collection received increasing acknowledgement. The pieces included in the collection continued to be played well into the 19th century, and today organists still like to include them in their recitals.

The production under review here includes the complete sacred vocal works by Kauffmann. This may well be the first recording of any of them; I can't remember having ever heard one of these works. Two of the cantatas are for Whitsun, one for the feast of the Visitation, one for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, whereas the remaining cantata is not specifically connected to a Sun- or feastday.

The largest work is an oratorio for Ascension Day (not Pentecost, as the English translation of the liner-notes has it), a setting of a libretto by Johann Paul Kunzen. It is divided into two parts. In the first Jesus (bass) announces his ascension to heaven, which is followed by a dialogue with his disciples Thomas (tenor), Peter (tenor) and Philip (alto). In the second part he instructs them to "go out in all the world and teach". The three disciples of the first part are joined by James (tenor) and John (alto).

The work opens with an aria for bass, who acts as the vox Christi: "Prepare yourselves, you heavenly choirs and you brightly inflamed hosts, serve my majesty. Let the trumpets sound; jubilate, so that the skies thunder, for soon O shall be exalted". Obviously the score includes parts for trumpets and, as was common practice, timpani. The content is emphasized by dotted rhythms, a feature of the French overture, which in opera performances was played when the King entered. After an accompanied recitative, again for bass, the chorus of the Apostles refers to Jesus' death, which made them shed tears; the mood changes in the second half: "But we were entirely reinvigorated and gladdened because he again proved to be alive". Peter, Thomas and Philip express their sadness that he has announced his departure from the earth. Jesus then urges them in an aria not to despair: his love will never depart them. The bass is accompanied by basso continuo; the instruments play ritornellos. In the ensuing recitative Jesus talks to his disciples, and he quotes one of his own best-known statements: "I am the way, the truth, and the life". Peter then expresses his faith in an aria with obbligato violin.

The second part is introduced by a French overture, followed by an accompanied recitative in which Jesus urges his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the descent of the Holy Ghost. Next is a homophonic chorus, which has the traces of a chorale (but its identity has not been found). In a dialogue with his disciples Jesus then urges them: "Preach the gospel and instruct uncouth sinners: yes, baptize all the children of men, and consecrate them as my own". Then the disciples ask: "Will you in these days restore the house of Israel?" Jesus answers that it is none of their business; "the Father has reserved the hour for himself". Jesus announces his triumph, accompanied by violins imitating the sound of trumpets. The dialogue is followed by a choir of angels (with trumpets and timpani), who welcome Jesus in heaven. In a recitative, two angels (sopranos) tell the disciples not to look up to heaven: "Jesus will come again just as he has been taken up from us". They then sing a duet, in which they urge the disciples to keep faith, as this is the way to heaven. A chorus, again with trumpets and timpani, closes the oratorio.

Die Liebe Gottes ist ausgegossen is a cantata for Whitsunday. The lavish scoring for trumpets and timpani, pairs of oboes, violins and violas cannot surprise. They are involved in the opening chorus, which is notable for its five vocal parts: SSATB. The text is taken from Paul's letter to the Romans (ch 5): "The love of God is poure out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is given to us". This was a common text for Whitsun cantatas; the same title can be found in the oeuvre of, for instance, Christoph Graupner and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The second section is a recitative, first for tenor and then for soprano, followed by an aria for the latter, accompanied by a pair of oboes: the Holy Spirit is urged to enter the heart of the protagonist, embodying the faithful soul. In the following recitative, the latter says that he already feels how his faith grows. The bass enters: "And so the Prince of this world (...) can arouse no fear in me". He then sings a belligerent aria with trumpets: "Away, you Prince of the earth! You have no part in me. God's Spirit is my banner". It is followed by a recitative, closing with an arioso, for tenor: "He who loves Jesus and keeps his words (...) will reach God's heaven". The cantata closes with the last two stanzas of the hymn O heiliger Geist, o heiliger Gott, accompanied by the orchestra, including trumpets.

Komm, du freudenvoller Geist is also written for Whitsunday, but is more modest in proportions and scoring. Its central section is an aria for bass, which is embraced by two recitatives and two choruses; there is no chorale. The scoring is for four voices, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The lack of trumpets allows Kauffmann to choose the key of A major, which has three accidentals, symbolizing the Trinity. In the opening chorus the oboes and violins play colla voce. In it the Holy Ghost is urged to reveal the will of God and of Jesus. The following recitative is for bass, tenor and soprano respectively. It is about the consolation the Spirit brings into the life of the faithful. In his aria, the bass is accompanied by a pair of oboes; the first violin has an obbligato part in the A section. The aria is about God's light breaking through the clouds. In the following accompagnato, the tenor urges the Spirit - "you most beautiful light, you beam of grace" - to enter his heart. A chorus closes the cantata.

Unverzagt, beklemmtes Herz is the cantata of the most modest scoring: soprano, two violins and basso continuo. It is intended for performance at the 11th Sunday after Trinity. The gospel of that day is from Luke 18, where Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. This explains that the cantata is about sin and forgiveness. It opens with an aria, whose text is illustrated with dissonances and chromaticism: "Intrepid, oppressed heart, let your anxiety vanish. He who cannot help himself, Jesus takes up his cause, if in remorse and pain we find our way to this one helper". The B part of the aria is followed by a recitative which explicitly refers to the Pharisee: Jesus is a tree of life for those who avoid "all the false and hypocritical drivel of the Pharisees". Next is a repeat of the A part of the aria. The ensuing recitative says that the believer should not despair when Satan accuses him: "I cannot be repudiated, for Jesus encloses me in his wounds". The closing aria proclaims that only he should mourn who does not believe "that God forgives guilt".

Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen gib Ehre is a cantata for the feast of the Visitation of Mary. Its heart is a kind of paraphrase of the German version of the Magnificat. The scoring is for four voices and an orchestra which consists of pairs of oboes, violins and violas. The opening is a chorus on the first verse of Psalm 115: "Not to us, Lord, but to your name give glory for your grace and truth". The first words are sung forte, as a kind of proclamation. The rest of the text is sung in the form of a fugue. The bass then has a recitative, which says that "God alone is to be honoured". True Christians should always praise the Lord, just as Mary once did. 'Meine Seele erhebt den Herren' are the opening words of the aria for tenor. Next is a recitative for soprano, alto and tenor, which is attacca followed by an aria for bass with belligerent traces: "God's arm exercises mighty force when our enemies rage". The first stanza of the hymn Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr closes the cantata.

The occasion for which O ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen? has been written is not known. However, the content suggests it may have been intended for the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year. Another possibility is the 16th Sunday after Trinity. The cantata includes two chorales which in the Merseburg hymnbook are suggested for this Sunday. The gospel of that day is from Luke 7, which tells about the raising from the dead of a youth at Nain. It is a dialogue cantata of alto and bass; the latter is, as usual, the vox Christi. The instrumental scoring is for pairs of violins, recorders and oboes, plus three trombones; there are no violas. The cantata opens with an aria of the alto; the text is taken from Paul's letter to the Romans (ch 7): "O wretched man that I am, who will redeem me from the body of this death?" In the ensuing recitative, the alto expresses a longing for Jesus. It is followed by another aria in the form of a chorale: "Here there is a vale of tears"; the alto is accompanied by a pair of recorders. It is the third stanza of the hymn Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt. In a dialogue Jesus (bass) urges the believer to be patient, and then sings an aria, again on a biblical text, this time from the prophet Isaiah (ch 57): "The righteous will be swept away from misfortune; and those who have lived rightly will come to peace in their chambers". The alto then asks how long he has "to live in this misery". Jesus answers with a quotation of one of his words at the Cross: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise". The cantata ends with a dialogue in the form of a chorale, the fifth stanza of the hymn Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.

This production makes chrystal clear how regrettable it is that so much of Kauffmann's oeuvre has been lost. The oratorio and the five cantatas are not only very well written, but also reveal that Kauffmann was quite an original master. A few aspects are noteworthy: the use of two violas in all works connects them to the 17th century. One could consider this aspect as conservative. On the other hand: nearly all the recitatives are accompanied, which offers additional opportunities for expression and emphasis of dramatic elements in the text. That is a clearly forward-looking issue. Many arias include obbligato parts for various instruments which are sometimes technically demanding. The same goes for a number of arias.

Johann Gottfried Walther, in his Musicalisches Lexicon, stated that Kauffmann's "keyboard and church pieces (...) must be regarded by experts as nothing other than worthy." This recording justifies this assessment, which seems to have been widely shared. The copies that are known to have been made attest to that. This is a highly important production, and one can only hope that Kauffmann's cantatas are going to be better-known and be performed by other ensembles in the field of baroque sacred music.

The cantatas are performed with one voice per part; in the oratorio they are joined by the Collegium Vocale Leipzig. Overall I am pretty happy with these performances, which do ample justice to the originality of these works. Among the soloists I am especially impressed by Tobias Hunger. Britta Schwarz also does very well, whereas Tobias Berndt is more satisfying than I have heard him on some other recordings. I am slightly disappointed by Isabel Schicketanz, who uses a bit more vibrato than I had expected on the basis of previous recordings. One general issue is that the performers don't take enough rhythmic freedom in the secco recitatives; the tempi are also too slow. The instrumental parts are given excellent performances.

On the whole, this production deserves to be investigated by anyone interested in German baroque music.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Isabel Schicketanz
Britta Schwarz
Collegium Vocale Leipzig & Merseburger Hofmusik

CD Reviews