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Johann KUHNAU (1660 - 1722): "Complete Sacred Works Vol. VII"

Opella Musica; camerata lipsiensis
Dir: Gregor Meyer

rec: July 8 - 10, 2020, Rötha, Georgenkirche
CPO - 555 399-2 (© 2022) (74'26")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Das Alte ist vergangen; Nicht nur allein am frohen Morgen; Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht; Uns ist ein Kind geboren; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

[OM] Isabel Schicketanz, Heidi Maria Taubert, soprano; David Erler, alto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Friedemann Klos, bass
[cl] Friederike Vollert, Claudius Kamp, recorder; Friederike Köhncke, Elisabeth Grümmer, oboe; Linus Krimphove, Keitaro Shimizu, trumpet; Stephan Katte, Thomas Friedlaender, horn; Nadja Zwiener, Yumiko Tsubaki, violin; Caroline Kersten, Magdalena Schenk-Bader, viola; Ulrike Becker, cello; Tilman Schmidt, violone; Nelly Sturm, bassoon; Stefan Maass, lute; Gregor Meyer, organ; Daniel Schäbe, timpani

For a long time sacred music written in Germany in the decades around 1700 - which one could call the period between Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach - has been more or less neglected. There are signs that this is about to change. The project concerning the recording of the complete sacred works by Johann Kuhnau, Bach's immediate predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, attests to that. The disc to be reviewed here is the seventh volume of this series and comprises mostly pieces for Christmastide.

Kuhnau was a prolific composer of sacred concertos and cantatas, but unfortunately a large part of his output has been lost. Around thirty cantatas have been preserved, but only in a few cases we have access to autographs and original sets of parts. As a consequence, several pieces are attributed to Kuhnau, but are impossible to authenticate with any amount of certainty. That also goes for one of the cantatas included in the programme of this disc.

It opens with Nicht nur allein am frohen Morgen; in this case there is no doubt about the piece's authenticity as the autograph and the original performing material have come down to us. Kuhnau himself indicated that it was written for the second day of Christmas in 1718. The text is about Christ as the light of the world which dispels the darkness that was the effect of mankind's Fall. The closing chorale - a stanza from Luther's hymn Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ - concludes: "The eternal light radiates this way, endowing the world with a new glow. It shines in the middle of the night and makes us children of the light". The cantata is scored for four voices, two horns, timpani, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. It opens with a sinfonia which is followed attacca by a chorus in ABA form, which begins with a few solos and then turns to tutti. Then follow a recitative and dacapo aria for soprano; in the latter the singer is accompanied by two oboes. Next are a recitative for bass, a duet for soprano and alto, a recitative for tenor and the closing chorale. Apparently the author of the text is not known, as he is not mentioned in the liner-notes. The form of the libretto is comparable with the new form that was introduced by Erdmann Neumeister. This cantata shows that Kuhnau was willing to adopt the modern style of cantata writing, based on the example of Italian opera, as expressed by Neumeister: "If I should express it in brief, then a cantata does not look any different than a piece from an opera, put together from the stylo recitativo and arias."

Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht, the second cantata in the programme, is a setting of a text from Neumeister's first annual cycle of 1702. This cantata is intended for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, when the Gospel was taken from Matthew 22, where the Pharisees pose a trick question to Jesus about whether it is allowed to pay taxes to the (Roman) emperor. The text turns this event into a general observation concerning the life of the faithful, as expressed in the opening aria: "No matter that enemies day and night scheme to bring about our ruin!" The text includes reminiscences of Luther's hymn Ein feste Burg; the first recitative opens with the phrase: "God, our mighty fortress, continues to stand". In the second recitative, the Christian is urged to give God everything that is his, by analogy with Jesus's verdict that one should give God what is his and the emperor what is his. The scoring of this cantata is remarkable: soprano, violin and basso continuo. Michael Maul, in his liner-notes, suggests that this work may have been intended for smaller churches or for domestic performance. He refers here to a contemporary statement that Kuhnau had to help out others; this cantata may be an example.

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (Philipp Nicolai, 1597) is one of the best-known hymns sung during Christmastide, although it was originally not intended as such, but rather a spiritual wedding song of a mystical character, in which Jesus is the bridegroom. There can be little doubt about the authenticity of the cantata based on this hymn, as it has been preserved in a copy by Johann Gottfried Walther, who stood in personal contact with Kuhnau. The scoring is for five voices (SSATB), two horns, two recorders, strings (with divided violas) and basso continuo. However, it is in fact a solo cantata for tenor. It opens with a chorus, in which the chorale is included as cantus firmus, to which the orchestra adds the counterpoint. This is followed by two tenor arias, separated by another chorus. The latter is a setting of words from the prophet Isaiah: "Unto us a child is born". When the names of this child are mentioned - "wondrous council, power, hero, eternal Father, Prince of Peace" - the horns enter, playing repeated notes in the way of signals. Another recitative and aria for tenor follow, and the cantata closes with the stanza 'Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara' from Nicolai's hymn.

With Uns ist ein Kind geboren we have another setting of a text by Neumeister. It is from his annual cycle of 1710/11, which was originally written for Georg Philipp Telemann, who at the time worked in Eisenach. Kuhnau's setting has been preserved in a copy from 1756 by Christian Friedrich Penzel, a member of the choir of the Thomaskirche. He ascribed it to Bach, and as a result it was included in the Schmieder catalogue (as BWV 142); later it has been moved to the appendix (Anh II, 23) as it is thought that it is stylistically different from Bach's cantata oeuvre. It is known that Kuhnau has written a cantata on Neumeister's libretto, but the text - the music has been lost - is partly different from the one of this cantata. The authenticity of this work cannot be established, but Michael Maul believes there are good reasons to connect it to the later stages of Kuhnau's compositional activities. It is scored for four voices, two recorders, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. It opens with a sonata which followed by a chorus on the text "Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given". The cantata includes two arias with the same music, the first for tenor with two oboes, the second for alto with two recorders.

The last cantata in the programme is Das Alte ist vergangen. It is one of the earlier cantatas in Kuhnau's oeuvre; it has been preserved in a copy in the Royal Conservatory Library in Brussels. It is not mentioned for which day this cantata was intended, but as it focuses on Jesus's circumcision, which traditionally is celebrated on 1 January, it is undoubtedly intended for New Year's Day. The opening sonata is followed by a chorus on the text "The old is gone, everything has become new", which in the ensuing alto aria is connected to Christ as the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Old Covenant. Notable is that this cantata has no recitatives, although the alto aria includes two lines that have the character of a recitative. The scoring is for four voices, two trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The aria for bass has an obbligato part for violin.

This disc delivers further evidence of the quality of Kuhnau's sacred music. This whole series has been full of surprises, and this disc adds a few. It is astonishing that his cantatas have been neglected for such a long time. The good news is that this recording project, which is of great importance in itself, is accompanied by printed editions, which make them available to the music world at large. Other ensembles should investigate this important corpus of cantatas. It is to be hoped that they will be performed at concerts and recorded in the near future.

Gregor Meyer and his ensembles deserve much praise for their performances. The level of music making is high, as was the case in previous volumes, and the stylistic features of Kuhnau's music are explored to the full. The use of a large organ in the basso continuo is a nice asset; it really contributes to the impact of these performances. Those who have purchased the previous discs in this series will certainly not hesitate to add this new release. Those looking for less familiar music for the Christmas period, should consider this fine disc as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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