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"Choral Cantatas around 1700 - From Buxtehude to JS Bach"

Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; David Erlera, Franz Vitzthumb, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Thomas Gropper, bass
L'arpa festante
Dir: Christoph Hesse

rec: Feb 27 - 29, 2019 & March 3 - 5, 2020, Niedereggenen, Evangelische Kirche
CPO - 555 456-2 (© 2023) (2.29'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)a; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BuxWV 78)b; Christian August JACOBI (1688-after 1725): Komm, heiliger Geist; Emanuel KEGEL (1654-1724): Meinen Jesum lass ich nichtb; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Ein feste Burg ist unser Gotta; Johann Valentin MEDER (1649-1719): Ach Herr, mich armen Sünderb; Georg ÖSTERREICH (1664-1735): Herr Jesu Christb; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetanb; Conrad Michael SCHNEIDER (1673-1752): Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christb; Johann TOPF (fl c1700): Mit Fried und Freudb; Johann Samuel WELTER (1650-1720): Jesu, meine Freudea; Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt waltena

[ripienists] Maria Weber, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Thiago Oliveira, tenor; Micha Matthäus, bass
Meike Güldenhaupt, oboe; Uschi Bruckdorfer, bassoon; Christoph Hesse, violin, violino piccolo; Angelika Balzer, violin; Max Bock, Johanna Weber, viola; Brian Franklin, Bruno Gonzalvez, viola da gamba; Daniela Wartenberg, cello; Anja Enderle, cello piccolo; Haralt Martens, violone; Johannes Vogt, lute; Ralf Waldner, organ

The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther had far-reaching consequences, not only in religious matters, but also politically and socially. Moreover, it had a decisive influence on the development of the music scene in the Protestant part of Germany, and even beyond. Luther's ideals in this department were a mixture of tradition and renewal. The tradition was represented by the chants that were sung in the liturgy since many centuries. Some of these continued to be part of the liturgy, such as the various sections of the mass and the Magnificat. Moreover, Luther reworked some of them in the form of hymns, versified and in German. The latter represent the element of renewal: Luther wanted the faithful to sing in their own language, in church, in school and at home. The result was a large corpus of hymns - generally known as 'chorales' - which appeared, either in monophony or in harmonizations, in many song- and hymnbooks. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries these hymns were the subject of organ arrangements, and were reworked in motets, sacred concertos, cantatas and oratorios.

The present production offers a selection of a particular genre of cantata, known as the 'chorale cantata'. Many lovers of German music will immediately associate this genre with the cycle of cantatas of 1724/25 by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, the cantatas performed here are different from those. In Bach's chorale cantatas only the first and last stanzas of a hymn are kept intact: the opening chorus is an arrangement based on the hymn's melody, the closing chorale is a harmonization. In between the remaining stanzas are rewritten in the form of recitatives and arias. The cantatas which are the subject of the present recording are of a type known as the cantata per omnes versus. This means that the text of the hymn is used unaltered in all sections; the melody is not necessarily used in each section though. The cantatas on these discs show how composers treated the material in different ways. Hans Bergmann, the author of the liner-notes, states that this type of cantata was written in a period of about forty years, roughly speaking between 1670 and 1708. The recording closes with what may well have been the last specimen of this genre, Bach's Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden.

The programme opens with a composer who is almost as well-known as Bach, Dieterich Buxtehude. For a long time he was mainly known for his organ works - in which hymns play a major role - but especially since the commemoration of his death in 2007 his vocal music has been performed and recorded regularly. One of his best-known cantatas is Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, one of four such works in his oeuvre. The text is from the pen of Martin Moller (1584); four of the seven stanzas are set by Buxtehude. The scoring is pretty much according to the standard in Germany at the time: four voices, two violins, two violas, bassoon and basso continuo. The four voices are involved in all sections, and always the hymn melody is present in one way or another.

One of the attractive aspects of this production is that it includes pieces by several composers who are hardly known or even completely unknown. The latter is the case with Johann Topf, about whom nothing is known. Some motets from his pen are included in Thuringian manuscripts; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin is his only known cantata. It is a setting of the hymn by Luther (1524); it was often part of funeral services, as the text is about death and eternal life: "With peace and joy I depart in God's will; my heart and mind are consoled, gently and quietly. As God has promised me, death has become my sleep". The instrumental scoring is remarkable: the two upper voices are scored for oboe and piccolo violin. In German music around 1700 the participation of woodwind instruments in vocal music was not very common. Noteworthy is also that the violin plays in scordatura, a practice known especially from Bohemia and Austria in the late 17th century. In this cantata we also meet a common practice in German music: in two of the four verses the violas play with tremolo - an expression of sorrow.

Johann Pachelbel is comparable with Buxtehude in that he is known first and foremost as a composer of keyboard music. However, his most famous work, a Canon, was often played long before the revival of 'early music'. Even nowadays, his vocal music is hardly known. Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan is a setting of one of the best-known German hymns; the text is from the pen of Samuel Rodigast (1674?). It has made its way into hymnbooks across the world. It has six stanzas, each of which opens with the same phrase (What God does, is done well). Pachelbel has set all the stanzas for four voices, two violins, two violas and basso continuo. The work opens with a sonata, which is repeated before the stanzas 2 and 5. The hymn melody is present in each of the vocal sections, often in strongly altered form. Only two chorale cantatas by Pachelbel have been preserved.

The same goes for Johann Valentin Meder (although one of the two is incomplete), who was from Thuringia, and had a reputation as a fine singer in both the treble and the bass range. This makes him an example of a so-called Diskantist, an adult who was able to sing soprano parts, without being a castrato. As a singer he was employed in several towns, and later worked as Kantor and Kapellmeister in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) and Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder is a setting of a hymn by Cyriakus Schneegass (1597), based on Psalm 6. In contrast to Calvin and his followers, Luther never considered making versifications of the Book of Psalms. The instrumental scoring again includes a volin playing in scordatura. That may well explain the fact that there is only one treble instrument. The work opens with an instrumental lamento, in which the violas play with tremolo, as they do in the first verse; the lamento is repeated before verse 3. The latter is notable for being scored for alto and bass, a rather unusual pairing.

Johann Philipp Krieger was a prolific composer of cantatas; a large part of his oeuvre has been preserved, but is hardly explored as yet. It includes only one chorale cantata: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott; the hymn has become a kind of 'national anthem' of Lutheranism. It is another example of a hymn which is based on a Psalm (in this case 46), but not a real versification of it. The instrumental scoring is different from the other cantatas performed here, in that it has three viola parts. This was not unusual; in German instrumental music the lower parts were often given additional weight by adding a third or even a fourth viola. Whereas the violas and the bassoon play colla voce, the two violins have an obbligato role. Each of the four stanzas is introduced by a short instrumental prelude; in each the hymn melody is in a different voice.

With Emanuel Kegel we have another unknown quantity; he was Kapellmeister in Gera. Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht has a standard scoring; the lowest part is for violone instead of bassoon. The text of this hymn was from the pen of Christian Keimann (1658). Kegel has set all six stanzas; each ends with the same phrase: "Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht". Between the verses 1 and 2 and 5 and 6 respectively, Kegel has placed a sonata. Three verses are for a solo voice and basso continuo; the hymn melody is absent there. In verse 3 the alto is joined by the ensemble, with the first violin carrying the hymn melody.

Next follow two cantatas by Johann Samuel Welter, one of the few composers here who represents southern Germany (the other being Pachelbel). Welter was born in Obersontheim, near (Schwäbisch) Hall, where his father was active as organist. In 1675, Welter was appointed organist of St Michael's Church in Schwäbisch Hall, and he held this post until his death in 1720. We know three chorale cantatas from his pen; two are performed here. Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten is another internationally-known hymn; it has been arranged in all sorts of ways numerous times. The instrumental scoring includes two viole da gamba instead of violas. The text, written by Georg Neumark (1641), who also composed the melody, consists of seven stanzas; Welter set them all. It is notable that the first stanza, following attacca the sonata, is not for the entire ensemble, but for soprano, singing the cantus firmus, accompanied by the two viole da gamba. In the verses 2 and 5 each line is first sung in an imitative arrangement, and then repeated in a harmonization. The verses 3, 4 and 6 are for solo voices; the chorale melody is omitted. The second cantata is a setting of another much-beloved hymn: Jesu, meine Freude. Johann Franck wrote the text (1653), Johann Crüger the melody. It has six stanzas; the last ends with a repeat of the opening phrase. Again, the scoring includes three rather than two violas. The lowest parts are for both bassoon and violone. The verses 2 to 5 are set as solos, in which the hymn melody is omitted. Bergmann points out that this cantata bears the traces of what is known as concerto-aria-cantata, of which the oeuvre of Buxtehude includes a number, and which can be considered the link between the 17th-century cantata or sacred concerto and the cantatas of the 18th century.

Georg Österreich was born in Magdeburg where he received his first musical education. At the age of 14 he entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig which was then under the direction of Johann Schelle. Two years later he went to Hamburg where he studied at the Johanneum and sang first as an alto and then as a tenor. In the latter capacity he worked at the court of Wolfenbüttel from 1686 to 1689 and it is there that he came under the guidance of Johann Theile. In 1689 he started his activities as Kapellmeister in Gottorf. Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott is scored for four voices and the usual ensemble of two violins, two violas, bassoon and basso continuo. The text, in twelve stanzas, was written by Paul Eber (1562). It was written for the funeral of Duchess Friederike Amalia at the Schleswig Cathedral in 1704. If you know the melody Johann Sebastian Bach used in his cantata 127 you won't recognize the melody here. Texts of hymns could be sung to different melodies across Germany, and here the texture of the hymn is also different: not eight stanzas of six verses each, but twelve stanzas of four verses each. In some verses Österreich deviates completely from the hymn melody and uses original material instead. He also breaks up the division into stanzas: he links the 10th stanza with the first line of the 11th, which is followed by pause. He then continues with the remaining three lines of the 11th stanza. In the stanzas 8 and 9 Jesus is quoted: "Truly, truly, I say to you"; this is set as a solo for bass.

Christian August Jacobi was from Grimma; for two periods during his career he worked in Wittenberg as organist. His extant oeuvre comprises ten cantatas, among them Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, a Whitsun hymn by Luther (1524). The first stanza is an anonymous translation of the medieval hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus, to which Luther added two stanzas of his own. The texture of three stanzas may have inspired Jacobi to write a cantata which Begmann compares with an Italian violin concerto in three movements: fast - slow - fast. The Italian influence is obvious: the scoring for soprano, violin and basso continuo allows for the inclusion of coloratura in the Italian style in both solo parts.

Conrad Michael Schneider was from Ansbach; he studied in Leipzig and worked all his life in Ulm as organist and director of the collegium musicum. Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ is his only extant cantata; the text was written by Jakob Ebert (1601). All seven stanzas are set by Schneider. In a way it is the most 'modern' work in this recording, as the second viola is omitted: two violins, viola and basso continuo was to be the standard scoring in the 18th century. The first stanza is set as a duet of soprano and alto. The stanzas 3 to 5 are for solo voices. The closing stanza is a chorale harmonization: the voices sing the chorale, with the soprano taking the cantus firmus, whereas the instruments provide the counterpoint. This procedure was also used, among others, by Johann Ludwig Bach and later Christoph Graupner.

Johann Sebastian Bach's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) has a symmetric structure: after the sinfonia the first verse is for four voices and instruments, like the last. In the centre is the 4th verse, again for four voices and instruments, and this is surrounded by two duets and two solos. In most recordings the last section is a four-part chorale setting, but this dates from 1724/25, and was not how it was originally conceived. The music of the first performance hasn't survived. In this recording the last verse is sung to the same music as the first verse. This cantata is not all happiness and joy. The text of the chorale constantly refers to Jesus' death at the cross, and its cause: sin. It is not surprising that Bach has set this whole cantata in C minor, according to Johann Mattheson a key, which can hardly be linked to cheerfulness, "how hard one tries". Mattheson characterises this key as something which both makes you sad and gives you consolation. That is exactly what this chorale is all about.

Obviously this is a most intriguing production. It sheds light on a particular cantata genre that is not very well-known. Bach's cantata is one of his most famous, but few may be aware that it is part of a tradition. The sacred music written in Protestant Germany in the last quarter of the 17th century and the early 18th century is not given the attention it deserves. Each cantata included here is of excellent quality, and each has some particular features which sets it apart from other specimens of this genre. Hans Bergmann, who was mainly responsible for the compilation of the programme, states in his informative liner-notes that this is just a small selection from what is available. I hope that more of this kind of cantatas is going to be recorded in the near future. Let's hope the performances will be just as good as these. The line-up - four solo voices and four ripienists - seems appropriate, although the ripienists may not even be needed. The musical result is satisfying in every respect. This is undoubtedly one of the most important recordings of German sacred music of the baroque era of recent years, alongside the Kuhnau project at the same label.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

David Erler
Miriam Feuersinger
Hans Jörg Mammel
Franz Vitzthum

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