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Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586 - 1630): Israels Brünnlein

Opella Musica
Dir: Gregor Meyer

rec: Jan 15 - 18, 2021, Dresden-Hosterwitz, Maria am Wasser
CPO - 555 459-2 (© 2022) (101'29")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach Herr, ach meiner schone; Da Jakob vollendet hatte; Dennoch bleibe ich stets an dir; Der Herr denket an uns; Die mit Tränen säen; Drei schöne Dinge sind; Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend; Herr, laß meine Klage; Ich bin die Wurzel des Geschlechtes David; Ich bin jung gewesen; Ich freue mich im Herren; Ich lasse dich nicht; Ihr Heiligen, lobsinget dem Herrn; Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn; Lehre uns bedenken; Lieblich und schöne sein ist nichts; Nu danket alle Gott; O Herr, ich bin dein Knecht; O, Herr Jesu Christe; Siehe an die Werk Gottes; Siehe, nach Trost war mir sehr bange; Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr; Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele; Wem ein tugendsam Weib bescheret ist; Wende dich, Herr; Zion spricht: der Herr hat mich verlassen;

Isabel Schicketanz, Heidi Maria Taubert, soprano; Susanne Langner, contralto; Tobias Hunger, tenor; Friedemann Klos, bass; Tillmann Steinhöfel, violone; Gregor Meyer, organ

Johann Hermann Schein was one of the most famous predecessors of Johann Sebastian Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Like Bach he was very much interested in and influenced by the Italian music of his time, although neither of them was ever in Italy. The similarity stretches further with each aiming at combining the contemporary Italian style with traditional polyphony.

Schein was born in Grünhain, near Annaberg, and moved with his family to Dresden, where he entered the court chapel as a treble at the age of 13. There he also received further musical education from the Kapellmeister Rogier Michael. In 1608 he enrolled at the University of Leipzig. There he published his first collection of music, comprising secular songs on German texts and instrumental pieces. In 1615 he moved to Weimar to take the post of Kapellmeister to Duke Johann Ernst the Younger. It was only one year later that he was appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig, as successor to Sethus Calvisius.

Schein's personal life was tragic: he lost his first wife when their first child was born, and at least four of the five children from his second marriage didn't survive infancy. He himself suffered from poor health, and died in 1630 at the age of 44. His health situation caused him problems in his duties as a performer, but didn't prevent him from being a prolific composer. Several collections of vocal music - both secular and sacred - and instrumental pieces were printed before the Fontana d'Israel or Israels Brünnlein which is generally considered his masterwork. It is this publication that resulted in Schein's being considered one of the most prominent German composers of the 17th century. It was rediscovered in the 19th century by Carl von Winterfeld who immediately recognized it as the composer's most important work.

The Israels Brünnlein, which was published in 1623, is a perfect example of a mixture of 'modern' and 'traditional'. In the preface Schein specifically refers to the Italian style, in particular the madrigal, as he writes that these pieces are written in the "Italian madrigalian manner". A number of pieces in this collection apparently were composed at an earlier date, probably commissioned by the authorities or by private persons in Leipzig, at the occasion of weddings, funerals and political events. The texts are - with two exceptions - from the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha. The two exceptions are Ach Herr, ach meiner schone and O, Herr Jesu Christe, whose texts are probably written by Schein himself. All the pieces are set for five voices - only the concluding madrigal is in six parts - with a basso continuo ad libitum. This basso continuo part has the character of a basso seguente, following the vocal bass part, like in the early madrigal books of Monteverdi or in Ludovico da Viadana's collection Cento concerti ecclesiastici, which was published in Frankfurt in 1619, and which was probably the first source through which Schein got acquainted with the Italian concertato style.

The main feature of these sacred madrigals is the expression of the text. Die mit Tränen säen - which is a setting of verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 126 - starts with chromaticism on the first half of verse 5: "They that sow in tears", but then only the diatonic scale is used in the second half: "shall reap in joy", where the tempo is also speeded up. A couple of times a shift in metre takes place. Polyphonic and homophonic passages alternate, as well as phrases for reduced voices with tutti passages. In other pieces the scoring is specifically used to illustrate elements in the text, for example in Siehe, nach Trost war mir sehr bange (Isaiah 38, 17-19a), where the phrase "For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth" is set for alto, tenor and bass (with the dynamic indication piano), whereas the next phrase: "The living, the living, he shall praise thee" is set for the whole ensemble. The piece ends with a glorious and forceful "as I do this day". It is an example of a piece where Schein splits the ensemble into two: high versus low voices. He does the same in Zion spricht: Der Herr hat mich verlassen. And in Drei schöne Dinge sind the words "Mann" (husband) and "Weib" (wife) are sung by low and high voices respectively.

Schein also uses so-called madrigalisms, musical figures applied in the Italian madrigals of his time. In Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele the disquiet of the soul ("Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?", Psalm 42, vs 11) is vividly illustrated by a series of quavers. Musical figures picture the arrow in Ach Herr, ach meiner schone ("For your arrows cause me great torment"). Eloquent is the setting of the words "bricht mir mein Herz" (my heart breaks), which are separated by short but noticeable pauses. The first section of Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr ("Our life lasts seventy years ... it is toil and work") literally drags on, due to the slow tempo, but then the tempo is speeded up in the last two lines: "for it quickly passes by, and we fly away" - and so does the music.

As far as the performance practice is concerned, the fact that this collection was dedicated to the mayors and city council of Leipzig suggests - as do the use of the term madrigal and the choice of some texts - that these pieces were not meant to be sung within a liturgical setting, but rather at special occasions. That leaves it to the interpreter to decide how to perform them, with one voice per part or with a 'choir'. It seems to me that the character of the pieces as well as the label madrigal strongly support the first option, which is chosen here. Schein suggests the possibility to use instruments as well, and considering the relationship between text and music they could only be used to play colla voce rather than to replace one or more of them. I am not aware of any recording of these compositions in which instruments are used this way.

The Israels Brünnlein is quite popular among vocal ensembles and choirs. Over the years I have heard pieces from this collection regularly in concerts, and there are also various recordings of the (almost) entire collection. Ironically, the present recording is the second one released on the CPO label. The first, by Weser-Renaissance directed by Manfred Cordes, dates from 2004. This new recording by Opella Musica is a good one, but I prefer Weser-Renaissance, for two reasons. The first is that here the upper voices are not free of vibrato, which especially manifests itself at the top notes, and in forte passages. It did not really spoil by enjoyment of these performances, but it contributes to my preference for the older recording. The second reason is that the tempi in Cordes' recording are generally faster, and in my view more satisfying. It is also a matter of taste, and the differences are not always substantial. However, now and then I felt that due to the choice of tempo the contrasts between sections of a piece are somewhat underexposed.

That does not take anything away from my appreciation of this recording. Opella Musica is a fine ensemble, which showed especially in its complete recording of the sacred oeuvre of Johann Kuhnau, which was finished last year. There is also much to enjoy - or, rather, admire - here, in the first place because of Schein's brilliant skills in setting a text. That certainly is conveyed here. If you look for a recording of this collection, this production is a serious option to be considered.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

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