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Dietrich BECKER (1623 - 1679): "Sacred Concertos & Sonatas"

Hanna Zumsandea, Lisa Florentine Schmalzb, soprano; Mirko Ludwigc, Knut Schochd, tenor; Klaus Mertens, basse
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert

rec: Feb 11 - 13, 2021, Wedel-Schulau, Christuskirche
CPO - 555 464-2 (© 2022) (74'11")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Es ist ein großer Gewinnacde; O hilf, Christe, Gottes Sohnae; Schaff' in mir, Gott, ein reines Herzc; Selig sind die Totenabce Sonata à 4 in d minor; Sonata à 4 in a minor; Sonata [& Suite] in a minor; Wer unter dem Schirm des Höchsten sitztab

Christoph Heidemann, Gabriele Steinfeld, Micaela Storch-Sieben, violin; Simone Eckert, Hermann Hicketier, viola da gamba; Barbara Messmer, viola da gamba, violone; Ulrich Wedemeier, theorbo, guitar; Anke Dennert, harpsichord, organ

Over the years CPO has released quite a number of discs which were devoted to music life in Hamburg in the late Renaissance and the baroque period. The latest recording of this kind consists of music by Dietrich Becker, one of the lesser-known composers who worked for some time in Hamburg, but also in other places. Some of his instrumental music has been recorded before, but the present disc is the first to include his complete sacred works.

Becker was born in Hamburg around 1623. Nothing is known about his musical education, apart from the fact that he learned to play both the organ and the violin. As no organ work from his pen has survived, whereas his oeuvre includes a substantial amount of instrumental works for strings, it seems likely that he focused on his violin playing rather than his work as an organist. However, it was in the latter capacity that he started his career: in 1642 he was appointed organist at the church of Ahrensburg castle, northeast of Hamburg. In 1654 he moved to Sweden, where he entered the service of Magnus Gabriel de La Gardie, a statesman and patron of the arts. In 1655 he returned to Ahrensburg, but the next year he entered the service of Duke Christian Ludwig of Brunswick-Lüneburg in Celle, in whose orchestra he played the violin. In 1662 he returned to Hamburg and there he was to remain for the rest of his life. He became a player in the Ratsmusik, the city's instrumental ensemble which was to participate in official events, but also in the liturgy in the five main churches. In 1667 Johann Schop died, and Becker succeeded him as the director of the Ratsmusik. On an interim basis he became the director of church music, after the departure of Christoph Bernhard, and probably also of the Collegium Musicum, after the death of Matthias Weckmann. During the last stage of his life he also acted as Kantor at the Cathedral.

The sacred oeuvre of Becker is small. That is to say: some of his sacred works have been lost, among them a St John Passion. Some of his sacred concertos have survived incomplete, and have been omitted here. New Grove mentions two concertos on a Latin text; one of them is incomplete, but there is no indication that the other is incomplete as well. It is not included here, and not mentioned in the liner-notes.

Becker's sacred music has some notable features. The instruments play a major role in these concertos, providing the counterpoint that is largely absent in the vocal fabric. The vocal parts are mostly homophonic and syllabic. The reason may well be that Becker aimed at a maximum intelligibility of the text. His music also shows restraint in the use of musical-rhetorical figures. According to Dorothea Schröder, in her liner-notes, "the goal is not drama, but balance". The instrumental scoring is in line with what was common in Germany in the 17th century. Notable is the importance of lower strings, here viole da gamba. Wer unter dem Schirm des Höchsten sitzt is a typical example: two violins, three viole da gamba and basso continuo.

O hilf Christe, Gottes Sohn is a setting of the last stanza of the Passion hymn Christus, der uns selig macht, but the original melody of the hymn is ignored. The opening phrase is used as a kind of ritornello. The piece is scored for soprano, bass, three violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo. In Schaff in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz, Becker has set verses from Psalms 51 (Vulgata: 50) and 143 for tenor, two violins, two viole da gamba and basso continuo. Its content explains that it is set to a quiet tempo, but the first section ends with a lively phrase: "[And] uphold me with thy free spirit". Unfortunately the booklet omits the second section, verse 10 from Psalm 143 (*). Psalm 91 is the text of Wer unter dem Schirm des Höchsten sitzt. The instrumental scoring was mentioned above; the vocal scoring is for two sopranos, which largely sing in homophony and sometimes alternate.

The remaining two sacred works are written for funerals, both for people in Glückstadt, a port town on the Elbe, and seat of the government of Sleswig and Holstein. Becker composed Selig sind die Toten in 1677 for the funeral of the government councillor Friedrich von Lente. It is scored for four voices (SSTB), four violas and basso continuo. Here the viola parts are shared by the violins and the viole da gamba. The first section is a setting of the text from Revelations (14, vs 13): "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord". It is followed by the hymn Selig sind, die recht zu nennen. Each of them is scored for one of the solo voices. The last stanza is omitted in the booklet; as I could not find its text (or any information about it) on the internet, I can't deliver the missing stanza. The opening section is repeated at the end.

In 1678 Becker composed funeral music for the Royal Danish Councillor and Chancellor Johann Helm, who had also been court president and a great benefactor of the Glückstadt community. Es ist ein grosser Gewinn has the same scoring as the previous piece, but now with two tenors rather than two sopranos. It again opens with a dictum - a quotation from the Bible - which is taken from the first letter of Paul to Timothy (6, vs 6-7): "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." Then follows a funeral Ode by an unknown author, which consists of six stanzas. The first five are for a solo voice, the sixth is first sung by a solo voice and then repeated by the tutti. The stanzas are separated by instrumental ritornellos, which include repeated notes, creating a tremolo effect, which is an expression of deep sorrow. At the end the opening section is repeated. In the booklet two of the stanzas are omitted; the order of the stanzas has also been swapped.

Becker has become known for his instrumental music, which has been recorded by, among others, Musica Poetica and Parnassi Musici (CPO, 2000). Three collections were printed in Hamburg in 1668, 1674 and 1679 respectively. Five sonatas have been preserved in manuscript. Becker very likely was the first German composer who composed suites in the order allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue, which was to become the standard until well into the 18th century. All of them are called sonatas, but many are in fact suites. The 1668 set is for three to five instruments and basso continuo, whereas the two other collections are scored for two violins (or violin and viola da gamba, 1674) and basso continuo. This is music that may have been intended for performance at courts (for instance as Tafelmusik) or by collegia musica and Ratsmusik ensembles.

Hamburger Ratsmusik is one of the most prominent ensembles with regard to the exploration of music from northern Germany. Over the years I have heard and reviewed most of their recordings, and I always assessed them positively. That is not any different here. The playing of the strings is immaculate and brings out the best in this music. Simone Eckert has also a good ear for voices, and she has brought together here an exquisite ensemble, which deals well with the requirements of the sacred concertos. The voices blend perfectly, and individually the singers treat the text with the care they require. Diction, articulation and dynamics leave nothing to be desired. It is a big shame that the printing of the lyrics is so sloppy. These performances deserve better.

(*) Gott, lehre mich tun nach deinem Wohlgefallen, denn du bist mein Gott; dein guter Geist führe mich auf rechter Bahn.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Mirko Ludwig
Klaus Mertens
Lisa Florentine Schmalz
Knut Schoch
Hanna Zumsande
Hamburger Ratsmusik

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