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Christoph BERNHARD (1628 - 1693): "Geistliche Harmonien"

Soloists of the Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Jan 24 - 27, 2004, Cologne, Studio Deutschlandfunk
CPO - 777 046-2 (© 2005) (61'24")

Ach, mein herzliebes Jesuleinae [1]; Anima sterilis quid agisae; Aus der Tiefe ruf' ich, Herr, zu dirb [1]; Da pacem Domineacde; Herr, wer wird wohnen in Deiner Hüttenbe [1]; Herzlich lieb hab' ich dich, o Herrcd [1]; Heute ist Christus von den Toten auferstandene [1]; Ich sahe an alles Thunbcde; Reminiscere miserationum tuarum, Dominecde; Unser keiner lebet ihm selbercde [1]; Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage Euchbcde; Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtetbe

Nele Gramßa, Veronika Winterb, soprano; Henning Vossc, alto; Henning Kaiserd, tenor; Ekkehard Abelee, bass; Ulla Bundies, Anne Röhrig, violin; Gabrielle Kancachian, Anette Sichelschmidt, viola; Hartwig Groth, violone; Michael Dücker, lute, chitarrone; Joachim Held, chitarrone, guitar; Bernward Lohr, harpsichord; Christoph Lehman, organ

(Sources: [1] Geistliche Harmonien, 1665)

Christoph Bernhard is first and foremost known as a pupil of the most famous German composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz. He wrote some treatises, which found a wide circulation throughout Germany, and these are generally considered reflecting the views of his teacher. There was a strong bond between Schütz and Bernhard: in 1670 the old master asked his pupil to compose a motet for his funeral, and when he received it he was delighted: "My son, he has done me a great favour by sending me the requested motet. I don't know how to improve a single note in it."

This testimony of the German musicus poeticus, as Schütz was called, is an indication of the qualities of Christoph Bernhard as a composer. His career started when he was singing as an alto at the court in Dresden, where he was officially appointed in 1649. Shortly thereafter the court chapel visited the Danish court in Copenhagen, where he met the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Fontana, who was in charge of the court chapel at the time, and Bernhard decided to stay a year there to study with Fontana. At the instigation of Schütz he was appointed vice-Kapellmeister at the court in Dresden, and as Schütz was growing older he left more and more of his duties to his former pupil.

During his years in Dresden Bernhard had the opportunity to visit Italy twice, and his contacts with Giacomo Carissimi in Rome were especially important for his development as a composer. In 1663 he was invited by Matthias Weckmann - who had been organist at the court in Dresden and was now active in Hamburg - to apply for the job of director of the church music there as a successor of Johann Selle. He got the job and was warmly welcomed in the city. The collection Geistliche Harmonien which this disc is partly devoted to, was dedicated to the Hamburg city authorities. In 1674 he returned to Dresden, where he took up his old job of vice-Kapellmeister. In 1681 he was appointed Kapellmeister, a position he held until his death.

The title of this disc suggests it contains only pieces from the collection Geistliche Harmonien, but in fact just half of the 12 items are from that collection. I assume the other pieces are from manuscripts, as no other publication of compositions by Bernhard is known. The longest work, Ich sahe an alles Thun, is a funeral motet he wrote while in Hamburg. The Geistliche Harmonien, although published during Bernhard's time in Hamburg and dedicated to the city authorities, reflect the musical practice at the court in Dresden rather than his activities in Hamburg. The scoring is for one to five voices with basso continuo, mostly with two additional string parts. This were the kind of pieces which were performed during dinner at the court in Dresden, and were also used during religious services.

In some of these motets the influence of Carissimi shines through in the alternation of recitative and arioso-like passages. Even more Italianate is Anima sterilis quid agis, which is reminiscent of the lamentos in 17th century Italian opera, and one of whose solo parts is very virtuosic. As one may expect from compositions in the German rhetorical tradition there is a lot of text illustration here. Melismas are used on words like "Wege" (paths) and "Leben" (life) (Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet), "Flehen" (beseech) and "harret" (waits) (Aus der Tiefe ruf' ich, Herr, zu dir). The beginning of the motet Heute ist Christus von den Toten auferstanden is dominated by an ascending figure to illustrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The same happens, of course, in the setting of Psalm 130, Aus der Tiefe ruf' ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths, Lord, I call to you). A frequently used rhetorical figure at the time, the antitheton - the opposition of contrasting ideas -, is used in Herzlich lieb hab' ich dich, o Herr, a setting of verses from the 18th Psalm, at the text: "wenn mir Angst ist - so rufe ich den Herren an" (when I am afraid - I call to the Lord). This should be expected from someone like Christoph Bernhard, whose treatises give much information about the rhetorical principle of German musical thinking in the 17th century.

This disc shows Bernhard is unjustly neglected as a composer. Only very few of his compositions have been recorded so far, and therefore this recording is very welcome. In the booklet Bernd Heyder writes that "the performance of the works by Bernhard recorded here adheres to his ideas and offers an ensemble constellation with artists singing in a manner similar to the opera and on the foundation of an opulent continuo group consisting of plucked, stringed and keyboard instruments". In his treatises Bernhard advocates a mixture of the Italian (vocal) style and German polyphony. Therefore the performance practice on this disc is certainly in line with this principle. The singers are well up to the job: all are experts in early music, and German music in particular, and fully understand its specific features. They all have very flexible voices, and excellent diction and articulation. The playing of the instrumentalists is colourful and also based on a good understanding of the lyrics. The variety in the scoring of the basso continuo part definitely pays off.

The booklet contains interesting programme notes and all the lyrics. In Ich sahe an alles Thun some stanzas are swapped - I am not sure whether they are just printed in the wrong order or whether they are performed in another order than Bernhard has indicated (which would seem rather odd).

This is a very interesting and musically satisfying recording of some of the best German sacred music of the 17th century. As there is much more to discover one can only hope Hermann Max, who is an expert in this kind of repertoire and who turned 65 last year, is going to stay healthy and gets the opportunity to delight us with more like this.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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