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Johann KUHNAU, Vincenzo ALBRICI: "Soprano Cantatas"

Barbara Christina Steude, soprano
concerto con voce
Dir: Jan Katzschke

rec: Oct 20 - 23, 2009, Schallbach, Evangelische Kirche
CPO - 777 531-2 (© 2010) (67'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Vincenzo ALBRICI (1631-1696): Mihi autem bonum est, sacred concerto; Omnia quae fecit Deus, sacred concerto; Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Ach Gott, wie läßt du mich verstarren, funeral aria a 5; Bone Jesu, sacred concerto for the 13th Sunday after Trinity; In te Domine speravi, sacred concerto for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity; Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht, cantata for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity; Weicht ihr Sorgen aus dem Herzen, cantata for the 15th Sunday after Trinity;

Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann, oboe; Gerd-Uwe Klein, Christa Kittel, violin; Werner Saller, viola; Flora Padar, bassoon; Guido Larisch, cello; Harald Martens, violone; Ulrich Wedemeier, lute; Jan Katzschke, harpsichord, organ

In 2010 it was 350 years ago that Johann Kuhnau was born. This has hardly been noticed, in strong contrast to the commemoration of the death of his colleague Dietrich Buxtehude in 2007. This difference is an indication of his position in music history. He is mostly only mentioned as the predecessor of Johann Sebastian Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. As a composer in his own right he is hardly given attention, with the exception of his Biblische Sonaten which are quite popular among keyboard players. The neglect of his oeuvre as a whole is probably caused by his reputation as a conservative who was opposed to the modern fashions of his time, in particular the influence of Italian opera in church music. But a closer look at his vocal oeuvre reveals that this picture is one-sided and that there is more to him than the defender of the traditional German style in liturgical music.

Kuhnau was not only a highly respected musician and composer, he was a kind of uomo universale. The 18th-century German music theorist Jakob Adlung wrote about him: "I do not know whether he brought more honour to the order of musicians or to other learned persons. He was knowledgeable in theology, in law, in oratory, in poetry, mathematics, foreign languages, and music". He enjoyed a wide musical education, first in Dresden from the age of nine. Here he met the Italian composer Vincenzo Albrici, who had joined the court in Dresden under Heinrich Schütz and took over his position as Kapellmeister after his death in 1672. After two years in Zittau Kuhnau went to Leipzig University in 1682, where he met Johann Schelle, the then Thomaskantor, who was a family friend from his birthplace Geising. Two years later Kuhnau was appointed organist of the Thomaskirche. In 1700 he published his satirical novel Der musicalische Quack-Salber, about a pompous, ill-trained Italian musical charlatan in 17th-century Germany. When Schelle died in 1701 Kuhnau was appointed his successor. He worked as Thomaskantor until his death in 1722. Among his pupils were three important German composers: Johann David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner.

Kuhnau's extant oeuvre contains mainly sacred vocal music. He composed some works for the stage which are all lost, and the same is true for his many occasional works. The cantatas and sacred concertos illustrate the stylistic developments of the decades around the turn of the century. The sacred concertos reflect the style of the 17th century, and are devided into a number of sections. This disc includes two examples which both date from 1690. Bone Jesu is composed for the 13th Sunday after Trinity and is a setting of a free poetic text which reflects the spirit of German pietism. The emotional character of this text is largely lost on Barbara Christina Steude who does far too little with the text. The second concerto, In te Domine speravi doesn't come off better. It is for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity on the verses 2 to 6 of Psalm 31. An interesting piece is Ach Gott, wie läßt du mich verstarren (Oh God, how you let me stiffen), on a text by Christian Weise (1642-1708) after Isaiah 40, vs 31. It was written during his years in Zittau, when shortly after his arrival the Kantor Erhard Titius and the organist Moritz Edelmann died within a short span of time. This piece is Kuhnau's first composition: it is a strophic piece in which the voice is accompanied by either the full ensemble or basso continuo alone. One would expect the emotional content to be expressed in the performance, but sadly that is not the case. The various stanzas are largely sung the same way, even without ornamentation.

The modern side of Kuhnau's oeuvre comes to the fore in the two cantatas which open and close the programme. Weicht ihr Sorgen aus dem Herzen (Depart, you cares, from the heart) is composed for the 15th Sunday after Trinity and comprises four arias interspersed by recitatives. This shows that Kuhnau wasn't opposing the structure of recitative and aria - which was born in Italian opera - but, as Jan Katzschke writes in his liner-notes - the galant style which often accompanied it. He states that Kuhnau's cantatas are a mixture of the Schütz tradition in which the text is in the centre, and the "cantability of Italian inspiration". The author of the text (after Matthew 6, vs 25-34, where Jesus urges his disciples not to care about what to eat or what to drink) is not known; Katzschke suggests it could have been from Kuhnau's own pen, considering his qualities as a writer. The arias have a dacapo structure, and the A part of the opening aria is repeated after the first recitative. The instrumental scoring is also a mixture of old and new: the five-part strings - which was common in the 17th century - are joined by the modern oboe.

The disc ends with a cantata in a more modest scoring. Und ob die Feinde Tag und Nacht is for soprano, violin and bc, and was written for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The text is after Matthew 22, vs 15-22, where Jesus' enemies try to trick him with a question about paying taxes to the Romans. Even more than in the former cantata Kuhnau has translated the text to music. In both cantatas Ms Steude and the ensemble fail to bring that out. The recitatives are rhythmically too strict and dynamically as flat as a pancake. In the sacred concertos the pietistic text of Bone Jesu doesn't entice Ms Steude to colour her voice. In Albrici's sacred concerto Mihi autem bonum est (But for me it is good to adhere to God) even the words "delicta mea horreo" (I detest my crimes) doesn't make her raise her voice. She largely sings piano or mezzo-forte, but seems not to be able to really explore the key words in the texts. Albrici's concerto Omnia quae fecit Deus (All the things that God made) may be theatrical as Katzschke states, you wouldn't guess on the basis of the performance. Ms Steude's continuous slight vibrato doesn't make things any better. There is no justification for the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts.

Both composers are not well represented on disc, and that makes it even more sad that this recording is largely a failure. In fact, I was mostly bored by the performances, although I love this kind of music and know from other recordings and live performances that Kuhnau's music is of very good quality. His music deserves a fresh chance.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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