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"Baroque Christmas in Hamburg"

Bremer Barock Consorta
Eudald Dantib, Rhonda Edgingtonc, organ
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Sept 21 - 25, 2009, Mariendrebber, St. Marien & St. Pankratius
CPO - 777 553-2 (© 2010) (72'18")

Christoph BERNHARD (1627-1692): Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein a 5a; Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener a 10a; Johann Philipp FÖRTSCH (1652-1732): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christa; Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Angelus ad pastores ait a 12a; Magnificat 5. toni a 8a; Jacob PRAETORIUS (1586-1651): Praeambulum ex dc; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (1596-1663): Vom Himmel hochc; Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christb; Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Joseph! Was da?a; Videntes stellam magi a 8a; Matthias WECKMANN (1619-1674): Gegrüßet seist du, Holdseligea; Toccata vel Praeludium 1. tonib

With this disc Manfred Cordes once again sheds light on the rich musical culture of 17th-century Hamburg. He usually does so with his own ensemble, Weser-Renaissance. This time he directs the Bremer Barock Consort, a group of students from the early music department of the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen. It consists here of five sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses, two violins, three viole da gamba, two players of cornett and recorder, two sackbuts, dulcian, chitarrone and organ as well as two organists who play the solo items.

These forces are used in various combinations for a programme which gives a good idea of the variety of the 17th-century repertoire written for the churches in Hamburg. It varies from a small-scale piece for three solo voices, two violins and bc, like Christoph Bernhard's Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein, to large-scale works in polychoral style such as Hieronymus Praetorius's Angelus ad pastores ait. In his liner notes Manfred Cordes gives this description of music in Hamburg: "The motet traditions of the late sixteenth century were still alive and mixed with the influences of the Venetian polychorality, with the coloration techniques also reaching the North somewhat belatedly from Italy, and above all with the new concertizing style over the thorough bass with its intensified expressive possibilities." The programme on this disc bears witness to this description.

The first item is written in the Venetian polychoral style, although the composer, Hieronymus Praetorius, has never been in Italy himself. He uses a traditional text, Angelus ad pastores ait, to which fragments from a traditional German hymn are added, 'Puer natus in Bethlehem (Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem)'. The next piece is a Magnificat for eight voices in two choirs. It is an alternatim setting: the odd verses are in plainchant. But Praetorius also interpolated Christmas hymns, just like Johann Sebastian Bach did much later in the E flat version of his Magnificat. Here two hymns are included: 'Joseph, lieber Joseph mein' and 'In dulci jubilo', one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time.

In his liner notes Manfred Cordes refers to the still living tradition of the 16th century. Motets by masters of the polyphony were still held in high regard in Germany in the 17th century, and were often intavolated for organ. Thomas Selle's sacred concerto Videntes stellam magi is also based on a 16th-century piece, a motet with the same title by Orlandus Lassus. Liturgically this piece is for Epiphany as it is about the magi travelling to Bethlehem to pay honour to the new-born king.

A typical 17th-century form is the dialogue. The purest form can be found here in Gegrüßest seist du, Holdselige by Matthias Weckmann, in which the angel announces Jesus' birth to Mary. The angel is sung by a tenor, supported by strings, whereas the role of Mary is sung by a soprano with two recorders. In his concerto Joseph! Was da? Thomas Selle follows this pattern less strictly. Soprano, tenor and bass perform in various combinations. The piece's rhythm gives it a pastoral character, in particular at the phrase "now help me cradle a dear little child".

Hymns play an important role in the sacred repertoire in 17th-century Hamburg. Johann Philipp Förtsch composed a sacred concerto on the hymn Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ. The seven stanzas are treated in various ways. The first is for a soprano, singing the unornamented chorale melody over abundantly ornamented string parts. In the next stanzas soprano, alto, tenor and bass sing in various combinations, mostly on original musical material, but with quotations from the chorale melody. The words "Jammertal" (vale of tears) and "kommen arm" (came in poverty) are singled out.

Christoph Bernhard was an important composer who started his career as a pupil of Heinrich Schütz in Leipzig, to which he returned later on. His output is still hardly explored; the two pieces on this disc show his qualities and his versatility. Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein is an intimate piece: "Oh, my dear little Jesus, choose a pure soft bed for yourself my resting in this my heart's shrine, that I may never forget you". This intimacy doesn't hold the composer back from writing virtuosic ornaments in the solo parts, in particular of the two sopranos. The disc ends with his concerto Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, a large-scale piece for 10 voices on the Canticum Simeonis, here in a German rhymed version. It begins with a sinfonia for strings on the funeral anthem 'Mit Fried und Freud'. The first line is performed tutti, then follows a virtuosic duet for two sopranos, a more restrained duet of alto and tenor and lastly a solo for bass. The piece ends with a repeat of the first vocal section. Manfred Cordes follows the composer's suggestion to use a second choir here.

A disc like this should also include some organ pieces. Organists were highly regarded in Germany in the 17th century, and Hamburg had some of the very best within its walls. Most of them were pupils of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam, who was nicknamed the 'German organist builder'. Jacob Praetorius, son of Hieronymus, was one of them, and in his capacity as organist of St. Petri a key figure in Hamburg. He is represented with a free organ work, the Praeambulum in d minor. This prelude is a short brilliant piece which reflects the great skills of the composer. He was the teacher of Matthias Weckmann whose Toccata vel Praeludium 1. toni is included. With Heinrich Scheidemann we meet another Sweelinck pupil. For a long time he was organist of St. Katharinen. Apart from some sacred songs only organ works from him are known. Here three verses from his chorale fantasia Himmel hoch are played. The inclusion of Samuel Scheidt in the programme is a bit odd, as he never worked in Hamburg. It is justified by Manfred Cordes with the fact that he also was a pupil of Sweelinck. The three verses from his chorale fantasia Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ are played here as a kind of introduction to the concerto by Förtsch on the same chorale melody.

In the 17th century the basso continuo part in sacred music was usually played at the large organ rather than at a small positive. This practice is hard to follow in our time, as there are not that many organs with the right disposition and tuning, and also with enough space in the loft. After a long search a suitable church and organ were found: the St. Marien & St. Pankratius in Mariendrebber, with an organ which was built by Berend Hus - the mentor of Arp Schnitger - in 1658/59. Although it has been modified during its history the most important stops are still in their original condition. It is in 1/5 comma temperament which is appropriate for the earlier pieces in the programme. For Bernhard and Weckmann a positive was used.

The Bremer Barock Consort may consist of music students but they have produced a very fine and technically impressive recording of this compelling programme of Christmas music. The ensemble is very good, and the various voices are generally excellent. Only now and then it is noticeable that these are young singers whose voices have yet to mature. Sometimes they could have gone further in exploring the expression of the texts but on the whole I am very pleased by what is offered here. The pitch of the organ is not mentioned in the booklet, but I assume it is the high organ pitch which was common in Germany in the 17th century. As a result some treble parts are very high, and the sopranos deal with them convincingly.

The booklet contains a number of errors. In the tracklist the organ piece by Weckmann is attributed to Christoph Bernhard, who never wrote any organ piece. The lyrics contain various mistakes and have the wrong track numbers from track 8 onwards.

Still, from every musical angle this is a very good production, and a great addition to any collection of Christmas discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Hochschule für Künste Bremen

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