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Augustin PFLEGER (1635 - 1686): "Laudate Dominum - Sacred Cantatas"

Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: May 2 - 4, 2012, Schloss Gottorf (church)
CPO - 777 801-2 (© 2012) (78'10")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Cum complerentur dies Pentecostes [1]; Dominus virtutum nobiscum [1]; Erbarm dich mein; Gott bauet selbst sein Himmelreich; Heut ist Gottes Himmelreich; Ich bin ein guter Hirte; In tribulatione invocavimus [1]; Laetatus sum [1]; Laudate Dominum [1]; Laudate pueri [1]; Schauet an den Liebesgeist; Super flumina Babylonis [1]

Source: [1] Psalmi, dialogi et motettae, op. 1, 1661

Andrea Lauren Brown, Magdalena Podkoscielna, soprano; David Erler, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; Irina Kisselova, Dagmar Valentova, violin; Frauke Hess, Christian Heim, Marthe Perl, viola da gamba; Joachim Held, theorbo; Detlef Bratschke, organ

Augustin Pfleger is one of the many composers who was active in various places during his relatively short life and produced a considerable number of compositions. As far as we know he only composed vocal music, a large part of which has been lost. Among these are 89 sacred concertos on Latin texts which are cited in a catalogue from Güstrow where he acted as vice-Kapellmeister from 1662 to 1665. The year before he started his job there he published a collection of 18 Psalms, dialogues and motets as his op. 1. From 1665 to 1673 he was Kapellmeister at the court of Gottorf in Schleswig-Holstein, one of the major centres of music-making in Germany. The archive of this court is one of the richest sources of German music from the 17th century.

The present disc mixes pieces from two genres: the sacred concertos op. 1 and the pieces on a German text which he wrote during his time in Gottorf. These are called 'cantatas' in the booklet, and that is rather unusual for this time in history. They have little in common with the 'cantata' as we know it from the oeuvre of Bach or Telemann. There are no recitatives and arias, but one of the features is a distinction between freely composed passages and episodes of a strophic nature. For the latter Pfleger makes use of a collection of poetry published by the pastor Johann Rist in 1641-42 under the title of Himmlische Lieder (Heavenly Songs). The episodes in a free declamatory style are usually settings of biblical passages. Often Pfleger juxtaposes several episodes to create a dramatic contrast. In several cantatas one can find elements of dialogue. One example is Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott. The tenor, representing a Pharisee, says: "I thank you, God, that I am not like other men, robbers, unjust men, adulterers, or even like the publicans". Then the bass quotes the words of Jesus: "You hypocrite, why do you seem a splinter in your brother's eye, and do not perceive the beam in your eyes?" These two voices are then juxtaposed in an almost operatic way. The opening phrase, Erbarm dich mein, with some reminiscences of the then common chorale melody, is repeated during the cantata as a kind of refrain.

Heut is Gottes Himmelreich is another piece which includes dialogue elements. It refers to one of Jesus' parables, about a king inviting people for his wedding: "Come to this wedding's joy", but the tenors reply: "We do not want to!". Again the bass represents Jesus, comparing himself with the king in the parable: "See, I have prepared my meal, my oxen and my fatted cattle have been slaughtered". This piece includes quotations from various books of the Bible, including Psalm 8 and Ezekiel. The declamatory episodes are alternated by strophic arias. Gott bauet selbst sein Himmelreich is of the same structure. This time it is about the parable of the good and the bad seed and about Jesus presenting himself as the good shepherd.

The sacred concertos on a Latin text are generally more concise; the texts are mostly from the Book of Psalms and the solo passages are usually shorter than in the German cantatas. However, even here we find some elements of dialogue, for instance in Dominus virtutum nobiscum in which the bass acts as vox Dei (the voice of God). In Laudate pueri Dominum the second phrase, "Sit nomen Domini benedictum" (Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for all eternity) is used as a refrain, returning several times. Contrasts are created through different scorings, for instance the two sopranos vs tenor and bass. In these pieces we also find many specimens of eloquent text expression. The influence of the modern Italian music of Pfleger's time is present everywhere.

The instruments have often an extended role. They not only accompany the voices; several pieces include instrumental episodes. In seven of them the instrumental ensemble comprises two violins and a consort of viols. Two cantatas have parts for only two violins. In two sacred concertos the singers are supported by a viol consort, without the violins, and there is one piece with basso continuo alone.

One has to conclude that Pfleger's compositions are of high quality and that he has made substantial contributions to German sacred music of the 17th century. His cantatas can even be considered quite modern as the mixture of declamatory episodes and 'arias' point in the direction of Buxtehude's 'concerto-aria' cantatas of a much later date.

It is hard to find a better ensemble to perform this music than Weser-Renaissance. Over the years it has built up an impressive discography of German 17th-century music. The voices blend perfectly, but also have the individual qualities to sing the solo passages convincingly. In their recordings the text is always given maximum attention, and that is the case here as well. That makes some inaccuracies in the pronunciation department all the more surprising. The sopranos have sometimes slight problems with the text, for instance in Gott bauet selbst sein Himmelreich, where "Tränenbrot" is sung as "Tranenbrot". Dominik Wörner, who gives brilliant performances of his solos, once sings "aus seinen Augen" instead of deinen (Erbarm dich mein).

None of this should spoil anyone's enjoyment of this disc. To my knowledge it is the first ever completely devoted to Pfleger's music. What even enhances its value is the fact that these pieces were recorded in the chapel of Gottorf Castle where most of this music must have been performed for the first time and which has remained unaltered. Moreover, the basso continuo is played at the large organ of the chapel which dates from the 17th century and was reconstructed around 2000 to what is believed to be its original state.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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