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Johann Philipp FÖRTSCH (1652 - 1732): "Sacred Concertos - Cantatas"

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: May 2 - 4, 2013, Schloss Gottorf (Schlosskapelle)
CPO - 777 860-2 (© 2013) (68'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Ach, ich elender Mensch; Der Herr hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir; Herr, wer wird wohnen in deiner Hütten; Jesu, du hast weggenommen; Meine Augen rinnen mit Wasserbächen; Nun dancket aller Gott, der große Dinge tut; Nun ist des Satans Macht gefället; Weh denen, die auf Erden wohnen

Magdalena Podkoscielna, Andrea Lauren Brown, soprano; David Erler, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, Mirko Ludwig, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Susan Williams, Rudolf Lörinc, trumpet; Veronika Skuplik, Irina Kisselova, violin; Frauke Hess, Marthe Perl, Christian Heim, viola da gamba; Joachim Held, lute; Detlef Bratschke, organ

Johann Philipp Förtsch is one of the most remarkable German composers of the 17th century. About halfway through his life his career as a professional musician came to an end and he started to devote his life to the medical profession. Also notable is that his sacred compositions are more dramatic in character than was common in his time.

Förtsch was born in Wertheim am Main where his father was mayor. He studied medicine, law and philosophy in Jena and then in Erfurt. He did not plan to become a professional musician but must have enjoyed a good musical education. In his musical lexicon Johann Gottfried Walther mentions Johann Philipp Krieger as his teacher, but there is no documentary evidence for this. He started his career as a singer in Hamburg in sacred music and in the Opera. In 1680 Duke Christian Albrecht of Holstein-Gottorf appointed him Kapellmeister as successor to the highly reputed Johann Theile, another token of his qualities. In 1683 the Duke, who was in permanent conflict with Denmark, had to flee, and that brought Förtsch's activities as Kapellmeister to an end. At this moment Förtsch changed his profession: he settled in Husum as a doctor. However, he remained active as a composer, writing twelve operas for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt. When Christian returned to Gottorf Förtsch was appointed as court physician. After the Duke's death in 1694 Förtsch entered the service of the bishop of Lübeck, August Friedrich, the Duke's brother. Here he not only acted as the bishop's personal physician but was also entrusted with diplomatic assignments. Until his death Förtsch was active as a doctor and as a counselor of justice.

Unfortunately Förtsch operas have all been lost but his dramatic skills come to the fore in his sacred oeuvre. About 80 pieces in this genre have been preserved and many are remarkably dramatic in nature. Since the beginning of the 17th century, when the seconda prattica emerged, composers had explored the dramatic elements in biblical texts, especially in the form of dialogues. Förtsch goes a step further: he takes texts which have no elements of a dialogue but turns them into little dramas by including new texts, either from elsewhere in the Bible or free texts. The very first piece of this disc is a telling example.

Nun ist des Satans Macht gefället is a cantata for Ascension Day. The opening text has a dramatic character in itself: "Now Satan's power has fallen and is broken, and your Christian battalion can mock death and hell". It comes as no surprise that the instrumental scoring includes two trumpets. Förstsch inserts a solo part for a bass who acts as the vox Christi. Jesus is quoted as saying that it was written that he had to die and to rise from the dead, and later orders his disciples to preach the gospel across the world. The same vox Christi, again sung by the bass, appears in Ach, ich elender Mensch in which the tenor asks: "[Who] shall deliver me from this mortal body?". Jesus replies: "Come here to me, come all who are weary amd heavy laden". Meine Augen rinnen mit Wasserbächen is a cantata for the 10th Sunday after Trinity. At that Sunday the gospel reading is from St Luke, chapter 19, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem. The cantata opens with the bass, singing words put into Jesus' mouth: "My eyes flow with watery streams at the mysery of the daughter of my people". Later in the cantata he sings literal quotations of Jesus' words from the Bible. In between are emotional reactions sung by two sopranos and a tenor in short solo episodes.

Förtsch is also historically important in regard to the development of the church cantata. Some of the pieces recorded here have the form of a sacred concerto, without any sections or extended solo episodes. Examples are Herr, wer wird wohnen in deiner Hütten and the closing piece, Nun danket alle Gott, the latter again with two trumpets. Der Herr hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir has the form of a concerto-aria cantata, as we know it from the oeuvre of Buxtehude. Weh denen, die auf Erden wohnen is an early example of a cantata which closes with a chorale, sung by the tutti. It has the form of a chorale arrangement, with the strings weaving a web around the four-part chorale. This is reminiscent of the cantatas by Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731). Jesu, du hast weggenommen is entirely based on a chorale. Here the stanzas 6 to 12 from the chorale Jesu, der du meine Seele are arranged for soprano and tenor, mostly singing in ensemble.

Considering the remarkable features of Förtsch's sacred music it is rather odd that he was only discovered about ten years ago. In 2008 and 2009 the first two discs were released which were entirely devoted to his oeuvre, directed by Roland Wilson and Rien Voskuilen respectively. Before that only one of two pieces were available on disc. With these three discs that number has substantially increased to almost twenty. That allows a balanced picture of Förtsch's qualities as a composer. Having heard all three of them I have to rate him highly. Every single piece I have heard has something special, not only in regard to the use of dramatic means but also in terms of text expression. The pieces on this disc include plenty of passages where the text is eloquently depicted in the music.

Weser-Renaissance delivers impressive and very compelling performances. The singers have a full command of the style of German music of this time. Good diction and delivery are indispensable elements in a convincing interpretation of this repertoire, and especially here this ensemble is unbeatable. The singers show sensitivity to the text, especially Harry van der Kamp, who singles out key words in his account of the vox Christi. The instruments play an important role here as well as Förtsch regulary uses them to underline the dramatic nature of the text. The players of Weser-Renaissance are well aware of that.

This is a highly important release and I very much hope that more from Förtsch's oeuvre will be recorded.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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