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Sebastian KNÜPFER (1633 - 1676): "Veni Sancte Spiritus - Cantatas"

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Oct 24 - 25, 2013, Bremen, Kirche St. Ansgarii
CPO - 777 884-2 (© 2016) (71'02")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Kyrie cum Gloria a 14; O benignissime Jesu a 10; Quare fremuerunt gentes a 19; Super flumina Babylonis a 19; Surgite populi a 26; Veni Sancte Spiritus a 25

Karin Gyllenhammar, Cecile Kempenaers, Julla van Landsberg, Marie Luise Werneburg, soprano; Marnix De Cat, David Erler, alto; Charles Daniels, Mirko Ludwig, Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, Kees Jan de Koning, bass
Judith Paquier, Anna Schall, Barbara Heindlmeier, cornett; Robert Schlegl, Andreas Neuhaus, Wim Becu, sackbut; Susan Williams, Helen Barsby, Evgeny Yatsuk, Alexandra Mikheeva, Sebastian Kroll, trumpet; Johannes Terpstra, timpani; Veronika Skuplik, Franciska Hajdu, Annette Keimel, Laura Fierro, violin; Juliane Laake, Jenny Westmann, Katia Kuzminykh, viola da gamba; Christian Heim, violone; Eva-Maria Horn, dulcian; Simon Linné, chitarrone; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

The post of Thomaskantor was one of the most prestigious in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the best composers of their time held this post, but it is only Johann Sebastian Bach, who is given the attention worthy of a Thomaskantor. For a long time his predecessors have been more or less ignored. Around 2000 Robert King devoted a series of recordings to three of them, but their oeuvre is still anything but part of the standard repertoire. Two of them have fared best: Johann Hermann Schein (Thomaskantor from 1616 to 1630) and Johann Schelle, who held the post from 1677 to 1701. Recently CPO has started a series of recordings with works by Schelle's successor and Bach's immediate predecessor Johann Kuhnau. That is a very positive development, which should help to restore him to the status he deserves.

Sebastian Knüpfer probably needs to wait a little, until the same happens to him. I am only aware of two other recordings entirely devoted to his oeuvre, one by Robert King and another one by Arno Paduch, directing his Johann-Rosenmüller-Ensemble (Christophorus, 2004). Therefore this new release, with performances of six of his ten extant sacred works on Latin texts, cannot be appreciated enough.

Knüpfer was born in Asch in Bavaria (now in the Czech Republic) where his father was Kantor. He received his first musical education from him and entered the Gymnasium Poeticum in Regensburg, where he remained for eight years. He turned out to be a brilliant student, who excelled in poetry and philology. In 1654 he moved to Leipzig, probably to study at the University. However, his main activities were in the field of music, singing as a bass in various choirs. When the Thomaskantor Tobias Michael died in 1657 Knüpfer applied for his post and was appointed. He improved the standard of the musical establishment, which had severely suffered from the devastations of the Thirty Years' War. As a result Leipzig developed into one of Germany's main musical centres. Knüpfer became a respected member of the intellectual community.

Veronika Greuel, in her liner-notes, rightly observes that the post of Thomaskantor was not only prestigious. It was also a difficult position, not only because of he work-load, but also because every Kantor came into conflict with the authorities in one way or another. That wasn't any different with Knüpfer. He was supported by the respective headmasters, and he also enjoyed the support of the mayors and the council. In his case it were members of the clergy, who caused him trouble. They complained about the length of his compositions. "It was never so bad than after he became choirmaster; before it he was different." This explains why in 1663, when the Hamburg director musices Thomas Selle died, Knüpfer applied for that post. However, it was given to Christoph Bernhard, a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. Greuel suggests that the Hamburg council may have regarded Knüpfer as too young for the post; he was just 30 years of age. It was certainly not due to a lack of appreciation; when Bernhard left his post in 1674/75, efforts were made to persuade him to become his successor. But he decided to remain in Leipzig. If he had moved to Hamburg, the city would not have enjoyed his service for long, because in 1676 he died, at the age of 44.

During his relatively short life Knüpfer composed a pretty large number of works. In 1663 he published a collection of madrigals and canzonettas, but otherwise his oeuvre consists entirely of sacred music. A large part of it has been lost. His output is estimated at about 200 works; around 100 have been preserved. His compositions show a wide variety of scorings, from intimate pieces for solo voices, a couple of instruments and basso continuo, to large-scale works in the Venetian polychoral style, which was adopted by several German composers of the early 17th century, such as Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt and Thomas Selle. The title page of the present disc refers to 'cantatas', but that is debatable. The words cantata and concerto were used mostly rather indiscriminately at the time, and don't indicate a fundamental difference in structure.

The disc opens and ends with the the largest scorings. Veni Sancte Spiritus is an arrangement of the well-known hymn for Pentecost, in 25 parts. The scoring is for two groups of five voices, one favoriti, the other a capella - basically a division between 'soli' and 'tutti'. The instrumental ensemble includes all the instruments in vogue at the time: strings, four trumpets, two cornetts, three sackbuts, bassoon, timpani and basso continuo. Knüpfer observes the texture of the hymn: the verses are treated more or less as separate sections. It is in fact a sequence of short motets, not unlike Lassus's penitential psalms. Surgite populi is in 26 parts; the text is an offertory for Easter. It opens with the words: "Rise, you peoples, let trumpets sound over the mountains, sing in choirs to the drums of joy". No surprise, then, that the scoring includes trumpets - no less than five of them - and timpani, alongside three cornetts, three sackbuts, bassoon, strings and bc. The sound of the trumpets is also imitated by the bass, who opens the proceedings, on the word "clangite" (blare). The second section, before the "Amen", is very different and rather intimate, reflecting the text: "[Today] the Good Shepherd has risen, who gave his life for his sheep". The text has just six lines, but the piece takes a little less than 13 minutes. This can be explained by the repeat of two sections. After the "Amen" the lines I just quoted are repeated, and then the piece ends with a repeat of the opening lines.

O benignissime Jesu is an example of a piece in a more moderate scoring, although it has ten parts. Seven singers are divided into favoriti and cappella; they are accompanied by two violins, viola da gamba and bc. The viol plays an obbligato part and strongly contributes to this piece's intimate character. Again this is inspired by the text, which reflects the spirit of pietism: "O Jesus most benign, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Say but the word, and my soul shall be healed". The Kyrie cum Gloria - those pieces of the mass, which sometimes were still sung in Latin in the Lutheran liturgy - is scored for 14 parts, but the instrumental scoring for eight-part strings and bc lends it a rather introverted character.

Super flumina Babylonis is one of the psalms, which have been set frequently in the course of history. Knüpfer creates strong contrasts by setting the words of the enemies of the Jewish people differently, for instance "Sing us one of the songs of Zion". They reply: "How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?" The last words are set to marked dissonances. The 'sons of Edom' are quoted: "Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!", referring to Jerusalem. This has been set as a turba, not unlike the turbae in Bach's Passions. The psalm ends with the cursing: "Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock". Here Knüpfer turns to a lively rhythm; it is another kind of turba.

Quare fremuerunt gentes is for 19 voices, divided into six favoriti, four-part capella, two cornetts, three sackbuts, bassoon, strings and bc. It is a setting of Psalm 2: "Why have the nations raged and the people plotted vain things?" Parts of this work have the traces of a battaglia. In this psalm God is quoted, and his words are set for solo voices, especially the bass, in the baroque period the usual scoring for the vox Dei. These solo episodes point in the direction of what was to become the cantata.

Listening to this disc one comes to realise that Knüpfer is unjustly neglected. His oeuvre deserves thorough examination and needs to be performed more frequently. The performances are as good as one may expect from this ensemble. The solos are sung very well, and Harry van der Kamp deserves special praise for his solo contributions. Knüpfer's works require a wide tessitura; there are some very high notes for the sopranos, and very low notes for the bass. He must have had very good singers at his disposal. The instrumentalists in Leipzig also must have been very skilled. The players of Weser-Renaissance certainly are; the instrumental parts receive brilliant performances. Obviously in large scorings like these it is not easy to make the text clearly understandable. That is probably a slight weakness in these performances: it is sometimes hard to hear what exactly is sung.

I strongly recommend this disc. It is a major addition to the discography of German 17th-century music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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