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Tobias MICHAEL (1592 - 1657): Musicalische Seelenlust

Weser-Renaissance Bremen
Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Feb 28 - March 2, 2014, Bassum, Stiftskirche
CPO - 777 935-2 (© 2017) (65'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach, wie elend ist unser Zeit; Der Herr behüte dich; Die Erlöseten des Herren; Gehe hin, mein Volk; Gott ist unser Zuversicht; Gott, es setzen sich die Stolzen; Gott, wer ist dir gleich?; Gott ist unser Zuversicht; Herr, erzeige uns deine Gnade; Höre mein Gebet; Ich liege und schlafe; Ich sprach: Nun muß ich zur Hellenpforte; Israel hat dennoch Gott zum Trost - Aber du setztest sie aufs Schlüpfrige; Kommt, wir wollen wieder zum Herren; Meine Schafe hören meine Stimme; Siehe, der Gerechte kömmt um; Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist; Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist

Ulrike Hofbauer, Monika Mauch, Marie Luise Werneburg, soprano; David Erler, alto; Bernd Oliver Fröhlich, tenor; Kees Jan de Koning, bass; Margit Schultheiß, harp; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Detlef Bratschke, organ

More than once I have noticed a rather curious phenomenon. For a long time a composer is almost completely ignored, and then, all of a sudden, several discs with his music are released. The reason could be that ensembles follow in each other's footsteps, once they notice that such a disc earns some success. The commemoration of the birth or death of a composer can also be the explanation. Neither of these is the case here. In 2015 the German label Raumklang released a disc entirely devoted to Tobias Michael, performed by the Ensemble Polyharmonique. The recording was made in 2014, and earlier that year the ensemble Weser-Renaissance also recorded pieces of the same composer, and even from the same collection. Considering that the early music scene is not that large and that both ensembles are from Germany, I wonder whether they knew about each other's recording project. Apparently not, because several pieces are included in both recordings.

Tobias Michael was from a musical family; his father, born in what is now one of the southern provinces of the Netherlands, was Hofkapellmeister in Dresden from 1587 to his death in 1619. From him Michael received his first musical education. He entered the Hofkapelle in 1601, went to Schulpforta to further his education in 1609 and then studied theology and philosophy in Wittenberg. From 1619 to 1630 he worked as Kapellmeister in Sondershausen. In the latter year the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Johann Hermann Schein, died and Michael applied for the post. He was elected unanimously and took up his duties the next year. The state of the choir was not the best. This was due to Schein's poor health for many years as well as the effects of the Thirty Years' War. Michael came up with plans to improve the quality, which apparently were not without result. This explains why Heinrich Schütz in 1648 dedicated his collection Geistliche Chor-Music to Leipzig and its "famous choir of such renown".

A number of compositions by Michael have been lost. His extant oeuvre comprises various occasional works, mostly for funerals, and two sets of sacred works, which were printed in 1634/35 and 1637 respectively, under the title of Musicalische Seelenlust. The first volume includes 30 sacred madrigals for five voices and basso continuo, the second sacred concertos for one or two voices and basso continuo as well as for three to six voices and basso continuo with obbligato instruments. Whereas the Ensemble Polyharmonique recorded pieces from both volumes, Weser-Renaissance confines itself to the first.

Nearly all the texts are taken from the Bible. The selection on this disc includes just one piece on free poetry: Ach, wie elend ist unser Zeit; the author is Johannes Gigas, a 16th-century theologian and poet. A number of texts are from the Book of Psalms; others are taken from the prophets Isaiah and Hosea, from the gospels and from Paul's letters. Most notable is the very close connection between text and music. Nearly every phrase is illustrated through musical figures, harmony or changes of metre. In Herr, erzeige uns deine Gnade the second phrase opens with "Ach", which is set in the manner of an exclamatio, one of the rhetorical devices a composer had at his disposal. The word "Torheit" (foolishness) is illustrated by dissonants. In Gott ist unser Zuversicht the phrase "the mountains should sink into the sea" is graphically depicted, as are the words "wütet und wallet" ([the sea] rages and roars). Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist is a setting of Psalm 133. It opens with the phrase: "See, how fine and pleasant it is, when brothers live together in harmony". The word 'together' ("beieinander") is illustrated by a passage in unison. In Meine Schafe hören meine Stimme the voices start one after the other on the words "sie folgen mir" (they follow me). In Siehe, der Gerechte kömmt um the words "kömmt um" ([the righteous man] perishes) is followed by a pause. And in Kommt, wir wollen wieder zum Herren the word "zerrissen" (torn apart) is sung staccato: zer-ris-sen. These are just a few examples of many madrigalisms in these pieces.

This explains why Michael indicates on the title-page that these pieces are composed "in the madrigalian style". That could also mean that these pieces are intended in the first place for private performances rather than the church. The way they are composed also suggests that a line-up of one voice per part is the most appropriate. There is a strong similarity between these sacred madrigals and those which Michael's predecessor Johann Hermann Schein put together in his collection Israelis Brünlein. They are also comparable as far as their quality is concerned. There is no reason to ignore these pieces by Michael, and it is rather strange that only now they are receiving some attention, whereas Schein's Israelis Brünlein is rather well-known and pieces from that collection are often performed and recorded. Therefore there is every reason to be happy about this disc. There are some duplications, but this disc also offers quite a number of madrigals which are not on the Raumklang disc. The singing of Weser-Renaissance is top-class. The text is always clearly intelligible, and thanks to the slender voices of the singers the ensemble produces a very transparent sound. The madrigalisms are explored to the full. This results in a highly expressive and compelling performance. Considering that these pieces may have been intended for domestic use, the acoustic is probably a little too reverberant. However, that is a very minor issue.

This is a disc to treasure.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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Weser-Renaissance Bremen

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