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CD reviews

Motets from Germany, 1750 - 1800

[I] "Motetten der Hiller-Sammlung" (Motets from the Hiller Collection)
Sächsisches Vocalensemble
Dir: Matthias Jung
rec: Oct 3 - 5, 2014 & Jan 16 - 18, 2015, Dresden
Carus - 83.269 (© 2015) (70'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D/E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christoph Ludwig FEHRE (1718-1772): Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis; Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1703/04-1759): Herr, ich habe lieb die Stätte deines Hauses; Lasset uns freuen und fröhlich sein; Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591), arr Johann Adam HILLER: Ecce quomodo moritur justus; Gottlob HARRER (1703-1755): Mein Herz ist bereit; Johann Adam HILLER (1728-1804): Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras; Er lebt, der unbezwungne Held; Ruh, müder Leib; Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714-1785): Der Herr ist mein Hirte (HoWV V.8); Hilf, Herr! Die Heiligen haben abgenommen (HoWV V.45); Siehe, des Herrn Auge (HoWV V.52); Christian Friedrich PENZEL (1737-1801): Wenn ich zu dir empor in meinen Ängsten flehe; Wie selig ist, der Gott vertraut; Theodor Christlieb REINHOLD (1682-1755): Alle eure Sorgen werfet auf den Herrn; Johann Heinrich ROLLE (1716-1785): Der Herr behüte dich; Der Herr ist König; Johann Gottfried WIESKE (1745-1806): Herr, lehre mich tun nach deinem Wohlgefallen

[II] Johann Heinrich ROLLE: "Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt - 31 Motets"
Kammerchor Michaelstein
Dir: Sebastian Göring
rec: August 2004, Ditfurth/Saxony-Anhalt, St. Bonifatius Kirchea; August & Oct 2006, Vieselbach/Thuringia, Kirche 'Zum Heiligen Kreuz'b
CPO - 777 778-2 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.00'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Alles, was Odem hatb; Danket dem Herrnb; Danket dem Herrn und prediget seinen Namena; Der Friede Gottesa; Der Herr behüte dichb; Der Herr erhöre dich in der Nothb; Der Herr ist Königa; Der Herr ist mein Hirteb; Die Ehre des Herrn ist ewiga; Es ist in keinem andern Heilb; Flieht ihr Bilder der nächtlichen Sorgen (aria)b2; Freuen und frölich müssen seynb; Gott der Herr ist Sonn' und Schilda; Gott ist unsre Zuversichta; Gott sey uns gnädigb; Herr sey mir gnädiga; Ich danke dir, Gott, von ganzem Herzenb; Ich hebe meine Augen aufb; Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welta; Kommt her und schauet die Werke des Herrna; Kommt herzu!a; Kommt, lasset uns anbetena; Lobe den Herrn, meine Seeleb; Meine Seele harrt auf dichb; Mihi adhaerere Deob; Misericordias Dominib; Schaff' in mir Gotta; Thue ein Zeichen an mirb; Unsere Seele harret auf den Herrnb; Wachet auf vom Schlaf (aria)b1,2; Wohl dem, der sich des Dürftigen annimmtb

Cornelia Werner, soprano (solob1); Claudia Mayer, Susanne Kanis, violina; Christiane Max, violaa; Katharina Schlegel, celloa; Erik Warkenthin, lute, guitarb2

The motet was one of the main genres of sacred music in the renaissance. In the baroque period it lost its position, especially in Germany. German composers of the first half of the 17th century still composed motets; some included elements of the modern concertato style as it had emerged in Italy. Towards the end of the century the motet almost disappeared, largely under the influence of the growing attraction of the cantata which in the first half of the 18th century embraced elements of opera in its sequence of recitatives and arias.

The motets which were written in the first half of the 18th century, especially by Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach, were mostly written for special occasions, in particular funerals. The motet was still a fixed part of the Lutheran liturgy, but in most churches old collections of motets were in use, dating from the 16th and early 17th centuries. It is telling that Bach as late as 1729 purchased several copies of one of those, the Florilegii Musici Portensis, printed in Leipzig in 1621. One wonders why composers like him didn't feel the need to write motets to replace pieces written more than a century ago. It seems possible that they didn't consider them really old-fashioned as their own works - like those motets - were also dominated by counterpoint. That could be the main reason why composers of the next generation - when polyphony was largely replaced by homophony - turned to this genre and started to compose motets of their own which could replace the old stuff. This seems to be confirmed by Johann Adam Hiller who published five volumes with motets. He judged the collection of 1621 mentioned above very negatively, calling it "Latin singsong dragged together by Master Bodenschatz".

Most of the motets Hiller published were not from his pen. These volumes include motets by a number of composers, some of whom are largely unknown today. The years of their birth and death indicate that they belong to different generations and that comes also to the fore in the stylistic differences. Motets were written for performances by church choirs during regular services and may also have been performed during the Saturday Vespers. It is telling that these Vespers were sometimes called 'Saturday motets'. The motets found wide dissemination which attests to the growing demand of more 'up-to-date' music. It is also due to the fact that they were not too technically complicated and therefore were within the grasp of church choirs of limited abilities.

The disc by the Sächsisches Vocalensemble offers a representative selection of motets from Hiller's collection. Gottlob Harrer and Theodor Christlieb Reinhold belong to the older generatin and are more or less contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach. When the latter died in 1750 Harrer succeeded him as Thomaskantor. It is said that his compositions are influenced by Johann Adolf Hasse and the modern Italian style of his time. However, Mein Herz ist bereit is largely polyphonic. The opening section - a setting of Psalm 57 vs 7 - is followed by a chorale arrangement of Nun lob mein Seel den Herren in which the opening section is repeated after every pair of lines. Reinhold was Kantor of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden from 1720 until his death in 1755. Hiller was one of his pupils and included two motets by his teacher in his collections; these pieces are the only extant compositions from Reinhold's pen.

When he died he was succeeded as Kantor of the Kreuzkirche by Gottfried August Homilius, one of Bach's pupils. He was praised as "the best composer of church music" (Johann Friedrich Reichardt, 1776) or "without argument, our greatest church composer" (Ernst Ludwig Gerber, 1790). He was certainly also one of the most important contributors to the genre of the motet. Recently two discs with his motets have been released by Carus, under the direction of Frieder Bernius and Stefan Schuck respectively. The present disc offers three motets, two of which are not on one of those discs. Der Herr ist mein Hirte is a through-composed setting of Psalm 23. In Siehe, des Herrn Auge and Hilf, Herr! Die Heiligen haben abgenommen Homilius includes a chorale as cantus firmus. In the former it is in the tenor, in the latter in the soprano. Homilius mixes the tradition of counterpoint with modern fashions, for instance the Empfindsamkeit, in his setting of the text.

Among the hardly known composers are Christoph Ludwig Fehre, Johann Gottfried Weiske and Christian Friedrich Penzel. Fehre worked most of his life as organist in various churches in Dresden. It has been discovered that he is the composer of the Schulmeisterkantate formerly attributed to Telemann. Weiske was a pupil of the Thomasschule in Leipzig and became Kantor in Meißen in 1774. Penzel was another pupil of the Thomasschule; in 1765 he became Kantor at Merseburg. His motet Wenn ich zu dir empor in meinen Ängsten flehe is a setting of a poem based on Psalm 28 by Johann Andreas Cramer, a theologian and poet who was a representative of the German Enlightenment. Such settings - a paraphrase of a Psalm rather than the Psalm itself - is one of the features of the motets of this time. In Merseburg Penzel was the successor of August Friedrich Graun, the older - and lesser-known - brother of Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich. The latter was mainly known as a composer of opera and became especially famous for his setting of Karl Wilhelm Ramler's Passion cantata Der Tod Jesu. The motet Lasset uns freuen und fröhlich sein is a setting of a verse from Revelation (ch 19) and includes quite some coloratura on words like "freuen" (be glad) and "fröhlich (sein)" (rejoice).

Obviously Hiller also included motets from his own pen. Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras is quite well-known (it was also recorded by Hermann Max with his Rheinische Kantorei) and opens with a setting of verses from the first letter of St Peter. This is followed by a poem of three stanzas by the famous poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, another representative of the Enlightenment. Er lebt, der unbezwungne Held is called an aria for Easter. Although most motets were composed for regular services, some were intended for funerals - like those by Bach - and Hiller's Ruh, müder Leib ("Rest, tired body, rest in the grave") is one of them. An intriguing piece is Hiller's arrangement of a specimen of the 'old stuff' he didn't like. However, he had something positive to say about Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Gallus (also known as Handl-Gallus). As he considered this one of the few pieces of good quality he arranged it to bring it more up to date with the taste of his time.

The Sächsisches Vocalensemble comprises 23 singers; whether that is in line with what was common at the time these motets were written is hard to say. I tend to think that most choirs were smaller than this. I certainly would have preferred a smaller group. That makes it even more remarkable that the text is so clearly understandable. That is due to the recording but first and foremost to the style of singing and the transparent sound the choir produces. The articulation and diction are very good and the text is given much attention. Those passages where elements in the text are depicted directly in the music come off perfectly.

This disc includes some motets by a composer who has not been mentioned yet: Johann Heinrich Rolle. To him the Kammerchor Michaelstein, directed by Sebastian Göring, has devoted a set of two discs. Rolle was - alongside Homilius - one of the main composers of motets. He was born in Quedlinburg, a town southwest of Magdeburg, as the son of the town music director. In 1721 the family moved to Magdeburg where Rolle's father became Kantor of the Old Town Latin School which Johann Heinrich also was to attend. His musical talents came to the fore at an early age; it is said that he composed his first sacred music at the age of 13. Some years later he was appointed organist of St Peter's. In 1737 he went to Leipzig to study law and it is assumed that at this time he participated in performances of Bach's Collegium Musicum. By 1741 he entered the court orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin as a violinist. This brought him into contact with some of the major composers of the time, such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the brothers Graun and Benda.

He left Berlin for Magdeburg in 1746 as he had been appointed organist of St John's, the town's principal church. In 1751 his father died and he succeeded him as Kantor of the Old Town Latin School; he held this position until his death. It is also in this capacity that he composed most of his sacred works, among them many cantatas and motets. His fame was mainly based on his musical dramas, a mixture of opera and oratorio: the subjects were largely biblical, but many scores include stage directions. However, his cantatas and motets were also very popular, and copies have been found across Central Germany, but also in Denmark, the Baltic region and Transylvania. It is not easy to establish how many motets Rolle may have written. Some pieces are called 'motets', but are in fact arrangements of parts from his cantatas or musical dramas. The total number could be as high as around 100.

The texts are mostly taken from the Bible, and in particular from the Book of Psalms. They are basically homophonic, but many also include polyphonic episodes, often fugal. There are also indications in regard to the use of solo voices. In this recording most motets include passages which are sung by four members of the choir. In one aspect Rolle sometimes links up with a tradition which was particularly established in Central Germany and we have also met in Homilius' motets: the use of a chorale melody as a cantus firmus, although mostly in the last section of a motet, and always sung by the sopranos. An example is Herr sey mir gnädig which includes the first stanza of the chorale O Gott, du frommer Gott.

Although these motets are relatively uncomplicated, they are not devoid of text expression. In Der Herr is König the line "seine Blitze leuchten auf den Erdboden" (his lightnings enlighten the world) is vividly depicted. The same is true of "er rühret die Berge an, so rauchen sie" (he toucheth the hills, and they smoke) in Die Ehre des Herrn ist ewig. In Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele the words "vom Verderben" (from destruction) are sung in unison at a low pitch. In contrast, Rolle writes sometimes extended coloratura on words such as "jauchzen" , "loben", "danken" and "amen". Two pieces bear the indication aria (like one of the above-mentioned motets by Hiller): Flieht ihr Bilder der nächtlichen Sorgen and Wacht auf vom Schlaf. The texts are non-biblical and they have a somewhat 'operatic' character. Maybe these give some indication of the arias in his musical dramas. The first section of the latter piece is sung by a soloist, who is accompanied on the guitar.

The two discs with motets by Rolle have been recorded with a distance of two years. There are some clear differences between them. All these motets are for voices without accompaniment. On the first disc the choir is supported by two violins, viola and cello in all but one of the motets; they play colla voce, but are hardly notable, and I can't see the need for their participation. The same goes for the lute. It is used on the second disc, but it has little presence. There is also a difference in the number of singers involved. On the first disc the choir comprises 22 voices (8/4/5/5), on the second disc the number of singers is reduced to nine. The booklet doesn't include any information about the interpretation. It seems that the reduction of the number of voices was deliberate as the interpretation is also different. On the second disc there is stronger dynamic shading and a greater responsiveness to the text. As a result these performances are more expressive and more captivating than those on the first disc. Although I enjoyed the singing by the larger choir there were several moments when I felt that more could have been done with the text. Sometimes I found the singing too bland and that made me think that Rolle's motets were probably not that interesting. The second disc proved me wrong.

The growing interest in the German motet repertoire from the late 18th century is most welcome. Writing about Jacob Handl-Gallus's motet Ecce moritur Johann Adam Hiller exclaimed: "It is more than 200 years old, and is still (...) sung in churches. Friends! Will our works meet with a similar good fortune?" Apparently not as most of the pieces recorded here are unknown and certainly not part of the repertoire of choirs. There is every reason to regret that. One can only hope that discs like these help to restore them to their rightful place. Maybe Hiller's hope will come true after all.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Kammerchor Michaelstein
Sächsisches Vocalensemble

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