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"Thomaskantoren vor Johann Sebastian Bach"

Kammerchor Josquin des Préz
Hartmut Becker, cello; Daniel Beilschmidt, organ (soloa)
Dir: Ludwig Böhme

rec: May 29 - 30 & July 4 - 5, 2012, Leipzig, Lutherkirche
Carus - 83.342 (© 2012) (67'07")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translations: [D]/E
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Missa brevis in G (BWV 236) (Kyrie, arr for 4 voices and bc); Wir glauben all an einen Gott a 4 and bc (BWV 437); Wir glauben all an einen Gott, chorale arrangement for organ (BWV 681)a [6]; Sethus CALVISIUS (1556-1615): Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist a 4 and bc [1]; Praeter rerum seriem a 6 (after Josquin Desprez) [2]; Sebastian KNÜPFER (1633-1676): Mein Gott, betrübt ist meine Seele a 6 and bc; Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Ach Gott, wie lässt du mich erstarren a 5 and bc; Gott hat uns nicht gesetzt zum Zorn a 5; Tristis est anima mea a 5; Tobias MICHAEL (1592-1657): Aus der Tiefe a 5 and bc [5]; Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist a 5 [5]; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Gott, sei mir gnädig a 6 and bc [3]; Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich a 4 and bcb [4]; Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Komm, Jesu, komm a 5 and bc

Sources: Sethus Calvisius, [1] Harmonia cantionum ecclesiasticarum, 1597; [2] Florilegium selectissimarum cantionum, 1603; Johann Hermann Schein, [3] Cymbalum Sionium, 1615; [4] Cantional oder Gesangbuch Augspurgischer Confession, 1627; [5] Tobias Michael, Musicalische Seelenlust, 2 vols., 1634-37; [6] Johann Sebastian Bach, Clavier-Übung, III, 1739

Diana Matut, Angelika Mees, Eva Rolle, Christiane Steuber, soprano; Elke Bauer, Lysann Benndorf, Katja Böhme, Claudia Hempel, contralto; Karsten Alber, Christian Pohlers, Michael Schlesier, tenor; Tobias Ay, Konstantin Espig, Philipp Goldmann (solo), Thomas Keil, Jürgen Schroekh, bass

When Johann Sebastian Bach was elected Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723 he took profit from the fact that several other candidates, among them Telemann and Graupner, were not available. That should not be interpreted as an indication that it was a minor job. The fact that since the late 16th century only first-rate musicians were appointed as Thomaskantor bears witness to the prestigious character of this position. Recordings which pay attention to Bach's predecessors in this office are not rare. However, they mostly confine themselves to the composers of the second half of the 17th century, Sebastian Knüpfer (1657-1676) and Johann Schelle (1677-1701), and to Bach's immediate predecessor, Johann Kuhnau (171-1723). This disc puts some composers in the spotlight who are largely neglected.

Johann Hermann Schein is not really neglected, but the attention given to his oeuvre is a little one-sided. His collection of sacred madrigals, Israels-Brünnlein, is available in several recordings - some of them released recently - whereas the largest part of his oeuvre is still hardly known. His predecessors Tobias Michael and Sethus Calvisius, though, have hardly enjoyed the interest of modern performers and little of their output is available on disc. Considering the quality of the pieces which have been selected for this recording that is a gross injustice.

Calvisius was from Thuringia, and was active in various capacities, as a music theorist, astronomer and historian. The astronomer Johannes Keppler was among his friends. He was one of the most important musical theorists in Germany in his time. Especially noteworthy is that he paid much attention to the connection between poetic and musical figures. This can be considered an aspect which would dominate German composing in the 17th century and even beyond. That is also vital in the performance of this kind of music; I will return to that later in my assessment of the performance.

Calvisius' music embraces the whole programme. It begins with his arrangement of Josquin's famous motet Praeter rerum seriem which was also used by Lassus as cantus firmus for one of his Magnificat-settings. This piece is a bridge between the style of the 16th and that of the 17th century. The disc closes with a setting of Martin Luther's hymn Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist for four voices and bc. It is one of the many settings of hymns which were written from the mid-16th century onwards. In this hymn, as in various others, Luther also connects the past and the future, since it is an adaptation of an old hymn from around 800.

Calvisius was succeeded by Johann Hermann Schein who at a young age settled in Dresden with his parents. At the age of 13 he entered the Hofkapelle, which was then directed by Rogier Michael, who instructed him theoretically and practically. In 1608 he enrolled at Leipzig University, and from 1612 to 1616 he worked at Weissenfels and Weimar respectively. In 1616 he was elected as successor of Calvisius. His time in office was marred by difficulties: his wife and various of his children died and he suffered from poor health. Moreover, the Thirty Years' War caused great stress for all musical institutions in Germany, including Leipzig. It is therefore a kind of miracle that he was able to keep his choir in reasonable shape and produced a quite large amount of music. Gott, sei mir gnädig is a large-scale motet for six voices and bc on the German text of Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms. It is an example of Schein's skills in setting a text to music. It includes various passages for reduced forces. Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich is from a collection of four-part hymn-settings.

Schein died in 1630 at the age of just 44. He was a close friend of Heinrich Schütz. The latter had succeeded Rogier Michael as Hofkapellmeister in Dresden in 1619. One of the latter's sons, Tobias, was appointed as Schein's successor in Leipzig in 1631. His compositional output shows the influence from the newest trends in Italian music, and his settings of German biblical texts in the first part of his Musicalische Seelenlust are reminiscent of Schein's sacred madrigals in Israels-Brünnlein. Aus der Tiefe is a setting of Psalm 130 which begins with the low voices singing "out of the depths" which are joined by the other voices on "have I cried unto thee, O Lord". It is an expressive piece for five voices and bc, no less than Unsere Trübsal, die zeitlich und leicht ist which is set for five voices a cappella.

In 1657 Michael died and was succeeded by Sebastian Knüpfer. He was from Bavaria and enjoyed an extensive education in Regensburg where he turned out to be a brilliant student. 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 Michael died he applied for his post and was appointed. He improved the standard of the musical establishment which had severely suffered from the Thirty Years' War. As a result Leipzig developed into one of Germany's main musical centres. A large part of his oeuvre has been lost; he often built his sacred concertos on hymns, and he shows a great mastery of counterpoint. Notable is also his inventive instrumental scoring: he often made use of strings and wind in his sacred music. Mein Gott, betrübt ist meine Seele is a motet of great expressive power, scored for six voices and bc.

In 1677 Johann Schelle was appointed as Knüpfer's successor. He was from Saxony and entered the court chapel in Dresden, then sung in Wolfenbüttel and entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1665. Under his baton major changes took place, and Schelle laid the foundation of the chorale cantata and the cantata which was closely connected to the Gospel reading of the day. At the same time he did away with music on Latin texts; his own output is almost entirely based on German texts. The counterpoint is simplified and he wrote arias which show the influence of contemporary opera. He aimed at bringing the music closer to the congregation and also looked for a maximum of text expression. Relatively few motets from his pen have been preserved; Komm, Jesu, komm is a particularly beautiful specimen with a text which he sets in a relatively simple but expressive way.

His cousin Johann Kuhnau was appointed in 1701 as his successor. He received a thorough intellectual and musical education in Dresden and in 1684 he was appointed organist at the Thomaskirche. In 1688 he published his dissertation and worked then as a lawyer. At the same time he focused on composing keyboard music. In his capacity of Thomaskantor he had various pupils who developed into some of the leading composers in Germany, such as Graupner and Heinichen. Although Kuhnau is generally considered rather conservative he not only composed sacred music which link up with that of Knüpfer and Schelle but also cantatas which show the influence of opera and point in the direction of the cantatas by Bach. This disc includes three motets. Tristis est anima mea is of doubtless authenticity, scored for five voices a cappella, which was later arranged by Bach. Gott hat uns nicht gesetzt zum Zorn is also for five voices a cappella, beginning with words from 1 Thessalonians 5, followed by the first stanza from the hymn Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele, set in the form of a chorale arrangement. Ach Gott, wie läßt du mich erstarren is an aria for five voices and bc.

Lastly Bach: he couldn't be excluded, but the choice of repertoire is not entirely convincing. That concerns the Kyrie from the Missa brevis in G (BWV 236) which is here performed with basso continuo alone. That hardly does justice to the work as it is written. The inclusion of one of Bach's chorale harmonizations makes much more sense, and is also more important from the angle of repertoire, as this part of his oeuvre is hardly explored.

That said, the repertoire for this disc has been mostly very well-chosen. According to the track-list no less than seven of the 13 pieces are recorded here for the first time. Moreover, all pieces are of first-rate quality and reflect the attention payed to the text by German composers of the 17th century. That only can be conveyed when the performers have a thorough understanding of the idiosyncracies of this repertoire and know how to bring them across. That is certainly the case here. The delivery is excellent, thanks to a perfect pronunciation, diction, phrasing and articulation. Dynamic accents are set where they are required. The sensitivity towards the character of the music comes also to the fore in the performance of Calvisius' arrangement of Praeter rerum seriem by Josquin, which is rightly sung largely legato, and - although on different dynamic levels - without 'baroque' dynamic accents.

It is essential in this repertoire that the text always is in the centre, and that is the case here indeed. One could argue that 16 voices are probably too many for at least some of the music, but musically speaking that is hardly a problem, considering the transparency of the choir.

One issue needs to be addressed. In several pieces the scoring is changed somewhere in the middle. The motet Komm, Jesu, komm by Schelle is an example. We hear the first two stanzas as they are scored by the composer: five voices and bc. Then we hear a cello solo, followed by a repetation of the last lines of the second stanza. The third stanza is then sung by the choir in unison, and only in the fourth stanza the original scoring returns. This procedure is followed in some other pieces with various stanzas as well. It is as if the performers don't trust the quality of the music - or their own performances - and think that the listener will get bored if the same scoring is kept during the whole piece. I don't think that this is the case. Music and interpretation are good enough to keep the listener's attention without such 'variety'.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Kammerchor Josquin des Préz

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