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Gregor Joseph WERNER (1695 - 1766): "Pro Adventu"

Alois Mühlbacher, treblea; Markus Miesenberger, tenorb
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: Nov 25 - 28, 2010, Ivanka pri Dunaji Castle (Slovakia)
Challenge Classics - CC72513 (© 2012) (58'09")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Scores quartets

Aria pro Dominica prima Adventus (Seht! Wie der stolzen Schlangen Haubt)a; Cantilena de immaculate (Ihr blumenreichen Felder)b; Cantilena pro Adventu (O Maria treib von dannen)b; Cantilena pro Adventu de immaculate conceptione (Maria Wurzel Davids)a; Concerto a 5 parti; Pastorale in G; Quartet I in F [1]; Quartet II in d minor [1]; Quartet III in c minor [1]; Quartet IV in c minor [1]; Quartet V in d minor [1]; Quartet VI in g minor [1]

Source: [1] 6 Fugen in Quartetten, (ed. FJ Haydn), 1804

Ernst Schlader, Markus Springer, chalumeau; Barbara Konrad, violin; Gunar Letzbor, violin, viola; Markus Miesenberger, viola; Jan Krigovsky, violone; Norbert Zeilberger, harpsichord, organ

It is rather odd that some composers are known by just one composition. In the case of Gregor Joseph Werner it is his Musicalischer Instrumental-Calender which exists in - as far as I know - three recordings. Otherwise he is badly represented on disc. It is mostly the fact that he was Haydn's predecessor as Kapellmeister of the Esterházy's which made him being mentioned in history books and programme-notes.

His started his career as an organist of the Stift Melk; he lived for some years in Vienna, where he may have been a pupil of Fux. In 1728 he was appointed Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court. In his incumbent years he brought the chapel to a high standard, and there is no reason to consider him a rather mediocre composer and to neglect him, as has been done by artists and the recording industry. It is unlikely that the Esterházy's would have appointed him as Kapellmeister if he were not a very good musician. It may be his negative attitude to Haydn which has damaged his reputation. In 1761 the latter was appointed as vice-Kapellmeister who was mainly responsible for the writing of instrumental music, whereas Werner concentrated on the composition of sacred music. It didn't take long until Werner accused Haydn of neglecting his duties and being responsible for the decrease of the chapel's standard.

It was probably mainly his resentment against the modern style of his time which caused the conflict between the two men. It didn't prevent Haydn from holding Werner in high esteem, though. In 1804 he published six fugues by Werner which were taken from his oratorios and which he scored for string quartet. This disc includes them all. They are preceded by a slow movement, larghetto (I), largo (II), adagio ma poco (III, V and VI) or grave (IV). In his liner-notes Gunar Letzbor writes that it remains the subject of speculation whether these introductions were composed by Haydn himself. I tend to think he did; for what it is worth, they reminded me of the Sieben letzten Worte. Their dark mood and often dramatic character is emphasized in the performances of Ars Antiqua Austria. These six pieces are such that they fully deserve to be part of the standard repertoire of string quartets. It is notable that they are recorded here with the cello part played at the violone. I know that it was common practice in Austria to play parts for a bass string instrument on the violone, but does that also go for string quartets? Does that mean that Haydn's quartets should be played with a violone rather than a cello?

The two instrumental pieces are quite interesting as well. The Concerto a 5 parti has two parts for chalumeaus; in the first movement they play along with the organ which has a solo role in this piece. It also has in the Pastorale in G, although the booklet mentioned cembalo (harpsichord) in the scoring. The pastoral character is particularly present in the first movement; the piece comes to a surprising close with a rather forceful vivace passato.

The title of this disc refers to the four vocal items in the programme which are all written for the time of Advent. They belong to a then popular category of rather simple music for voice and instruments. They are mostly closely connected to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. That is also the case with the pieces on this disc. O Maria, treib von dannen and Ihr blumenreichen Felder are both strophic. The first is scored for oboe or chalumeau, two violins con sordino and bc, whereas the second has two chalumeau parts, again with muted violins. Markus Miesenberger has caught the character of these pieces well and doesn't try to make to much of it. It is their simplicity and directness which makes them nice to listen to.

Maria Wurzel Davids and Seht! Wie der Stolzen Schlangen Haubt are in the form of a recitative and a strophic aria, for a soprano with a 'viola amabile', two muted violins and bc. The second piece refers to the Fall of man in paradise when God promises that the serpent's (devil's) head will be crushed through the birth of Jesus. Alois Mühlbacher, already 15 at the time of this recording, is (was) a member of the St. Florianer Sängerknaben, an outstanding choir of boys and men, with which Gunar Letzbor has made several fine recordings. Mühlbacher sings these two pieces very well, showing a remarkable range and his ability to express a text. I didn't know what was meant by a 'viola amabile'. Mr Letzbor was so kind to inform me that this is not a specific instrument but rather a viola which is played with a mute made of leather, creating a sound which he feels is appropriate for these two pieces.

It is impossible to really assess Werner's qualities as a composers, because his oeuvre has hardly been explored yet. I would, for instance, be very interested to hear some of his oratorios. As far as I know just one of these has been recorded (Debora, directed by Pál Németh, Quintana/Harmonia mundi, 1994). However, we should be grateful for this disc which allows us to catch a glimpse of his oeuvre. Let us hope that more of it will be revealed in future recordings.

On a sad note, this is one of the last recordings of the keyboard player Norbert Zeilberger who died in a tragic accident in August 2012.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Ars Antiqua Austria

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