musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Rupert Ignaz MAYR (1646 - 1712): Sacred music

[I] "Psalms from Sacri Concentus 1681"
Alois Mühlbachera, Florian Winkelmaierb, soprano; Markus Forster, altoc; Markus Miesenberger, tenord; Gerd Kenda, basse
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor
rec: Nov 26 - 28, 2017, St. Florian, Stift St. Florian (Altomonte-Saal)
Challenge Classics - CC72759 (© 2018) (59'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover, track-list & booklet

Beati omnesc; Confitebor tibi Dominumd; Laudate pueri Dominumb; Nisi Dominuse; Venite gentesa

Fritz Kircher, violin; Gunar Letzbor, violin, viola; Markus Miesenberger, viola; Peter Trefflinger, cello; Hubert Hoffmann, theorbo; Erich Traxler, organ

[II] "Sacri Concentus - Antiphonae (1681)"
Alois Mühlbachera, Christian Ziemskib, soprano; Markus Forster, altoc; Markus Miesenberger, tenord; Gerd Kenda, basse
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor
rec: Nov 22 - 25, 2018, St. Florian, Stift St. Florian (Altomonte-Saal)
Challenge Classics - CC72828 (© 2018) (46'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alma redemptoris materd; Ave Regina coelorumc; In terras descendamb; Regina coelie; Salve Reginaa

Michael Oman, recorder; Franz Landlinger, Bernhard Mühringer, trumpet; Fritz Kircher, violin; Gunar Letzbor, violin, viola; Peter Aigner, Mira Letzbor, viola; Peter Trefflinger, basso di viola; Hubert Hoffmann, theorbo; Erich Traxler, organ

Source: Sacri concentus psalmorum, antiphonarum, 1681

In the course of his career and the existence of his ensemble Ars Antiqua Austria, Gunar Letzbor has performed and recorded much repertoire written in Austria and nearby regions, such as Bohemia and southern Germany, that was hardly known before, or even not known at all. In vocal music he closely cooperated with St. Florian and its boys' choir, from which often also the soloists were taken. The two discs under review here represent a further step in the exploration of little-known repertoire. Rupert Ignaz Mayr is not a really unknown quantity; I have several discs with his music in my collection, and some pieces on these discs have been recorded before. Even so, his music is seldom performed and recorded, and the discs I referred to were released by minor labels and may not be available anymore.

Mayr is one of the representatives of the high Baroque in Southern Germany. He was born in Schärding, near Passau, but nothing is known about his musical education. In 1670 he entered the service of the Prince-Bishop of Freising as a violinist. From 1683 he worked at the court of Elector Max Emanuel in Munich, where he not only acted as violinist but also started to compose. In 1706 he returned to Freising to work as Kapellmeister and composed religious and instrumental music. There he also wrote a number of school operas to be performed by the students of the episcopal seminary. Today Mayr is a relatively minor figure in the music scene, but in his time he was a respected composer and twenty years after his death Johann Gottfried Walther included him in his Musicalisches Lexicon.

Southern Germany was under Italian influence; it was in particular Johann Caspar Kerll - who had studied with Frescobaldi in Rome - who brought it to Munich. Mayr's music reflects this influence as he makes use of the Italian concertato style; the pieces on these two discs attest to that. In addition he composed motets in the stile antico. Another feature of Mayr's works is that he often treats voices and instruments on equal terms. One could probably argue that Mayr was a mostly rather conservative composer. The musical language of the 'school operas' on sacred subjects, for instance, is reminiscent of the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi (1605 - 1674).

Before turning to the music, let us get some technicalities out of the way. These discs are obviously meant as sequels. Therefore it is rather odd that they are so different as far as the production standard is concerned. The first disc includes a biography of Mayr and some personal reflexions on the use of boys' voices, and in particular the choir and soloists of St Florian, by Letzbor, as well as biographies of the soloists. However, there is no information about the pieces that are performed, including their scoring. Even worse, the lyrics are omitted. Fortunately, all but one of the pieces are settings of Psalms, and their texts can easily be found on the internet, including translations (*). The one remaining piece is the hymn Venite gentes; I could not identify it and was not able to find its text and translation on the internet. I also should mention that the titles of tracks 2 and 4 have been swapped. The second disc is much better in this respect. Here we get a description of the various pieces, as well as detailed imformation about the scorings. The lyrics are included, but without translations. Again, in four cases that is no problem: the Marian antiphons are among the most frequently-set texts in the renaissance and baroque periods. The exception is In terras descendam, but the description in the booklet makes a little up for the lack of a translation.

The first disc opens with Laudate pueri Dominum (Psalm 112/113), one of the Vesper psalms, which explains why it has been set so often. Here it is scored for soprano, obbligato violin and basso continuo. The combination of voice and violin is reminiscent of some sacred concertos by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, which have the same scoring. Here the violin is probably a little less prominent than in Biber's concertos. The opening words are set to ascending figures - an eloquent depiction of the text: "Praise the Lord, children. Praise the name of the Lord". Ascending figures are also appropriately used to illustrate the 7th verse: "He lifts up the needy from the ground, and he urges the poor away from filth". A baroque rhetorical instrument used to emphasize a textual element is repetition at a higher pitch. That is applied here in verse 8: "so that he may place him [the poor] with the leaders, with the leaders of his people". Fabian Winkelmair delivers an impressive performance. It is a typical St. Florian choirboy: a bright and beautiful voice, excellent and supple technique and well aware of the text.

Next is Psalm 126 (127) (erroneously track 4 in the track-list), Nisi Dominus, another work with an obbligato violin part. This time the solo is allocated to the bass. "Postquam sederitis" (after you sat down) is set to low notes; the word "somnum" ([to his beloved, he will give] sleep) is illustrated by a melisma. Vivid coloratura is applied in verse 4: "Like arrows in the hand of the powerful, so are the sons of those who have been cast out". The tenor of this psalm makes one understand that it has been scored for bass. Gerd Kenda makes the best of it. I would probably prefer a somewhat different kind of voice, but he is certainly effective here.

Beati omnes is a setting of Psalm 127 (128), scored for alto, viola and basso continuo; in another recording the obbligato instrumental part is performed at a trombone. The opening words, "Blessed are all those who fear the Lord", set the tone for the entire psalm, which is devoid of dramatic features and strong contrasts. That is also reflected by the scoring. It is an example of a piece which includes some elements of recitative (verses 2 and 5), which are also included in Laudate pueri Dominum. This psalm is given a fine performance by Markus Forster.

Track 4 (and not 2, as the track-list has it) includes the setting of Confitebor tibi Domine, another Vesper psalm (110/111). It is scored for tenor with an ensemble of strings. The latter play an important role in the illustration of the last phrase of verse 9: "Holy and terrible is his name". Coloratura is used to depict the opening of the second verse: "Great are the works of the Lord". In the next verse the words "magnificentia opus eius" ([confession and] magnificence are his work) are singled out. The psalm ends on an intimate and lyrical note: "A good understanding is for all who do it [= fear the Lord]. His praise remains from age to age". Markus Miesenberger is the soloist, who has a nice voice and an excellent diction, which makes the text clearly understandable. The singing is a little too straightforward, though.

The last piece is the hymn Venite gentes which I have already mentioned. As I did not have access to the text, I can't say anything about the way Mayr treats it. It includes more colorarura than the other pieces here, and it has some unmistakable operatic traces, which are not lost on Alois Mühlbacher, former member of the choir of St Florian, who is now a bass, but is still able to sing as a soprano. He now also sings later repertoire, and that shows in the way he performs this piece. Now and then a little vibrato creeps in. However, it is hardly disturbing, and the way he tackles the coloratura and the top notes of his part is admirable. It brings to a close a fine and very interesting disc which demonstrates the qualities of Mayr as a composer of vocal music.

That is confirmed by the next disc, which is devoted to antiphons, with the exception of the first item. In terras decendam is intended for Christmastide. It describes how an angel descends from heaven to annouce the birth of Jesus (the opening words are in the first person singular). This is illustrated by descending figures which are later repeated at a higher pitch (a technique we already noted at the previous disc). The piece includes pastoral elements, with the participation of a recorder, as one may expect, in the second section in which the shepherds are urged to visit baby Jesus. In the ensuing sections the growth of the baby into a man is effectively depicted with musical means. Christian Ziemski - another lovely voice from St Florian - is the outstanding soloist in this very nice piece.

The other items are settings of the four Marian antiphons. Ave Regina coelorum is another piece with an obbligato violin part, comparable with those on the first disc. Here the violin opens the work with a solo episode, which is technically demanding, and includes scales over its entire range. The vocal part includes melismas, but omits wide leaps. The violin solo is repeated later at a higher pitch, inspired by the text: "Rejoice, virgin". The performance shows an excellent partnership of Forster and Letzbor.

Salve Regina is scored for soprano with two violins, basso di viola and basso continuo. It opens with a sinfonia which is dominated by traditional counterpoint. The text is divided into five sections. The first opens with ascending figures. The 'Ad te clamamus' section has the form of a recitative, and the string parts include ligature e durezze. The vocal part has the usual sighing motifs. The ensuing section comprises wide leaps and dotted quavers. The piece ends in a serene way. Alois Mühlbacher delivers a technically assured and musically expressive performance.

The largest ensemble is employed in Alma redemptoris mater: tenor, two violins, two violas, basso di viola and basso continuo. It opens with a sinfonia, very much like that in the previous piece. Notable are the dotted rhythms and the way Mayr has singled out the words "you have brought forth, for nature to marvel". Again, sighing motifs are used when the singer asks for mercy on sinners. Markus Miesenberger does well in bringing out these features. I actually rate his performance here higher than that on the previous disc.

Mary is glorified in Regina coeli, and therefore the scoring for bass, two trumpets and basso continuo does not come as a surprise. The trumpets are only silent in the second section: "the Son you merited to bear", but they enter at the Alleluia, and at the repeat they play at a higher pitch. It is the Alleluia which ends each line that Mayr focuses on, and here he pulls out all the stops to express the glory of the Virgin Mary. Gerd Kenda, Franz Landlinger and Bernhard Müringer are a perfect combination to convey what the composer wanted to achieve.

These two discs amply demonstrate what a fine composer Rupert Ignaz Mayr was. It is true that in some of his works he is rather conservative, but that does not go for the pieces performed here, which are entirely in accordance with the style of his time. He certainly knew how to illustrate a text in such a manner that its content is communicated. The performers are little less than ideal advocates of Mayr's oeuvre. I hope that we may expect more treasures from his oeuvre. In the booklet to the first disc Letzbor expresses his admiration of the vocal forces at St Florian and hopes to continue the collaboration. I can only share that hope as these singers take a unique place in the musical landscape, which cannot be missed.

A very good site with the texts of all Psalms in the Latin translation of the Vulgata, with simultaneous translations in English is Virgo Sacrata.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Markus Forster
Markus Miesenberger
Alois Mühlbacher
Ars Antiqua Austria

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