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Christoph BERNHARD (1627 - 1692): Geistliche Harmonien (1665)

Parthenia Vocal & Parthenia Baroque
Dir: Christian Brembeck

rec: Feb 20 - 24, 1995, Ailing, Kath. Pfarrkirche Mariae Geburt
Christophorus - CHR 77346 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2011) (1.37'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Ach Herr, straf' mich nicht in deinem Zorn; Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein; Aus der Tiefe ruf' ich, Herr, zu dir; Das ist ein köstlich Ding, dem Herren danken; Es wird eine Rute aufgehen vom Stamm Isai; Euch ist's gegeben zu wissen das Geheimnis; Habe deine Lust an dem Herrn; Herr, wer wird wohnen in deiner Hütten; Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, Herr; Heute ist Christus von den Toten auferstanden; Ich sandte die Propheten nicht; Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt; Jerusalem, die du tötest die Propheten; Lieber Herre Gott, wecke uns auf; O, welch eine Tiefe des Reichtums; Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz; Sie haben meinen Herrn hinweggenommen; Unser keiner lebet ihm selber; Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele; Wie der Hirsch schreiet nach frischem Wasser

Petra Geitner, Tanja d'Althann, soprano; Reiner Schneider-Waterberg, alto; Markus Schäfer, Bernhard Hirtreiter, tenor; Gerhard Späth, Hartmut Elbert, bass
Claudia Schneider, Annegret Siedel, violin; Thilo Hirsch, viola da gamba; Christian Beuse, dulcian; Angelika Oertel, chitarrone; Christian Brembeck, organ

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) can be considered the father of German music. He played a crucial role in the incorporation of basic elements of the stile nuovo in the German tradition of counterpoint. His music is more dramatic than that of his predecessors and the text is always in the centre. This is in line with the ideals of Giulio Caccini, one of the first advocates of the monodic style. This ideal went down well in the Protestant part of Germany, as the instigator of the Reformation, Martin Luther, also gave much attention to the text. The Bible should be at the centre of worship, not the ritual as in the Roman-Catholic Church. Liturgical music and the sermon had the same purpose: the dissemination of the Word of God and the doctrines of the church.

Schütz was the dominant personality in Protestant Germany and few composers could avoid his influence. That influence is especially exposed in the compositions of his pupils. One of the most famous of them was Christoph Bernhard. He came to the court in Dresden as an alto singer, and after some years he went to Copenhagen with the court chapel. He decided to stay there and to study with the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Fontana. After his return to Dresden he was appointed vice-Kapellmeister. As Schütz grew older he left more and more of his duties to Bernhard. During his time in Dresden he had opportunities to visit Rome, where he studied with Giacomo Carissimi. This has left its marks in his oeuvre, in particular in his use of the dialogue.

In 1663 he moved to Hamburg at the request of his friend Matthias Weckmann who was once organist at the court in Dresden and was organist of the Jacobikirche since 1655. Here Bernhard was appointed as successor to Johann Schelle as the city's music director. As a token of his appreciation for the warm welcome which was given to him he dedicated his Geistliche Harmonien to the city authorities. It is very likely that these compositions were already written during his time in Dresden.

The collection comprises 20 sacred concertos; the scoring is, according to the title, for two to five voices. However, the basso continuo counts for one voice; the vocal parts vary from one to four. The texts are all in the vernacular and most are taken from the Bible; ten are from the Book of Psalms. In two of the concertos the biblical texts are extended by free poetry. Sie haben meinen Herren hinweggenommen is one of Bernhard's best-known concertos. It is written for Easter and is a dialogue between the resurrected Jesus and Mary. She doesn't recognize him and thinks he is the gardiner and asks him where Jesus might have been laid down. This dialogue shows the influence of Carissimi who was famous for his oratorios.

The last concerto of the collection is a modern piece in that it points in the direction of the concerto-aria cantata of Buxtehude. The biblical text is extended by strophic episodes for one, two and three voices respectively. Bernhard was one of the first in Germany who composed such pieces. At about the same time his colleague Augustin Pfleger, who worked in Gottorf, did the same.

The influence of Carissimi doesn't only come to the fore in the dramatic features of some concertos, but also in the vocal virtuosity which is characteristic of a number of concertos. Some have a rather wide range which is very demanding for singers. Another feature of this collection is the often extended parts for the violins. There can be little doubt that this is partly due to Bernhard's studies with Fontana, himself a virtuosic violinist. Schütz's attention to the text can be easily recognized in the work of his pupil. There are many moments in these concertos where Bernhard vividly and eloquently illustrates the text. A striking example is Aus der Tiefe where the opening phrase is depicted by a rising figure going from the bottom to the top of the singer's tessitura. Equally evocative is the opening of Wie der Hirsch schreiet nach frischem Wasser. Contrasts in the text are emphasized in the music, for instance between "live" and "die" in Unser keiner lebet ihm selber or between "joyfully" and "with pure hearts" in Lieber Herre Gott, wecke uns auf. Bernhard was well aware of the rhetorical figures which a composer was supposed to use. After all, he wrote several treatises which show his thorough knowledge of the rhetorical principle of musical thinking in 17th-century Germany.

This production is the only complete recording of this important collection. Considering its quality it is rather surprising that no other recording has been made since 1995, when the present one was made. That is all the more disappointing as these interpretations are not really satisfying, although they are certainly not bad. There are technical shortcomings: some singers have considerable problems with the range of their parts. Especially very high notes sound stressed and as a result the audibility of the text suffers. There is some difference in quality between the singers. That is hard to specify: in the list of performers numbers are added to the names of the singers, apparently referring to the concertos they are involved in. Unfortunately this set comes with just one track-list, at the back of the case, which omits any numbers. I assume that the booklet should have included a more extended track-list, but that has been omitted. The Reiner Schneider-Waterberg and Markus Schäfer make the best impression.

Parts from this collection have been recorded by the Rheinische Kantorei, directed by Hermann Max, which is generally more satisfying. However, as long as there is no better complete recording this one will do. It is good enough to give an impression of the quality of Bernhard's oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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