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Johann Michael NICOLAI (1629 - 1685): "Musik am Stuttgarter Hof" (Music at the Stuttgart court)

ecco la musica
Dir: Heike Hümmer, Matthias Sprinz

rec: August 28 - 31, 2015, Stuttgart, Studio SWR
Christophorus - CHR 77401 (© 2017) (70'59")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Alemand Courant Gigue à 2 Viol da gamba et Basso (attr); Aria 6 à 3 [1]; Aria 9 à 3 [1]; Aria 10 à 3 [1]; Blöder Mensch, was fürchst du dich [3]; Hilf Jesu, hilf du treuer Gott [3]; Laudate Dominum [4]; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich [4]; Sei nun wieder zufrieden meine Seele; Sonata à 2, Violino e Trombon [1]; Sonata à 2, Violino et Viola da gamba [1]; Sonata à 2 Viol da gamba et Basso (attr); Sonata IV à 2 Violini è Trombone [5]; Sonata XII à 2 Violini èe Violone [5]; Sonata CV à 3, Violino è 2 Viole [2]

Sources: [1] Dübensammlung (Uppsala), ms [n.d.]; [2] Manuskript Rost (Paris), ms [n.d.]; Johann Michael Nicolai, [3] Erster Theil Evangelischer Harmonien, ms [n.d.]; [4] Erster Theil Geistlicher Harmonien, 1669; [5] Erster Theil Instrumentalischer Sachen, 1675

Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Kai Wessel, alto; Johannes Kaleschke, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass
Andreas Pilger, Johannes Frisch, violin; Brigitte Gasser, viola da gamba; Heike Hümmer, viola da gamba, violone; Matthias Sprinz, Cas Gevers, Bastian Greschek, sackbut; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, theorbo; Margit Schultheiß, harp, organ

Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach are the two towering figures of German baroque music. Because of that other composers have not received the attention they deserve. That goes in particular for the composers of the intermediate generations. For a long time even Dieterich Buxtehude, the last great representative of the North German organ school, was almost exclusively known for his organ works. It is only since the commemoration of his death in 2007 that his vocal music has become part of the standard repertoire.

Johann Michael Nicolai belongs also to one of the intermediate generations. He is of the same generation as Andreas Hammerschmidt, another composer who only fairly recently has been put into the spotlight. The latter's output is much larger than Nicolai's oeuvre. That is probably also a reason that he is rather badly represented on disc. A considerable part of his compositions has been lost. Two vocal items on the present disc are taken from the first volume of Evangelische Harmonien; the three other volumes have not been preserved. In 1675 Nicolai published two collections of instrumentale Sachen; a third volume, printed in 1682, has been lost.

Nicolai was probably born in Ulrichshalben, near Weimar. We know nothing about his musical education. Before 1655 he was a member of the chapel of Duke Julius Heinrich of Saxe-Lauenburg, and during this time he - according to his own testimony - regularly performed at the court of Margrave Christian Ernst of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. He dedicated his first volume of instrumental music to the Margrave. At the time of publication he was already a member of the chapel of the court in Stuttgart. There he played the violone, alongside other instruments.

Even if we take into account that a large part of his output has been lost, he seems not to have been one of the really prolific composers of his time, if we compare his oeuvre with that of, for instance, Hammerschmidt. However, he apparently was held in high esteem, as copies of his works have been found in sources across the German speaking lands, and even in other parts of Europe. A number of pieces from his pen are part of the so-called Düben collection, preserved in the library of Uppsala University, and some pieces from a collection in the library of Durham Cathedral in Britain are also attributed to Nicolai.

As is so often the case in music from the second half of the 17th century, we find a mixture of old and modern features in Nicolai's music. The five vocal items mostly have the form of the sacred concerto, but Sei nun wieder zufrieden meine Seele has a form, which is called concerto-aria cantata, which we also find in Buxtehude's oeuvre. This form points in the direction of the cantata of the 18th century. In contrast, Blöder Mensch, was fürchst du dich includes a passage, where Nicolai makes use of the stile concitato, which we know from the oeuvre of Monteverdi. Laudate Dominum is a sacred concerto for three voices (ATB), two violins and bc, and is entirely based on a basso ostinato, in the form of a passacaglia. Expression is achieved through text illustration as well as the use of chromaticism.

As far as the instrumental scoring is concerned, it is notable that sackbuts play a major role in the programme. In three of the vocal items the scoring includes three parts for sackbuts. Such scorings were typical of the early 17th century, but became increasingly obsolete in the late 17th century. The sackbut is also part of the instrumental music played here. In two pieces it plays alongside one or two violins. Such scorings were common in early 17th-century Italy, such as in the oeuvre of Dario Castello, but Buxtehude, for instance, never composed such music. In his oeuvre we find sonatas for one or two violins and viola da gamba. That was a very common scoring in 17th-century Germany. A specimen in the present programme is the Sonata à 2, Violino et Viola da gamba. Sometimes German composers juxtaposed one violin and two or more viols; an example is Nicolai's Sonata CV à 3, Violino è 2 Viole. A form which was also popular in Germany was the mixture of sonata and suite. The Sonata à 2 Viol da gamba et Basso, which is attributed to Nicolai, opens with a sonata in four sections (adagio, allegro, adagio, allegro), which is followed by three dances: alemand, courant and saraband. The structure of the sonata - a sequence of short, contrasting sections - is one of the hallmarks of the stylus phantasticus, which was born in Italy around 1600 and had a strong influence in German music of the 17th century.

From this description we may conclude that in the oeuvre of Nicolai we find various influences and trends. It is a mixture of old and new, and of German and Italian fashions, which he blends in a very natural and logical manner. The programme has been well put together, and as a result this is an ideal introduction to the oeuvre of a composer, who deserves more attention, and whose oeuvre needs to be explored more throughly.

He is served rather well by the interpreters. The sacred works receive fine performances by four outstanding singers, who know exactly how to bring this music to life. The text is clearly intelligible, and the moments where Nicolai depicts the text in his music are not missed. The instrumentalists do a fine job as well. My only regret is that the performances are dynamically a bit flat; I would have liked stronger dynamic accents, and a little more extraverted and engaging performance.

However, there is every reason to recommend this disc, which fills in another white spot on the map of German 17th-century music.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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