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"Psalmen & Lobgesänge aus dem mitteldeutschen Barock" (Psalms & Songs of praise from the Central German Baroque)

David Erler, alto
L'arpa festante
Dir: Rien Voskuilen

rec: June 5 - 7, 2020, Müllheim, Martinskirche
Christophorus - CHR 77453 (© 2021) (76'11")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: [D]
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Gedenke, Herre, an deine Barmherzigkeit; anon (?Johann Christian STARCKLOFF, 1655-1722): Lobet den Herren, alle Heiden; anon: Magnificat; Georg BLEYER (1647-after 1683): Partita à 4 à la Françoise for violin, two violas and bc in g minor; Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL (1626-1712): Chiacon Amor Jesu dulcissimus; Sonata for violin and bc in A; Johann Christoph SCHMIDT (1664-1728): Bonum est confiteri Domino; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele

Christoph Hesse, violin, viola; Angelika Balzer, violin; Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Anja Enderle, cello; Haralt Martens, violone; Uschi Nruckdorfer, bassoon; Toshinori Ozaki, theorbo, guitar; Rien Voskuilen, organ

Recently I have reviewed several discs with sacred music from Protestant Germany by composers of the late 17th century. Among them are Johann Balthasar Erben and Georg Christoph Strattner. And let us not forget Johann Kuhnau, whose complete sacred oeuvre is being released by CPO. The largest part of the oeuvre of these three composers has never been recorded before. These discs bear witness to the fact that a large part of German 17th-century sacred music is still waiting to be rediscovered, performed and recorded.

The disc under review here attests to that as well. All but one of the pieces recorded by David Erler and L'arpa festante appear on disc for the first time. The exception is Johann Theile's setting of verses from Psalm 42. The programme focuses on music written in Central Germany, the region that today comprises the federal states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. In the 17th century this was a fertile breeding ground for composers of sacred music. Martin Luther was a great lover of music and considered it an important instrument for the dissemination of the faith and for the expression of the emotions of the faithful in all situations of life. That explains the wide variety of subjects of the sacred works written by composers in Lutheran Germany. Although Luther propagated the use of the vernacular in services, the use of Latin was not something of the past. The Magnificat was only one of several texts in Latin that were used in the liturgy.

The above-mentioned Johann Theile may be the only composer in the programme who is not entirely unknown. The information about his musical education is rather fragmentary, but from what is known one may conclude that he was highly gifted, not only musically, but also intellectually. At the age of just 12 he was already a studying law at Leipzig University. That was mainly a way to improve his social position, since he was of humble birth. He was held in high esteem by student friends and also, according to a poem dedicated to him in the preface of his first publication of 1667, by none other than Heinrich Schütz. Theile did take lessons with Schütz, but how intensive their relationship was, is not known. Later on, Theile had a frequent contact with Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck. From 1673 - 1675 Theile was Kapellmeister at Gottorp Palace, some 120 kilometers away from Lübeck, and then on Danish territory. The dukes of Gottorp had made their palace a cultural centre of the northern region. Political circumstances in Denmark forced the Duke to leave Gottorp for Hamburg in 1675. Theile followed him, after a failed attempt to succeed Sebastian Knüpfer as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. In Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele, he shows that he had learned a lot from Schütz, with regard to expressing a text in music. The contrasts between the two sections of the text are eloquently depicted.

The programme opens with a Latin piece from the pen of Johann Christoph Schmidt, who at the age of 12 became a chorister at the court chapel in Dresden, where he was taught by Christoph Bernhard, a pupil of Schütz. He later occupied several positions at the court, spent some time in Italy, and at the later part of his career, became vice-Kapellmeister and then court Kapellmeister. In this capacity he laid the foundation for the high level the chapel would reach under Johann Georg Pisendel. Bonum est confiteri dates from 1696, when he was vice-Kapellmeister. It is a setting of the first six verses of Psalm 92: "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, o most high". It is a perfect combination of Italian and German features. The former is the virtuosity of the vocal part, which includes quite some coloratura. The German elements are the five-part strings, with split violas, and the close connection between text and music. The instruments also have demanding parts to play, and contribute to the expression of the text.

Not entirely unknown, but also not a household name and certainly not a composer, whose music is frequently performed, is Wolfgang Carl Briegel. He was from Königsberg, attended the grammar school at Nuremberg and sang as a treble in the Frauenkirche there. Through Johann Erasmus Kindermann, who had spent some time in Italy, he became acquainted with the Italian style. In 1650 he entered the service of Duke Ernst the Pious, where he first acted as Kantor and music tutor to the Duke's family, and then became Kapellmeister at his court in Gotha. Amor Jesu dulcissimus is a setting of fourteen verses from the Jubilus Sancti Bernardi, whose text was then attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux. It is an extensive praise of Jesus, and the text is a clear specimen of the Jesulatry that was part of medieval pietism. This was still very much alive, even in Lutheran Germany. The most famous example of that is Buxtehude's Passion cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri. Briegel makes use of the form of the chaconne. The fact that the words are changing, but the content remains the same, makes the use of a repeated bass pattern - here repeated 21 times - quite appropriate, as David Erler points out in his liner-notes. Obviously, here vocal virtuosity would be out of order, and the voice does not have to cut capers. The voice also moves mostly in the lower regions of its tessitura, but Briegel does not overlook the possibilities to depict elements in the text.

Three vocal items have been preserved without the name of the composer. Gedenke, Herr, an deine Barmherzigkeit is a setting of the verses 6 and 7 of Psalm 25: "Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old". The intensity of this prayer for mercy is emphasized by the use of the key of C minor and the instrumental scoring for three violas and basso continuo. This scoring is a typical feature of German music; violas (sometimes replaced by viole da gamba) played a much more prominent role there than in Italian music of the time. Erler suggests this piece may have been intended for Sunday Reminiscere, the second Sunday in Lent, when this psalm was Psalm of the Day. The musical setting reflects the development in the text, as the seventh verse refers to God's mercy. Given the similarity in scoring, Erler suggests that Theile may be the composer of this piece.

Two violas and basso continuo support the alto voice in the short anonymous sacred concerto Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest of the 150 Psalms, comprising just two verses: "O praise the Lord, all ye nations". It is part of a collection of sacred works which finds its origin in Thuringia, outside the main centres. The parts are marked with the initials of Johann Christian Starckloff (1655-1722), Kantor in Eschenberger from 1681, who may well be the composer of this piece. It is relatively straightforward, but not without text expression, and closes with an extensive Alleluja.

The anonymous setting of the Magnificat bears witness to the continuing use of Latin in Lutheran worship. That was the case, for instance, in Leipzig, as we know from Bach's oeuvre. This setting is also connected to Leipzig, as it is one of several settings written for the Neukirche St. Matthäi. This canticle was sung at Christmas and on the three Marian feasts. The scoring is again typical German: alto, two violins, two violas and basso continuo. Notable is that the first violin has an obbligato part, which is technically demanding and explores the highest registers. The verses about the rich and powerful are vividly illustrated, and there is a marked musical contrast between the rich and the poor and their respective fates.

Two instrumental pieces are performed by L'arpa festante. Georg Bleyer was a poet and musician, who may have been a pupil at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. He never succeeded in being appointed at some meaningful post; he mostly acted as a performing musician. The reason may be that he seems to have been a rather difficult character; the biographical data in New Grove refer to several conflicts with the people he had to deal with. In the 1670s he was probably in France, and there he must have become acquainted with the French style, which became quite popular among German aristocrats in the late 17th century. Several composers, known as Lullistes, wrote music in the French style, and so did Bleyer. Here we hear a piece from the archive of Kremsier Castle. The Partita à 4 à la Françoise in g minor opens with an overture - not comparable with those in the orchestral suites written much later by the likes of Telemann and Bach - which is followed by six dances, the last of which is a menuet.

Very much Italian in style is the Sonata in A for violin and basso continuo by Briegel. As we already noted, he was strongly influenced by the Italian style, and that shows here. This sonata is a sequence of sections of contrasting tempo and character, which makes it a perfect specimen of the stylus phantasticus. The last section is a ciacona, another token of Italian influence. The violin part is virtuosic and includes double stopping, as one may expect from such a piece.

David Erler has been involved in many recordings, either as a soloist or as a member of a (vocal) ensemble. This is his first solo recording, and it is a winner in every respect. The programme is original and of great importance. The fact that a singer is willing to explore unknown territory cannot be appreciated enough. Erler, who also wrote the informative liner-notes, is certainly right that much music of high quality is waiting to be rediscovered. His recording is an impressive and convincing testimony of that. The pieces he has selected bear witness to the spiritual depth of German sacred music of the 17th century. That feature comes perfectly off here, as Erler shows his congeniality with the selected pieces in his performances (and in his personal notes to this project). His singing and the way he treats the text do full justice to what this music is about, both musically and spiritually. L'arpa festante is his perfect partner, as the instrumentalists are also very aware of the texts and their meaning. The two instrumental items are given excellent performances, and Christophe Hesse delivers an engaging performance of Briegel's sonata.

This disc is a treasure one should not miss.

P.S. It is a shame that the booklet does not include English translations of the lyrics. However, given that all but one of the items are settings of Psalms, it is not hard to find versions in every other language than German or Latin. A translation of Briegel's Amor Jesus dulcissimus may be harder to find.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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David Erler

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