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Johann Balthasar ERBEN (1626 - 1686): "Sacred Concertos from Danzig"

Abendmusiken Basel
Dir: Jörg-Andreas Bötticher

rec: Jan 5 - 9, 2020, Müllheim (Baden, D), Martinskirche
Coviello Classics - COV92103 (© 2020) (70'21")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Balthasar ERBEN: Ach, daß ich doch in meinen Augen hätte; Courantea; Dixit Dominus; Ich freue mich im Herrn; Laudate Dominum; Magnificat a 12 Passacagliaa; Peccavi super numerum arenae maris; Sarabandea; Sonata sopra Ut re mi fa sol la; Matthias WECKMANN (1616?-1674): Toccata in a minora

Jessica Jans, Isabel Schicketanz, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Florian Cramer, Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Markus Flaig, bass
Frithjof Smith, Adrien Mabire, cornett; Regula Keller, Katharina Heutjer, violin; Johannes Frisch, Katharina Bopp, viola; Brian Franklin, Thomas Goetschel, viola gamba; Matthias Müller, violone; Matthias Spaeter, archlute; Jörg-Andrea Bötticher, harpsichord (soloa), organ

One of the enjoyable developments of recent times is the increasing interest in German composers of the generation after Heinrich Schütz. Among them, Johann Rosenmüller is about the only one who is well represented on disc. Most others are hardly known. One of the better-known is Andreas Hammerschmidt, whose oeuvre is documented on some discs, among them a recent recording of the ensemble Vox Luminis. The present disc is devoted to Johann Balthasar Erben, a composer who to date has received little attention and whose name may not ring a bell with many lovers of baroque sacred music.

Erben was born in Danzig, where he also worked for most of his life. Nothing is known about his musical education and the early years of his career. When the position of Kapellmeister at the Marienkirche fell vacant due to the death of Kaspar Förster the elder in 1752, Erben applied for the post, but instead of appointing him to the post, the council decided to left it open. Apparently Erben was considered the most promising candidate, and the council awarded him a grant which gave him the possibility to travel around in Europe to broaden his musical horizon. On his travels he became acquainted with Johann Jacob Froberger. He also visited the Netherlands, England and France; in Paris he heard the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully. He then went to Italy; in Rome he may have become acquainted with Giacomo Carissimi and Athanasius Kircher. In the meantime, the position of Kapellmeister at the Danzig Marienkirche was given to Kaspar Förster the younger, but as in 1657 he moved to Italy, Erben returned to Danzig, where he once again applied for the post. This time he was appointed, and he held this position until his death. The post was of great importance, as the Kapellmeister was not only responsible for the composition and performance of liturgical music, but also for the civic music in the town. Apparently he performed his duties very well, but that did not prevent him from struggling with financial difficulties at the closing stages of his life, in addition to his deteriorating health. In 1686 he died in poverty. "His efforts as both composer and organizer meant that Danzig church music reached new heights", New Grove states. However, Erben's merits did not meet much gratitude from the council: "When in 1688 his widow offered the council 'a large quantity of handwritten and in many cases self-composed music' from her husband's estate, she received the gruff reply that such 'things' were not needed", Peter Wollny writes in his liner-notes. He suggests that this is the reason that a substantial part of Erben's output has been lost.

Even so, the work-list in New Grove includes a substantial number of compositions that have been preserved. It is rather hard to understand, why to date so little of his oeuvre has been recorded. The present disc is a long overdue recognition of his historical importance and his compositional qualities. The programme includes his complete instrumental music. Three keyboard works reflect the influence of Froberger and through him of the Italian style. His Sonata sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la takes the hexachord as its subject, which was quite popular during the late renaissance and early baroque periods. This piece is marked here as a 'world premiere recording', but is also part of a recent recording of Concerto Copenhagen.

The programme opens and closes with pieces in twelve parts: six vocal and six instrumental parts. Dixit Dominus, part of the famous Düben Collection is a setting of Psalm 110, one of the most frequently-set psalms in the baroque era, partly because it was one of the Vesper psalms, but undoubtedly also because of the dramatic verses it includes: "The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the olaces with the dead bodies: he shall wound the heads over many countries". These words invited composers to write music of a theatrical character, and Erben does certainly not miss the opportunity to illustrate them in his music. Part of that is the use of battaglia figures. The score mentions "6 stromen:" leaving it to the performers to decide which instruments to use. Jörg-Andreas Bötticher opted for the participation of two cornetts, which seem to suit the character of the text rather well. That also goes for the Magnificat, where Erben also indicates that six instruments need to play, without specifying them.

That is different in the pieces performed in between. The programme includes two sacred concertos for soprano solo. Ach, daß ich doch in meinen Augen hätte is a setting of a text in six stanzas (not in three, as Wollny writes) by an unknown author. It is based on chapter 9 from the book of the prophet Jeremiah and his Lamentations. The instrumental scoring is for four instruments of the violin family (here: two violins, viola and violone), two viole da gamba and basso continuo. The vocal part is technically demanding, due to quite some coloratura. Jessica Jans does a brilliant job here, both technically and in the way she communicates the text. Ich freue mich im Herren is a setting of two verses from Isaiah 61. The opening phrase - "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord" - is illustrated by rising figures, and the word "fröhlich" (joyful) by virtuosic coloratura. But Erben would not be a German composer in the Schütz tradition, had he overlooked the contrast in the phrase "for as the earth bringeth forth her bud": low notes on "the earth" are followed by a rising figure. The instrumental scoring is for two violins, two viole da gamba and violone, plus basso continuo. Isabel Schicketanz does give a good performance, but the slight vibrato is regrettable.

Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott is a setting of a chorale by Erhart Hegenwalt, based on Psalm 31. It has been preserved in a copy by Georg Österreich and is part of the so-called Bokemeyer Collection. The five stanzas are set for five voices, four strings and basso continuo. The cantus firmus is mostly in the soprano, in one case in the tenor. Erben composed a number of chorale variations per omnes versus, comparable with, for instance, Bach's cantata BWV 4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden). In this recording the first, third and fourth stanzas are performed with one voice and instruments, whereas in the other two stanzas the entire ensemble is involved. Whether this is indicated by Erben or a decision on the side of the performers is impossible for me to check. It is not discussed in the liner-notes.

Laudate Dominum is a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest psalm in the Book of Psalms. It is scored for ten voices, six vocal and four instrumental. The latter are played by two violins and two viole da gamba, a very common line-up in German 17th-century sacred music. It documents that scoring could be used for reasons of text illustration: the first two lines start with solo voices, and the entire ensemble only comes into action on the words "all ye nations" and "all ye people".

Peccavi super numerum is a setting of verses from the so-called prayer of Manasseh, a short work of 15 verses recording a penitential prayer attributed to king Manasseh of Judah; it is included in some editions of the Greek Septuagint. As the text belongs liturgically to the chants of the requiem mass, Erben's settings may have been written for a funeral. This expressive piece is scored for six voices and four instruments. Interestingly, the title page of the score indicates that the performers may add ripienists. Obviously, we get a one-to-a-part performance here.

This disc is a worthy monument for a composer who is unjustly forgotten and whose oeuvre is largely neglected. It convincingly demonstrates that he was an outstanding composer. It makes curious about the rest of his oeuvre. It is to be hoped that this disc will result in a thorough examination of his output, and that more recordings will follow. It is not surprising that this disc is a winner in every respect. Abendmusiken Basel has made a name for itself with recordings of German 17th-century music in recent years, which were all an unequivocal success. That is the case here as well. These are superb performances; I already mentioned the soloists in the two solo concertos. The other singers are just excellent as well. These are entirely idiomatic performances and go to the heart of what German sacred music of the 17th century is about. The instrumentalists also act at the highest level.

Because of music and performances, this is a disc to treasure.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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