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"Jan Wellem - Sacred music from the era of Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz-Neuburg (1658-1716)"

Norddeutscher Figuralchor; Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik
Dir: Jörg Straube

rec: April 24 - 25, 2008, Düsseldorf, former Hofkirche St. Andreas
Coviello - COV 20903 (© 2008) (58'38")

Carlo Luigi Pietro GRUA (c1665-1726): Alleluia fideles plaudite; Beatus vir; Laetatus sum; Johann Hugo VON WILDERER (1670-1724): Custodi me; Mass in g minor; Quando Jesus adest; Te Deum

If you would ask a music historian which were the main music centres in the baroque era, there is little chance Düsseldorf would be on his list. But around 1700 the city experienced a kind of 'Golden Era' under the rule of Johann Wilhelm, who by the population was called 'Jan Wellem'. Musicians of fame like Handel and Veracini worked at his court for some time, and Corelli dedicated his Concerti grossi opus 6 to him.

Johann Wilhelm of Palatinate-Neuburg ruled for almost forty years, first as Duke of Jülich and Berg, and then as Elector of the Palatinate. Johann Wilhelm had a strong preference for the Italian style. There wasn't just a musical connection to Italy, but also a religious one: his grandfather, Wolfgang Wilhelm, had converted to Catholicism in 1613, mainly for political reasons. Since then his house followed the ideals of the Counter Reformation. So the liturgy was Catholic and Italian in style, and reflected the splendour connected to that. The music written for the liturgy at the court showed the cantability of the Italian music of around 1700. But this disc also shows another feature of many Italian sacred compositions: the influence of the stile antico.

Johann Hugo von Wilderer was born in Bavaria - the exact place is unknown - and probably studied with Giovanni Legrenzi in Venice, although there is no firm evidence of that. He first became organist at the court and director of music in 1695. He has written a number of operas, oratorios and cantatas, most of which are lost. The only extant complete collection of music was published in Amsterdam in around 1700, containing 10 motets for liturgical use. From this collection comes Quando Jesus adest, a motet for soprano, alto, strings and bc.

Custodi me is an Offertory for Tuesday of Holy Week, and as no instruments were used at this time of the year this motet is for voices only, strictly written in the stile antico. This was not uncommon: the motet has been preserved among motets by Palestrina whose music apparently was regularly used in Düsseldorf. The Te Deum is at the other end of the scale, and shows all the splendour which one associates with a setting of this text. The scoring is four voices, strings, 4 trumpets, bassoon, timpani and bc.

The disc opens with the Mass in g minor of which only Kyrie and Gloria have been preserved, thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach who copied them for his own use in Leipzig. It is quite possible they were part of a complete mass setting. If so, Bach didn't copy the other sections, because he didn't need them as in the Lutheran liturgy only Kyrie and Gloria were sung.

The second composer whose works have been selected for this disc is Carlo Luigi Pietro Grua. According to the programme notes he was "probably from Milan", but according to New Grove, where he is called 'Pietragrua', he was born in Florence. He worked as an alto for some time at the court in Dresden, and he came in Düsseldorf in 1694 and worked there until the Elector's death. The Easter cantata Alleluia fideles plaudite is scored for five voices, 2 trumpets, strings and bc. The trumpets are used in the 'Alleluia' section which opens the piece and is repeated at the end. Laetatus sum and Beatus vir are both scored for four voices, strings and bc.

The music on this disc gives an excellent impression of the level of singing and playing at the court of Jan Wellem. It is interesting to note that when the Elector died, he was succeeded by his brother Karl Philipp, who had his own court. He joined them together, first in Heidelberg and from 1720 in Mannheim, where he laid the foundations for the orchestra of the 'Mannheim School', which developed into one of Germany's best orchestras of the mid-18th century.

The performances by choir and orchestra are outstanding and do this music full justice. An interesting question is how many singers the court in Düsseldorf had, but I haven't been able to find any information about that. The programme notes don't say anything about matters of performance practice. The Norddeutscher Figuralchor consists here of 16 singers and show an impressive flexibility and transparency. The solo parts are sung by members of the choir - who are not specifically named -, and they do that very well.

This is a most interesting disc, not only for historical but also for purely musical reasons. The quality of the music performed here is such that it is a great shame that most compositions of both Von Wilderer and Grua have been lost.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Norddeutscher Figuralchor
Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik

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