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Franz Xaver RICHTER (1709 - 1789): Messa Pastorale - Sinfonia in D - Magnificat

Marzena Lubaszka, soprano; Piotr Lykowski, alto; Maciej Gocman, tenor; Bogdan Makal, bass
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra
Dir: Andrzej Kosendiak

rec: May 18 - 20, 2008, Mittlach (F), Église Sainte-Marie
Cypres - CYP1659 (© 2009) (57'11")

Magnificat; Messa Pastorale; Symphony in D

Franz Xaver Richter is one of the representatives of what modern musicology calls the Mannheim School. A German study on the 'pre-classical' period, as the author calls it, characterises this school as the avant-garde of the 18th century. The musicians who worked at the court in Mannheim were an important link between the baroque era and the classical period. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for instance, stayed in Mannheim for some time, and was fascinated by what he heard.

The names of these masters are mentioned in history books and programme notes, but their music is still hardly explored. We are talking here about the likes of Johann Stamitz, Ignaz Holzbauer, Anton Filz and Carlo Giuseppe Toeschi, who belong to the first generation. Franz Xaver Richter also belongs to this troupe who developed the quality of the court orchestra to such an extent that Charles Burney called it an 'army of generals'.

If the music of the Mannheim School is explored it is mostly the instrumental music, and in particular the orchestral music which is given attention. That is understandable, because it is through instrumental music that the Mannheim composers influenced the course of music history and laid the foundations of the classical style. But most of them also wrote vocal music, including sacred music. And so did Richter, although most of his vocal works date from his time in Strasbourg.

It is his activities in Mannheim which modern performers mostly focus on, but Richter worked for twenty years as maître de chapelle in Strasbourg Cathedral. He was appointed to this position in 1769, and remained in Strasbourg until his death in 1789. There was something special about the city: for a long time it was part of Germany, and under the influence of Protestantism. Only in 1681 was it unified with France, and the Cathedral reverted to Catholicism. David Mathieu Maurier, in his programme notes, suggests this could well explain the ideal working conditions of Richter. He had an orchestra of about 30 players at his disposal plus a choir. The annual budget amounted no less than 300,000 pounds. That was a way to strengthen the ties between the city and the king of France.

In his sacred works which are recorded on this disc Richter explored these possibilities. The Messe Pastorale is written for an orchestra which includes trumpets and drums. These are effectively used at various moments in his mass. They open the proceedings in the first Kyrie and are used in the 'Et resurrexit' from the Credo. But there are also softer tones in this mass. 'Et incarnatus est' is scored for soprano and alto solo, and this section begins with two flutes and bass, which are then joined by the strings. Interestingly Richter doesn't change the scoring for the next section, 'Crucifixus', suggesting the unity between the two.

The mass consists of a sequence of tutti and solo sections, but most solos are rather short. The two main solo sections are 'Domine Deus' (Gloria) for bass and the Benedictus for tenor. The latter ends with a cadenza. There are several polyphonic passages, but often the fugal beginnings quickly turn into homophony. Still, this mass shows that Richter in his sacred music aims at mixing modern fashion with traditional features.

The disc ends with a setting of the Magnificat. It begins with a tutti section which is followed by a solo for the soprano (Quia respexit) which ends with a cadenza. 'Et misericordia' is for solo quartet, and contains some strong dissonances. 'Fecit potentiam' is - hardly surprising - a solo for bass, whereas 'Esurientes' and 'Suscepit Israel' are duets for alto and tenor. In the Gloria patri the horns play a prominent role, whereas the closing of the doxology (Et in saecula saeculorum) is fugal.

In between is the Sinfonia in D which shows Richter as a composer of orchestral music. The first movement is typical for the Mannheim School, in particular because of the frequent crescendi. No less typical Mannheimian is the inclusion of Seufzer figures which we find in the andantino arioso. A lively presto, again full of dynamic contrasts, closes this symphony.

This is a most interesting disc which pays attention to a lesser-known aspect of the period between baroque and classicism. It is telling that the German study I was referring to before, almost completely ignores the sacred music of the Mannheim School. This recording shows that Richter's contributions to this genre have to be taken seriously and are well worth performing. Fortunately we get an interpretation here which successfully explores the qualities of Richter's music.

The four soloists were new names to me. I like their voices which are crisp and clear, and their articulation and diction is very good. The voices blend well, but in the quartets - 'Quiniam tu solus sanctus' in the Gloria from the Mass and 'Et misericordia' from the Magnificat the alto and tenor are a bit overshadowed by the soprano and bass. The cadenzas, and in particular that of the soprano, are too predictable.

The choir seems to be quite big, and I had preferred a less sizeable vocal ensemble, in particular as the orchestra doesn't seem to be that large. Although the recording was made in a church, the pictures suggest the building is not overly big. That results in satisfying acoustics, even in the symphony. The singing of the choir is very good, and so is the playing of the orchestra, both in the vocal works and in the symphony.

All in all, I am quite happy with this recording, and I hope more sacred music by Franz Xaver Richter is going to be performed and recorded.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra

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