musica Dei donum
Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS, Hans-Leo HASSLER, Johann Hermann SCHEIN
[I] "Gallus - Hassler - Schein: Contrasts in German Church Music around 1600"a
Benjamin Dreßler, viola da gambaaa;
Alexandra Skiebe, organaa
rec: August 23 - 26, 2010, Leipzig, Kirche zum Heiligen Kreuz
Rondeau - ROP6041 (© 2011) (55'01")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: D
Cover & track-list
Patrick Grahl, Cornelius Frommelt, tenor;
Tobias Ay, baritone;
Philipp Goldmann, Emanuel Jessel, bass
[II] Hans-Leo HASSLER: Missa Octavab
Dir: Zygmunt Magiera
rec: Jan 2011, Cracow, [Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary]
Dux - 0750 (© 2011) (38'06")
Liner-notes: E/P; lyrics - translations: E/P
Cover & track-list
Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591):
Ante luciferum genitusa;
Ascendit Deus in iubilationea;
Canite tuba in Siona;
Ecce quomodo moritur iustusa;
In nomine Iesua;
Natus est nobisa;
Hans-Leo HASSLER (1546-1612):
Ad dominum cum tribularer a 5b ;
Cantate Domino a 4ab ;
Dixit Maria ad angelum a 4ab ;
Ecce sacerdos a 6b;
Laudate Dominum a 4b;
Laetentur coeli a 4ab ;
Missa I super Dixit Maria a 4a ;
Missa VIII a 8b ;
Pater noster a 8b ;
Verbum caro factum est a 6b ;
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630):
Christ lag in Todesbandenaa ;
Christe, der du bist Tag und Lichtaa ;
Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gottaa ;
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christaa ;
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahinaa ;
Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herzaa 
Anna Magiera, Agnieszka Drabent, soprano;
Malgorzata Langer-Król, contralto;
Lukasz Dulewicz, alto;
Zygmunt Magiera, Marek Opaska, tenor;
Bartlomiej Pollak, Marcin Wróbel, bass
Hans-Leo Hassler,  Cantiones sacrae de festis praecipuis totius anni, 1591, 15972;
 Missae, 1599;
 Sacri concentus, 1601;
Johann Hermann Schein,  Opella nova, geistlicher Concerten … auff italiänische Invention componirt, I, 1618;
 Opella nova, geistlicher Concerten … auff italiänische Invention componirt, II, 1626
Much changed in the musical aesthetics in Europe in the decades around 1600. This is generally characterised as the shift from the stile antico to the stile nuovo, or from polyphony to monody. But that is a bit too simple. The stylistic changes are mostly demonstrated with a reference to Italian music, comparing - for instance - Palestrina and Monteverdi. But they also took place in other regions, for instance in the German-speaking part of Europe. That is the subject of the recording of the ensemble Thios Omilos.
For this disc pieces by three composers are chosen who represent different generations. The first is Jacobus Handl (or Händl) who was probably from Ribnica, in the Austrian dukedom of Krain, and today part of Slovenia. It is suggested his name could originally have been Petelin, meaning 'rooster'. Handl is the German diminutive; he is also known as Gallus, which is the Latin translation of 'rooster'. After travelling through Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia he was from 1579/80 until 1585 at the service of the Bishop of Olomouc. Shortly afterwards he became cantor of St Jan na Brzehu in Prague where he remained until his death. He was considered one of the main composers of sacred polyphony of his time. The motets which are selected for this recording reflect the dominating contrapuntal style of composing of the 16th century. Imitation is the most prominent feature of these motets; only now and then Handl makes use of declamation and homophony. A rare example of a close connection between text and music is Ascendit Deus in iubilatione: the ascension of Christ is depicted by rising diatonic scales in all voices, whereas the sound of the trumpet is imitated on the words "in voce tubae".
Hans-Leo Hassler, born in Nuremberg as son of an organist, worked most of his life in southern Germany. He was the first German composer to travel to Venice, where he took lessons from Andrea Gabrieli and became acquainted with his nephew Giovanni as well as with Claudio Merulo. After his return he entered the service of the Fugger family. In the last years of his life he acted as Kapellmeister at the court in Dresden, but soon died of tuberculosis. Hassler was one of the most prolific and versatile composers of his time. He composed in the traditional polyphonic style, but his sacred music shows the influence of the Italian madrigals of his time. In the motets which have been recorded by Thios Omilos we find many passages of declamation. The main work on this disc is the Missa Dixit Maria whose cantus firmus is his own motet Dixit Maria ad angelum. The musical material from this motet is used in various ways in the mass. At the first 'Hosanna in excelsis' he uses the material of the words "secundum verbum tuum" from the motet. The fact that this material is dominated by a descending figure shows that for Hassler the connection between text and music was still rather loose.
With Johann Hermann Schein we turn to the next generation. He was from Grünhain, near Annaberg, and moved with his family to Dresden. Here he entered the court chapel as a treble singer at the age of 13. He received further musical education from the Kapellmeister Rogier Michael. His first post was as Kapellmeister in Weimar, and in 1616 he was appointed as Thomaskantor in Leipzig as successor to Sethus Calvisius. He published several collections of vocal music - secular and sacred - and instrumental works. Today his Fontana d'Israel of 1623, comprising 26 sacred madrigals, is considered his most important collection of music. Thios Omilos has chosen pieces from the two volumes which appeared in 1618 and 1626 respectively, under the title Opella Nova. The title page indicates that these sacred concertos for 3 to 5 voices and basso continuo were written in the Italian style. Here we hear pieces which are arrangements of Lutheran hymns. The scoring is for two trebles, an instrumental bass and bc. Three pieces have a part for tenor who sings the unaltered cantus firmus.
As one can gather from the line-up of the ensemble the upper parts are sung an octave below written pitch. This is justified by a reference to the consequences of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which made adaptations of the scoring of compositions inevitable. A second argument is that this music could be performed both in church and at home which implies some freedom in regard to scoring. But that freedom is not unlimited. I doubt whether there is any justification for a change in scoring which alters the relationship between the various parts. It seems unlikely that Schein scored the cantus firmus for tenor in a piece for trebles without a reason. Apparently he wanted that part be clearly heard. That is much harder when all three voices move in the same range.
In Gallus' and Hassler's pieces the upper parts are also transposed. But in the stile antico the harmony is far less important than in compositions in the concertato style. The polyphonic compositions also come off best. Thios Omilos, consisting of former members of the Thomanerchor Leipzig, sings rather well; it produces a nice sound and the ensemble is quite good. The pieces by Schein should have been performed in a more declamatory manner, although not in a purely Italian style. The text could have been given more attention.
Despite my critical remarks this disc is recommendable as it sheds light on an important development in musical taste in Europe around 1600 with a programme of music by composers who are not that often performed or recorded.
The disc of the Octava Ensemble is entirely devoted to Hassler. It centres around his Missa VIII which is presented within a liturgical context. The programme begins with the motet Ecce sacerdos magnus, and then the motet Cantate Domino is performed as introitus. It is followed by the Kyrie and Gloria of the Missa Octava. Ad Dominum cum tribularer is chosen as gradual, which is followed by the Credo of the mass. Laetentur caeli and Dixit Maria are sung as offertorio. The Sanctus and Benedictus of the mass are followed by a setting of Pater noster and the Agnus Dei of the mass. The programme closes with the communio, for which the motet Laudate Dominum has been selected, and the motet Verbumcaro factum est functions as Ite missa est.
The declamatory passages in Hassler's music have been mentioned already. They come to the fore in particular in the Missa VIII, especially in the Gloria and Credo. This is emphasized by the rather swift tempi of the Octava Ensemble. Another important feature of this mass is that it is written in the polychoral style which Hassler became acquainted with when he studied in Venice. His setting of Pater noster is also for double choir. The scoring of the choirs is different in these two pieces, though: in the mass both choirs consist of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, whereas in Pater noster Hassler divides the vocal forces in a high and a low choir (SSAT and ATBB respectively).
Three motets appear in both recordings. All three are sung in transposition by Thios Omilos. Historically there is no objection against this procedure, but musically the original scoring as used by the Ensemble Octava is preferable. That doesn't necessarily mean the latter's performances are better. Some tempi seem too fast, and the declamatory character of some pieces or passages is a little exaggerated. The main problems are that the blending of the voices leaves something to be desired, which is partly due to the slight vibrato which now and then creeps in in some of the voices. The recording is also an issue: because of the close miking every detail is audible, but that goes at the cost of the overall picture. I think that a little more space around the ensemble would have been preferable.
The minuses will probably withhold some music lovers from purchasing this disc, also considering the ridiculously short playing time. That would be a shame, as Hassler's music is of high quality and is not well represented on disc (*).
Those who would like to explore the music of Hassler are advised to purchase the two-disc set by the ensemble Currende.
Johan van Veen (© 2012)