musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Mors in musica

[I] "Die Kunst des Sterbens - Ars moriendi"
Franz Vitzthum, alto
Ensemble il capriccio
rec: Jan 3 - 5, 2022, Müllheim (D), Martinskirche
Genuin - GEN 22800 (© 2022) (58'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080) (Contrapunctus I; Contrapunctus IV; Contrapunctus V; Contrapunctus VIII; Contrapunctus IX; Contrapunctus XI; Fuga a tre soggetti [Ein selig Ende mir bescher]); Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721); Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169) (Was ist die Liebe Gottes - Stirb in mir, rec & aria); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56) (O du schönes Weltgebäude); Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170) (Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust); Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit (BWV 668)

Friedemann Wezel, Dietlind Mayer, violin; Florian Schulte, viola; Dmitri Dichtiar, cello; Matthias Scholz, violone; Evelyn Laib, organ

[II] "Memento mori - Remember you must die"
Klingzeug Barockensemble
rec: July 16 - 18, 2020, Stams (A), Stift Stams
BIS - 2566 (© 2021) (55'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Lamento di Tristano; Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704): Balletti lamentabili a 4; Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764): Sinfonia funebre in f minor; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Alle Menschen müssen sterben; Giacomo Antonio PERTI (1661-1756): [Fugue for two voices]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Dido and Aeneas (Z 626) (When I am laid in earth); RAIMBAUT DE VAQUEIRAS / [improvisation]: Planh; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623-1680): Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Sonata lamentevole; Johann SCHOP (c1590-1667): Lachrimae Pavaen

Anna Tausch, recorder, cello; Claudia Delago-Norz, Lukas Praxmarer, violin; Nadine Henrichs, viola; Johannes Ötzbrugger, theorbo; Martin Riccabona, harpsichord, organ

Two events span every human being's life: birth and death. Both have been and are the subject of products of art, books and music. In the course of time much music has been written at the occasion of someone's death, especially the Requiem Mass. In Protestant Germany death also was the subject of many compositions. They could be very different, but they were connected by one thought which is a central issue in Christian thinking: death as a transition to life everlasting. That manifests itself probably more clearly in the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach than in that of any of his contemporaries. In his cantatas the faith in a life after death could take the form of a longing for death, as we find it, for instance, in the last aria from his famous cantata Ich habe genug: "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod" - With joy I anticipate my death. This longing for death cannot be fully understood without knowing of what often preceded it: a life full of trials and tribulations. The phrase from Acts 14 (vs 22), which opens Bach's cantata BWV 146, "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen" (We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God), was a reality in many people's lives, and certainly Bach's own.

If one wants to put together a programme on death and everything connected to it, there is much to choose from. The performers on the two discs under review here have chosen different paths.

Franz Vitzthum and the Ensemble il capriccio focus on Bach's oeuvre, but start with a piece by Johann Christoph Bach, son of Bach's great uncle Heinrich. He was highly respected within the Bach family. He left music for keyboard - both free works for harpsichord and chorale-based organ pieces - as well as motets and cantatas. Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben is ranked among the motets, but Johann Christoph called it an aria. That is understandable as the soprano part has marked soloistic traits, especially in the closing lines. Therefore the adaptation for solo voice and instruments performed here does sound quite natural, as if it was written for this scoring.

The core of this recording is Bach's Kunst der Fuge. It has been selected because it is connected to the last stage of Bach's life. It may well be the last work he took care of, although one should be careful not to make too much of it. Many myths have been woven around this work, and some of them were brought into the world by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Bach started to compose this cycle of fugues in 1742, and revised it in the last year of his life. In its definitive form it was published in 1751, one year after the composer's death. Part of the myth roots in the last fugue, called Fuga a 3 Soggetti, which is unfinished. That is to say, it is in the printed edition. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested that originally it may well have been finished, not as a fugue with three, but with four themes. The second myth concerns the chorale arrangement which was added to the edition, known as Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit. In the preface, CPE Bach claimed that "the blessed author" dictated the chorale "extemporaneously from his pen" on his deathbed. That is unlikely, as the piece was written at least ten years earlier, and this was a reworking of a piece from the Orgelbüchlein, with the title Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein. It is performed here on the organ; the cantus firmus is played on the violin.

The last fugue is performed here after the chorale, and then in a version with a text, sung by Franz Vitzthum. The performers follow a suggestion of Harry van der Kamp, who with his own Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam recorded an eight-part arrangement with the text of the last stanza of Vor deinen Thron, 'Ein selig Ende mir bescher': "Grant me a blessed end, awake me on the Day of Judgement, Lord, that I may behold you for all eternity: Amen, Amen, hear me!"

The selection of fugues is performed by a string quartet. The late Gustav Leonhardt convincingly argued that the Kunst der Fuge was conceived as a work for the harpsichord. However, because of its polyphony, it perfectly lends itself for performances by an ensemble of instruments. Many such versions are available on disc, by string quartets, recorder quartets and even orchestras. In this performance on four period instruments the different parts in the polyphonic web are clearly discernible, and the work gets a different dimension. The performers explore the possibilities of their instruments by creating a dynamic shading that is not possible on the harpsichord.

The longing for death manifests itself also in the closing chorale from Cantata BWV 56, where death is called the brother of sleep: "Come, O Death, thou brother of sleep, come and lead me away. Loosen my ship's oars, bring me to the safe port! Those who will may shun thee, Thou canst but make me glad, because by thee shall I come to my dear Saviour.". In the remaining vocal items, it is especially sin and worldly life that is presented as opposed to what the Christian should be aiming at, and which was the cause of death in the first place. In the chorale Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, the believer asks for mercy, as he has sinned against God. The organ part is performed by strings, whereas Vitzthtum sings the cantus firmus. The tempo seems a bit too slow. In the aria 'Stirb in mir', taken from the cantata Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169), worldly pleasures are presented in opposition to the love of God: "Die in me, vanity, wealth, lust, you corrupt carnal instincts!"

All the pieces performed here are rather well-known, and that goes even for Johann Christoph Bach's aria. However, the way the music is performed and the concept in which the various pieces are presented, makes this disc an interesting addition to the large Bach discography. Van der Kamp's arrangements adds to the value of this disc. Franz Vitzthum is responsible for sensitive and expressive performances. His experience in this kind of repertoire and the fact that he is a native German speaker result in fully idiomatic interpretations. I can't remember having heard the Ensemble il capriccio before. I hope to hear more from them in the near future, as they give here a very good account of themselves.

The ensemble Klingzeug comes up with an entirely different programme. One difference is notable: no singer is involved. There is some vocal music (Purcell), but that is performed instrumentally. The scope is wider in that the repertoire spans the period from the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century. That is also one of the issues of this production. Raimbaut de Vaqueiras's Planh (from Latin planctus) is performed on the recorder. The tracklist adds "improvisation", which suggests that the material is treated with some freedom. As I don't know the original piece, I can't check to what extent that is indeed the case. The anonymous Lamento di Tristano is performed here in an arrangement, which is rather unsatusfying. The 14th century and an ensemble of baroque strings are really worlds apart.

The second issue is that the programme includes music of a lamenting character, but that is not necessarily connected to death. A clear example is John Dowland's Pavana lachrymae, which we get here in an arrangement for violin and basso continuo by the Hamburg composer Johann Schop. Dowland's pavan is an expression of the melancholy that was fashionable in his time. I don't know whether Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonata lamentevole has anything to do with death; the comments on the music in the booklet are very succinct. After all, numerous pieces of a lamenting character have been written in connection to, for instance, unhappy love. It is very questionable whether the title of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's Balletti lamentabili has to be taken literally. Interestingly, Gunar Letzbor included them in a disc of music for Carnival (Symphonia, 1997). They conclude the programme, and he comments: "The time for levity is over and melancholy thoughts for the end of the Carneval [sic] and beginning of Lent enter in". The Fugue by Giacomo Antonio Perti has certainly nothing to do with what the title of this disc promises.

However, it seems we should not take the title too literally. The introduction of the programme in the booklet generalises the subject of the programme thus: "Centuries lie between us and the music presented on this recording. Yet the themes touched upon in these laments are familiar to us all: Fragility and hope, transience of life, solace of memory and the depths of farewell." This means that neary everything can be taken into account. It basically nullifies the entire concept the title indicates.

Only three pieces are specifically connected to the death of a person: Schmelzer's Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III, Locatelli's Sinfonia funebre and the Lament of Dido from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. As the commemoration of someone's death can also been seen - and was undoubtedly seen in the baroque era - as an incitement to the bereaved to think about their own death, these come most close to the literal meaning of this disc's title. I find the instrumental performance of Dido's lament rather unconvincing. It just misses the effect the original has.

As one may gather, I am not really impressed by the way the programme has been put together. The inclusion of two pieces from the Middle Ages is a matter of bad judgement, and the performances of some items are not satisfying. Fortunately, the playing as such is rather good, and I certainly hope to hear more from this ensemble. This disc is its first, and it is probably not the ideal way to make its entrance on a market which is already full of ensembles of the same kind.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Franz Vitzthum
Ensemble il capriccio
Klingzeug Barockensemble

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