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CD reviews

German Sacred Concertos

[I] "Ich will in Friede fahren - Sacred music for countertenor & viol Consort in 17th century Germany"
Franz Vitzthum, alto
Les Escapades

rec: Oct 1 - 4, 2008, Malsch/Sulzbach, Pfarrkirche St. Ignatius
Christophorus - CHR 77305 (© 2009) (63'31")

Johann Rudolph AHLE (1625-1673): Jesu dulcis memoria (Jubilus S. Bernardi); Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Balletti lamentabili à 4 in e minor (C 59); FERDINAND III (1608-1657): Jesu Corona Virginum, Hymnus; David FUNCK: Suite; Christian GEIST (c1650-1711): Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Ich will in Friede fahren; Giovanni LEGRENZI (1626-1690): Sonata VI in e minor, op. 10,6; Giovanni Antonio RIGATTI (1613-1648): Ave Regina coelorum; Clemens THIEME (1631-1668): Sonata à 5 Viole in d minor

Franziska Finckh, Sabine Kreutzberger, Barbara Pfeifer, Adina Scheyhing, viola da gamba; with: Swantje Hoffmann, violin; Barbara Leitherer, viola da gamba; Wiebke Weidanz, harpsichord, organ

[II] "De profundis clamavi - German sacred cantatas"
Peter Kooy, bass
L'Armonia Sonora
Dir: Mieneke van der Velden

rec: June 2006, Renswoude, Koepelkerk
Ramée - RAM 0604 (© 2008) (66'22")

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt, Lamento; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata I; Benedictus A SANCTO JOSEPHO (BUNS) (c1642-1716): Domine ne in furore tuo; Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): De profundis clamavi; Christian GEIST (c1640-c1711): Es war aber an der Stätte da er gekreuziget ward/O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1620-1680): Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III; Matthias WECKMANN (before 1619-1674): Kommet her zu mir alle, die ihr mühselig und beladen seid

François Fernandez, Sayuri Yamagata, violin; Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda, Christine Plubeau, Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba; Peter Rikkers, violone; Leo van Doeselaar, organ

[III] "Mein Herz ist bereit - German Solo cantatas for bass, violin and basso continuo from the 17th century"
Peter Kooy, bass

rec: April 23 - 26, 2008, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
PanClassics - PC 10211 (© 2008) (75'57")

anon: Sonata in d minor; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum; Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Mein Herz ist bereit; Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Sonata in a (BuxWV 272); Johann KRIEGER (1651-1735): Fantasia in C; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Sonata I in C; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1649-1684): Lauda Jerusalem; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1623-1680): Sonata IX in a minor; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Canzona; Salve coelestis pater

[III] Daniel Deuter, violin; Heike Johanna Lindner, viola da gamba; Markus Märkl, harpsichord, organ

The sacred concerto or cantata - the latter term is historically less precise - was one of the main musical genres in Germany in the second half of the 17th century. Pieces like those recorded on the three discs reviewed here were sung either in liturgy or in private homes. With all the differences between the individual pieces they have two things in common: the use of the Italian stile concertato and a close connection between text and music.

It was especially after the end of the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) that the influence of the Italian style increased in Germany and in general the German-speaking lands. Musical figures, ornamentation, the use of harmony, elements of theatrical music like the juxtaposition of instruments, rhythms or pitch - it was all used for the sake of the expression of the text. This, of course, was especially important in Protestant Germany, as the Word of God was the heart of Lutheran liturgy. But the sacred concertos written for the Roman Catholic parts of Germany were not that different: the emphasis on text was an organic part of German culture.

In this respect the 'father of German music', Heinrich Schütz, has to be mentioned. Not without reason he was nicknamed musicus poeticus, as he more than anyone else had aimed at a careful translation of text into music. His stature was such that very few composers could withdraw from his influence, even those who didn't belong to his pupils.

One other aspect has to be mentioned which is in particular reflected by the disc of Peter Kooy and the ensemble CordArte. Many sacred concertos contain instrumental parts, especially for violin, which are very virtuosic. And that is another aspect of the Italian influence: several composers from Italy had gone to Germany to look for employment. Someone like Carlo Farina, who worked in Dresden, had great influence on violin playing in Germany and stood at the beginning of what was to become the German violin school.

To this school also belonged Biber, Schmelzer, Buxtehude and Krieger, and their respective instrumental pieces show how much violin playing in the German-speaking world had evolved. But also the sacred concertos by the likes of Tunder, Weckmann or Rosenmüller contain violin parts which require highly-skilled performers. Often they were written with specific violinists in mind. Johann Pachelbel could have written the violin part in his concerto Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel for Johann Ambrosius Bach, Johann Sebastian's father, who was a close friend of his.
Mein Herz ist bereit by Nicolaus Bruhns begins with a sinfonia in which the violinist can show his virtuosity. Bruhns himself was a brilliant violinist, whose instrumental music unfortunately has gone lost. In this work the Italian style is mixed with the German compositional technique of counterpoint. The same goes for Lauda Jerusalem by Johann Rosenmüller, the most 'Italian' of all German composers.

The disc entitled 'De profundis' also contains some impressive examples of German sacred concertos. It opens with Kommet her zu mir alle, die ihr mühselig und beladen seid by Matthias Weckmann, a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. This work is full of text expression - in almost every line one finds the music illustrating the content of the text. In comparison the setting of Psalm 6, Domine ne in furore tuo, by Benedictus a Sancto Josepho - also called Buns - is rather modest. This can be explained from the fact that Buns - not German but Dutch which makes his inclusion questionable - was Roman Catholic, and that in the Catholic liturgy not the Word but the sacrament is in the centre.

This disc also contains two pieces by composers who are represented in the recording of Franz Vitzthum and Les Escapades. Johann Christoph Bach composed two pieces which belong to a specific category in German music, the lamento. It also originated from Italy and was frequently used in Italian opera. The two lamentos by Johann Christoph Bach are highly expressive specimens of this genre - and therefore often performed and recorded - and show strong similarity in content. Ach, das ich Wassers gnug hätte is attributed to different composers: in the autograph which is preserved in the Uppsala Library Heinrich Bach is mentioned as the composer whereas in the estate of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach it is atributed to Johann Christoph.

Both discs contain a piece by Christian Geist who mainly worked in Denmark and Sweden. Both pieces are strophic, and the instrumental accompaniment is the same in every stanza. This is a less complicated form of sacred music, the kind which was preferred by the Pietists in Germany. But they show this doesn't imply a lack of expression. The Passion aria Es war aber an der Stätte which concludes with stanzas from the hymn 'O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid' is a very moving piece in which the composer aims at a maximum of clarity at the cost of instrumental virtuosity. It weren't only Protestant composers who made use of this form. For Candlemas Johann Philipp Krieger wrote Ich will in Friede fahren on a strophic version of the Canticum Simeonis. It is a highly expressive work in which the first line 'Ich will in Friede fahren' is used as a ritornello.

All discs contain some pieces in Latin. Some of the composers worked in a Roman Catholic environment (Biber, Buns, Ferdinand III), but in Protestant Germany Latin was still used in and outside liturgy. One has only to think of Buxtehude who wrote several cantatas on Latin texts. Several of these texts are written by the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, like Jesu dulcis memoria. Johann Rudolph Ahle, who worked as organist in Erfurt and Mühlhausen, wrote a concerto on this text. Franz Vitzthum and Les Escapades also included some pieces by Italian composers - the programme notes don't give any reason for this. But although they are not German, it could well be that they were performed in Germany. At least they give some idea about the kind of music which inspired German composers to write their sacred concertos.

All three discs also contain instrumental works. CordArte plays some very virtuosic pieces by Buxtehude, Krieger, Schmelzer and an anonymous composer in which either the violin or the viola da gamba - or both - have solo roles. The two pieces which L'Armonia Sonora has chosen are rather well-known, but fit well in the programme - in particular Schmelzer's Lamento which is a kind of vocal counterpart of Johann Christoph Bach's Lamento.
Mostly unknown repertoire is played by Les Escapades: David Funck and Clemens Thieme are not exactly household names, but their music for viols deserves the attention it is given here.

The ensembles give excellent performances, both in the instrumental works as in the vocal compositions. CordArte is probably a little more extraverted and more theatrical than L'Armonia Sonora, but that also due to the differences in the character of the sacred concertos on their respective discs.
Peter Kooy is one of the best-known singers in the early-music scene and he never disappoints. He delivers outstanding interpretations of the various vocal items on both discs. Both the jubilant pieces which are found on the CordArte disc as the concertos on the Ramée disc which are mostly full of misery and anguish are sung with great understanding. The texts are always clearly to understand, thanks to his excellent diction and articulation.
Franz Vitzthum is still in the early stages of his career, although he has performed as a soloists at several occasions. I have heard hm mostly as singer in his own ensemble Stimmwerck, and I was impressed by the quality of his voice and his singing. He does a very good job here, singing with great expression and sensitivity. Only now and then I had liked a somewhat more declamatory way of singing, but this is a minor detail.

I strongly recommend these three discs which are complementary and together give a captivating picture of the richness of the vocal and instrumental music in Germany in the second half of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Franz Vitzthum
Les Escapades
L'Armonia Sonora

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