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Christian GEIST (c1650 - 1711): "Kirchenkonzerte" (Sacred Concertos)

Mária Zádoria, Ágnes Pintérb, soprano; Péter Bárány, altoc; Zoltán Megyesid, László Kálmáne, tenor; Krístián Cser, bassf
Chamber Ensemble of the Orfeo Orchestra
Dir: György Vashegyi

rec: Feb 11 - 16, 2008, Hungaroton Studio
Hungaroton - HCD 32587 (© 2008) (75'30")

Alleluia - Surrexit pastor bonusabde; Altitudo, qui hic jacesab; Beati omnes qui timent Dominumf; Die mit Tränen säenabcef; Dixit Dominus Domino meoacdf; Domine, non secundum peccata nostrabcef; Es war aber an der Stätte - O Traurigkeitc; Pastores dicite quidnam vidistisabf; Schöpfe Hoffnung, meine Seeleabcdf; Vater unser, der du bist im Himmelb

In the 17th century music was part of everyday life. Whether it were weddings, funerals, birthdays or namedays or affairs of state, music was a natural part of any celebration. In addition music was required for religious services in churches and court chapels, and aristocrats liked to pass the time with performances of music by their court chapel. As a result there was much employment for performing musicians and composers, especially in Germany with its many aristocratic courts and largely autonomous cities with their many churches.

This doesn't mean everything was rosy in the life of composers. There was much employment but also a stiff competition between composers, and therefore not all applications were successful. And they also had to face sometimes unpleasant working conditions and the effects of the tribulations of courtly life. Sometimes an employer had to make drastic cutbacks, for instance by disbanding the court chapel. Or the employer died and was succeeded by someone who didn't care that much about music in general or the music of the Kapellmeister in particular. There wasn't a lot a composer could do about it: he moved in aristocratic circles, but wasn't part of it and when all was said and done he was the plaything of the circumstances.

The German composer Christian Geist is a good example of a composer who didn't have it all his way. There was nothing wrong with his musical education. He was born in Güstrow in Mecklenburg, and his first teacher was his father Joachim, who was Kantor at the cathedral school in Güstrow. He also was able to learn from the musicians active in the city at the time, like the Kapellmeister Daniel Danielis whose compositions show a mixture of Italian and French elements, and the vice-Kapellmeister Augustin Pfleger. In 1669 he went to Copenhagen to broaden his horizon, but he wasn't able to find a job as a musician. In 1670 he went to Stockholm, where he became a member of the court chapel under Gustav Düben. But they didn't go along well, and in 1674 Geist tried to succeed Christoph Bernhard as director of church music in Hamburg, but to no avail. In 1679 he became organist of the German church in Gothenburg. The working conditions were bad: there was no money for additional musicians, and the organ was hardly usable. In addition he often didn't get paid. In 1684 he went to Copenhagen again, and succeeded the organist Martin Radeck, marrying his widow in the process. In 1711 he died of the bubonic plague, together with his third wife and all his children.

Although he was mainly working as an organist very little organ music has survived. His almost complete output which has been preserved consists of sacred vocal music. Most of it dates from the 1670s, and is part of the so-called Düben collection in the library of Uppsala University. In his compositions he uses the various forms, which were in vogue in his time.

The pieces written on a Latin text are called motetto in the autographs. The disc opens with such a motet, written for Easter, Alleluia - Surrexit pastor bonus. The Alleluia which begins and closes the motet is for five voices, the text in between is set for soprano solo. The instrumental scoring is the most common of the time: two violins and bc. The most striking example of text expression here is the chromaticism on "mori" (die).

Beati omnes, qui timent Dominum is a setting of Psalm 127 for the common scoring of solo voice (here a bass), 2 violins and bc. The next piece, Pastores dicite quidnam vidistis, is in another frequently used form: the dialogue. Here it is a dialogue between the angel (soprano) and the shepherds (2 tenors and bass). The closing "Gloria in excelsis" contains florid passages for the soprano. Another piece for Christmas is the motet Altitudo, quid hic jaces: "Highness, why do you lie here in such a squalid stable?" The first line contains a contrast between "altitudo" (an ascending figure) and "jaces" (at low pitch). The piece consists of three stanzas which begin with a section for solo voice (soprano and bass) which is followed by a 3-part section. Every stanza is closed by the refrain, also for the three voices: "O what miracles you made, Jesus, for mankind? Whom you so ardently loved was from Paradise exiled". After the first stanza a ritornello with chromatic descending figures reflects the last line: "why do you shiver in a manger?"

A second Psalm setting is Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110), which is divided among soli and tutti. In the verse "conquassabit capita in terra multorum" Geist makes use of the stile concitato, reflecting the Italian influence in his oeuvre. This verse is set for the full ensemble. Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel is a chorale fantasia in which the soprano sings the cantus firmus and the strings provide the counterpoint. Schöpfe Hoffnung, meine Seele is a so-called Lied-Kantate, a cantata on a strophic text of free poetry. Here the strophic form is limited to the text; the musical material varies from one stanza to the other. The stanzas are divided over soli and tutti; every stanza is followed by a ritornello, for one or two violins and bc. The ritornelli for solo violin contain florid passages.

Es war aber an der Stätte is written for Passiontide and tells about the burial of Jesus. This piece begins with words from the gospel, and these are followed by a setting of the chorale 'O Traurigkeit! O Herzeleid!', containing chromatic descending figures. I assume Geist has set all 8 stanzas; here only stanzas 1, 3, 5 and 8 are sung. The piece is set for alto solo with 3 viole da gamba and bc, which was a quite usual scoring for a lamento like this.

Domine ne secundum peccata nostra is a setting of two verse and response pairs from a Lenten litany, for four voices, 2 violins and bc. The disc ends with a funeral motet Die mit Tränen säen. This is a co-called concerto-aria cantata, a form which Geist's colleague Buxtehude also frequently made use of. It begins with verses from Psalm 126: "Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them". This is followed by five stanzas of free poetry written by Geist's brother Samuel. This work, scored for five voices, three viole da gamba and bc, was written for the funeral of Anna Margreta Wrangel, wife of Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel, who was the Lord High Constable of Sweden and one of the most powerful men in the country. The fact that Geist composed music for the funeral is evidence of his reputation.

The music of Christian Geist now and then appears in recordings with 17th-century German sacred music. Considering the quality of his music it is enjoyable that a whole disc has been devoted to his output. Actually this is the second disc with music by Geist: in 2003 the Capella Rediviva recorded 'Royal Concertos'. I haven't heard that disc, but it is good fortune that only one piece appears on both discs (Dixit Dominus). This means that this new disc is a real addition to the catalogue.

I think the performance does Geist's music justice. The singers have all very nice voices and generally blend well; they also understand what it takes to sing this kind of music in an appropriate manner. Their German pronunciation is pretty good, although there are several moments where one can hear they are not German speakers. The players also perform at a high level and seem to understand the idiom of German instrumental music.

The booklet contains informative programme notes, and all lyrics are printed with an English translation. The listing of the artists taking part in the various items is not quite accurate, though.

Just a couple of critical remarks. Mária Zádori is sometimes a bit out of step with the ensemble. The florid passages on "Gloria in excelsis" in 'Pastores dicite' are a bit too operatic, and sometimes her voice doesn't blend perfectly with the ensemble. Her colleague Ágnes Pintér has no such problems. I find it odd that the Latin texts are pronounced in the Italian manner, which is definitely not historically justifiable. And it is a bit disappointing that in the lamento 'Es war aber an der Stätte' only four of the eight stanzas of the chorale are sung. With the way Péter Barány sings this piece I wouldn't mind to hear them all. Apart from that this chorale has a very expressive text and melody.

These point of criticism don't diminish my appreciation of this disc in any way, though. Everyone interested in German music of the 17th century will enjoy this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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