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Johann Valentin MEDER (1649 - 1719): "Sacred Music"

Ingrida Gápová, Anna Zawisza, soprano; David Erler, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; Christian Immler, bass
Goldberg Baroque Ensemble
Dir: Andrzej Szadejko

rec: July 15 - 17, 2020, Gdánsk, [Trinity Church]
MDG - 902 2192-6 (© 2020) (69'33")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder; Die höllische Schlange darf nimmer uns beißen; Gott, du bist derselbe mein König; Gott, mein Herz ist bereit; Lauda Jerusalem Dominum; Meine Seele seufzt und stöhnet; Quid est hoc quod sentio; Vox mitte clamorem; Wie murren denn die Leut'; Wünschet Jerusalem Glück

[ripienists] Klaudia Trzasko, Joanna Sperska, soprano; Helena Poczykowska, contralto; Sebastian Mach, tenor; Dawid Biwo, bass
[GBE] Pawel Hulisz, Emil Miszk, Miroslaw Brzozowski, Filip Pysz, trumpet; Bork-Frithjof Smith, Josué Meléndez Peláez, cornett; Joost Swinkel, Fryderyk Mizerski, Henning Wiegräbe, sackbut; Katarzyne Pilipiuk, Katarzyne Czubek, oboe; Adam Pastuszka, Dominika Malecka, Bernardeta Bruan, Joanna Crosseto, Angelika Lesniak, Karatzyna Olszewska, violin; Dymitr Olszewski, Piotr Chrupek, viola; Adela Czaplewska, viola da gamba; Bartosz Kokosza, cello; Michal Bak, violone; Leszel Wachnik, bassoon; Maciej Konczak, theorbo, guitar; Agnieszka Wesolowska, harpsichord, organ; Piotr Frankowska, organ

There was a time that the Baltic region was one of the financial and economic hotspots of Europe. As so often, that went hand in hand with a flourishing of the arts, including music. Today, little of the music written in this part of the continent is available on disc, and therefore the project of the Goldberg Baroque Ensemble and its director, Andrzej Szadejko, which is released by MDG under the title of Musica Baltica, is of great importance. In recent years, I have reviewed several volumes in this project, which largely included music never recorded before, and that very likely also goes for the pieces included in the latest volume, devoted to Johann Valentin Meder.

Meder was born in Wasungen, near Meiningen, in Thuringia, into a musical family: his grandfather was an organist, and his father worked as Kantor. Johann Valentin was educated as a singer and organist; it is notable that he had a reputation as a fine singer in both the treble and the bass range. This makes him an example of a so-called Diskantist, an adult who was able to sing soprano parts, without being a castrato. Such singers often performed soprano parts that were too demanding for boys. Meder studied theology, but soon turned to music on a professional basis. He was employed as a singer in several places: Gotha, Bremen, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Lübeck respectively, between 1671 and 1674. In the latter year he became Kantor at the Gymnasium at Reval (now Tallinn, capital of Estonia). In 1585/86 he worked in Riga, and in 1687 he succeeded Balthasar Erben as Kapellmeister at the Marienkirche in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). A conflict over the performance of one of his operas resulted in his dismissal, and in 1700 he returned to Riga, where he occupied the position of organist at the cathedral, with the task of providing the cathedral Kantor with music. This explains why a number of his vocal works were written during this time, the last stage of his career which ended with his death in 1719.

As already indicated, Meder composed some operas, most of which are lost. That was also the fate of a part of his sacred oeuvre; according to New Grove, around 130 sacred works presented to Riga council after Meder's death have not been preserved. That has to be considered a major loss, considering the quality of what has come down to us, and what is presented on the disc under review here.

Meder was of the same generation as Buxtehude, Kuhnau and Johann Philipp Krieger - generally, the generation between Henrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach. What they have in common, is that their oeuvre connects the 17th and 18th centuries, mixing features of the respective styles. In the oeuvre of Meder, that is especially the case in the two pieces scored for three choirs. The use of the cori spezzati technique, which had its origins in Venice, was already old-fashioned at the time. Polychorality was largely confined to eight-voice works split into two choirs. At the same time, both pieces include arias for solo voice(s), which point in the direction of the 18th century. However, in these works, as in the other pieces in the programme, the arias are in no way comparable with those by the likes of Bach or Telemann, but rather those we find in Buxtehude's cantatas. One of the polychoral works opens this disc. Lauda Jerusalem Dominum is a setting of the verses 12 to 14 from Psalm 147. The first section is for the tutti, but includes passages for solo voice(s). Notable is that the word "pacem" (peace) is singled out by its scoring for the entire ensemble. Then follows a strophic aria for solo voice(s): two sopranos, alto and tenor. The work closes with a repetition of the opening section. The instrumental ensemble comprises cornetts, sackbuts and strings. It seems likely that this is a decision taken by Andrzej Szadejko rather than prescribed by the composer, but it is certainly in line with the character of this work. That is also the case with the second work for three choirs, Wünschet Jerusalem Glück, a setting of two verses from Psalm 122. Again, the first section is repeated after a sinfonia and the second half of the text; the work then closes with an Alleluja. These two works were both written in Danzig at the occasion of the council election (like Bach's Ratswahl cantatas). The use of the cori spezzati technique was inspired by the Marienkirche, which had four organs at its disposal.

Wie murren denn die Leut' may be the earliest work by Meder included here. It dates from 1684, during his first period in Riga. The lyrics are a compilation of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 46. It was written for a thanksgiving service, but includes references to political events. "The work combines a dialogue between Jesus and the sinful soul with the memory of a local event, the siege by the 'Muscovites' - most likely the one that had ended unsuccessfully for the Russians in October 1656" (booklet). The two roles are allocated to bass (Jesus) and alto (sinful soul).

However, most pieces likely date from the last stage of Meder's career, when he worked in Riga again. That certainly is the case with those works which show a strong influence of the Italian style. "Although Meder never visited Italy, he was one of the pioneers of the Italian style among the North German composers", Anu Schaper writes in her liner-notes. Quid est hoc quod sentio and Vox mitte clamorem are examples of Meder's Italian leanings, whose texts reflect mystical Jesulatry. They consist of episodes for solo voices and tutti - the latter are sung here by the soloists. In both pieces the opening section is repeated at the end.

Two pieces (Gott, mein Herz ist bereit; Gott, du bist derselbe mein König) have the form of a 17th-century sacred concerto: through-composed, and comprising sections for solo voice(s) and tutti. However, the Italian style manifests itself in them again, which suggests that they were also written in Riga, after 1700. In Gott, mein Herz ist bereit, the strings are joined by a pair of oboes, which in 'modern' music often take the role played by cornetts in the 17th century. Both pieces are settings of verses from psalms.

The two remaining pieces are based on chorales: Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder and Meine Seele seufzt und stöhnet. The former's text was written by Cyriakus Schneegaß (1597) and is based on Psalm 6. It is sung on different melodies, here that of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. It is divided in two sections, each of which open with the same Lamento. The first consists of two verses; the first is sung by soprano, the second by the tutti, performed here again by solo voices. In the second section, the three remaining stanzas are treated differently. The third is sung by the tenor, the fourth by alto and bass on free melodic material, with the strings playing the cantus firmus. The fifth verse is for the tutti; the cantus firmus is in the soprano. In the case of the second I have not been able to find the origin of the chorale; the booklet does not discuss it. It seems likely that this chorale was only known in Riga (or the Baltic region). It has largely the same structure as the former: two sections, each opening with the same sinfonia. The six stanzas are allocated to one or two solo voice(s) or the tutti. It is noteworthy that the title indicates that this piece was intended for performance during the Lord's Supper (Andächtige Communion-Musique).

The repertoire written between Schütz and Bach has not received the attention it deserves as yet. Buxtehude's vocal oeuvre is now available complete on disc, and so far six volumes with Johann Kuhnau's sacred music have been released. That is a good sign that this part of German music history is getting more attention right now. This disc is an important contribution to our knowledge of the period which mixes features of the past and the future. Meder is a very interesting figure of this period. However, his importance goes beyond that of an illustration of a period of transition. His music is very good in its own right. Its qualities come off quite impressively here. The ensemble comprises ten excellent singers, whose ensemble is immaculate, but who also impress in their solo contributions. Stylistically there is a strong amount of coherence between them. The sopranos are particularly nice. I have a slight reservation with regard to Christian Immler, in that the lowest notes in his parts are not quite strong enough. In the large-scale pieces the reverberant acoustic is a bit of a problem: in the tutti, the text is hard to understand. Obviously, it makes quite a difference whether a large church is empty or filled by a congregation. Kudos also to the instrumental ensemble, which substantially contributes to the impact of these performances.

The liner-notes are very informative, but the lack of translations of the lyrics is a serious omission. The insertion of track-numbers in the libretto would have been helpful. I also would have liked the original scoring of every piece in the track-list. Sometimes there is too little time between individual pieces. Those aspects of the production are regrettable blots on what is an excellent recording which deserves the attention of every lover of German sacred music of the baroque period.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Jakob Pilgram
Anna Zawisza
Goldberg Baroque Ensemble

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