musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Melchior FRANCK (c1580 - 1639): Canticum Canticorum & Penitential Psalms

[I] Canticum Canticorum (1608)

Dir: Michel Laplénie

rec: May 8 - 10, 2006, Arthous, Abbaye
DBA Productions - DBA 06/109 (© 2006) (42'53")

Da ging meine Seele heraus a 6; Du bist aller Dinge schön a 5; Er küsse mich a 5; Fahet uns die Füchse a 6; Ich bin schwarz a 6; Ich sucht des Nachts a 6; Komm, mein Freund a 6; Mein Freund komme a 6; Meine Schwester, liebe Braut a 6; O daß ich dich mein Bruder a 5; Siehe, meine Freundin a 8; Steh auf, meine Freundin a 8; Wie schön und lieblich bist du a 5; Wo ist dein Freund hingegangen a 5;

Sophie Landy, Sophie Pattey, soprano; Bruno Le Levreur, Pierre Sciama, alto; Sébastien Obrecht, Patrick Aubailly, tenor; Nicolas Rouault, Marcos Loureiro de Sà, bass; Julia Griffon, viola da gamba; Ronaldo Lopes, theorbo; Emmanuel Mandrin, organ

[II] Bußpsalmen des Königlichen Propheten Davids (1615)

Dir: Manfred Cordes

rec: Feb 22 - 27, 2006, Bassum
CPO - 777 181-2 (© 2008) (58'07")

I. Bußpsalm (Psalm 6): Ach Herr, straff mich nicht in deinem Zorn; II. Bußpsalm (Psalm 32): Wohl dem, dem die Übertretung vergeben sind; III. Bußpsalm (Psalm 38): Herr, straff mich nicht in deinem Zorn; IV. Bußpsalm (Psalm 51): Gott sey mir gnädig nach deiner Güte; V. Bußpsalm (Psalm 102): Herr, höre mein Gebet; VI. Bußpsalm (Psalm 130): Auß der Tiefe ruff ich, Herr, zu dir; VII. Bußpsalm (Psalm 143): Herr, erhöre mein Gebet

Monika Mauch, Manja Stephan, soprano; Marnix De Cat, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, Jan Van Elsacker, tenor; Job Boswinkel, bas; William Dongois, cornetto muto; Frauke Hess, Barbara Hofmann, Juliane Laake, Julia Vetö, viola da gamba; Birgit Bahr, dulcian; Margit Schultheiß, harp

Melchior Franck was one of many German composers whose life and career was severely influenced by the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648). He was born in Zittau as son of a painter, where he may have studied under Christoph Demantius. Little is known for sure about the early stages of his career, but around 1600 he was a member of the choir of St Anna Church in Augsburg. Here he may have been a pupel of Adam Gumpelzhaimer, Christian Erbach and Hans-Leo Hassler. The connection with Hassler seems without much doubt: both went to Nuremberg in 1601, and Franck's oeuvre shows the influence of Hassler. One the one hand there is the style of the Franco-Flemish school which Hassler had inherited from his teacher Leonhard Lechner, on the other hand Franck made use of the antiphonal style of the Gabrieli's which Hassler had studied in Venice.

In 1602 or 1603 Franck became Kapellmeister of Duke Johann Casimir of Saxe-Coburg who was a great music lover. It was here that the Thirty Years War affected Franck's life. In the 1630s the city and its surroundings were destroyed and the economy ruined. Moreover the Duke died in 1633, whereas Franck himself lost his wife and two children. The new Duke, Johann Ernst, was less passionate about music and also was forced to take drastic measures to restore the economy. The court chapel was much reduced, and so was Franck's salary. He died poverty-stricken in 1639.

Franck was a very productive composer: between 1601 and 1636 40 collections of motets were printed. His oeuvre also shows a wide variety of genres: sacred music on Latin and German texts, occasional compositions, secular vocal music and instrumental music. In his vocal music Franck pays much attention to the text, and in this respect he points into the direction of Heinrich Schütz. But Franck's works are mostly rooted in the prima prattica: only in the latest stage of his career he wrote music with a basso continuo part.

The Geistliche Gesäng und Melodeyen were published in Coburg in 1608. It consists of 24 motets for 5, 6 and 8 voices; 19 motets are on texts from the Song of Songs. One may ask why only 14 of them have been recorded by the ensemble Sagittarius as there isn't exactly a lack of space left. In these settings Franck's attention to word painting is demonstrated time and again. A repetition of figures in several voices is used to underline elements in the text, a speeding up of the tempo illustrates movement, like "stehe auf" (rise up) (Stehe auf, meine Freundin) or "ich will aufstehen" (I will rise up) (Ich sucht des Nachts). On the other hand elements in the text are emphasized by long-held notes like "du Schönste" (thou fairest) (Wo ist dein Freund hingegangen) or "daß ich für Liebe krank liege" (I am sick of love) (Da ging meine Seele heraus). These words are not only set to long notes, but Franck also writes a descending figure. In Fahet uns die Füchse the word "Schatten" (shadows) is sung by the low voices only. In the first motet, Steh auf, meine Freundin, the musical figure on the word "Turteltaub" (turtledove) is effectively repeated by several voices antiphonally. Elsewhere the antiphonal principle is also used, but Franck never splits the ensemble in opposing 'choirs'.

In this performance the theorbo, viola da gamba and organ are used to play colla parte, a common practice at the time. The vocal scoring is one voice per part which seems plausible. The ensemble shows its considerable qualities, as the singing is generally good and the voices of the ensemble blend well. The main problems are that some singers use too much vibrato and that the texts are not that well understandable. I have listened to this disc with headphones, and even then it is sometimes difficult to understand the text. The booklet leaves something to be desired: the programme notes are minimal and only in French. The lyrics are partly printed in the wrong order - something which is pointed out in an inlay.
Despite my criticism I recommend this disc because of the quality of this repertoire and the general level of performance.

Seven years after the publication of the Geistliche Gesäng und Melodeyen Franck published his Threnodiae Davidicae, or "Penitential Psalms of the Royal Prophet David". It consists of the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) for 6 voices. Every setting is divided into a number of motets: two in Psalms 6, 130 and 143, three in Psalms 32, 38 and 51, and five in Psalm 102. Many composers of the renaissance have composed a complete cycle of Penitential Psalms, the best-known of them Orlandus Lassus.

The Penitential Psalms - and penitence in general - were an important part of the theological thinking of Martin Luther. His German translation of the Penitential Psalms was his first independently published work and dates from 1517. Probably to underline this importance Franck makes use of this text for his settings of the Penitential Psalms, making sure everyone would be able to understand their meaning. And it could well be that the consistent use of the full six voices - only twice Franck reduces the number of voices, which was quite common at the time - is also a way to emphasize the importance of these Psalms.

The settings of these Psalms, in particular the longer ones, are rather concise. This is achieved by using a homorhythmic and declamatory style, whereas in the shorter Psalms Franck makes use of longer melismatic phrases. The Psalms don't give as many opportunities to illustrate the text as the motets on texts from the Song of Songs. But there are several examples of fine text illustration nevertheless. In Psalm 38 the tempo is speeded up on "denn deine Pfeile stecken in mir" (for your arrows stick in me) (Psalm 38) whereas long-held notes are used for "schwere Last" (heavy burden). "Ich gehe krumm und sehr gebückt" (I walk crooked and bowed down low) is set to a descending figure. A shift in metre is used for "daß die Gebeine fröhlich werden" (that the bones ... may be glad).

The performance pays tribute to what was common practice at the time as both voices and instruments are used. The instrument either play colla parte or replace the voices. The singers are well suited for their task: they sing with great clarity and the delivery of the text is well understandable. The lines are beautifully shaped and there is a fine dynamic shading which is fully appropriate for the music of this time. The voices blend well and the balance with the instruments is also satisfying.

I found the beginning of Psalm 102 somewhat hesitant; but perhaps that was deliberate, considering the text: "Lord, hear my prayer". Marnix De Cat has a very fine voice, but here he seems to feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes, probably because his part is a little lower than what suits him best. One also could argue Jan Van Elsacker's voice is sometimes a little too edgy. But these are very minor details in what is a splendid recording of a collection of pieces which have never been recorded. The quality of these Psalms is first-rate and they suggest Melchior Franck's music is unjustly neglected. More of his music in performances like this one are definitely welcome.

The booklet contains concise programme notes by Manfred Cordes, the English translation of which is sometimes less than precise. In the translation some lines from the German text have been omitted. The lyrics are also printed, with an English translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:


CD Reviews