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CD reviews

"The Berlin Gamba Book"

Dietmar Berger, treble viola, bass viol

rec: Jan 3 - 5, 2014, Cologne, St. Andreaskirche
Naxos - 8.573392-93 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.54'50")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach, weh, weh meiner Sünden; Ach was ist doch unser Leben; Allein Gott in der Höh sey Ehr; Christum wir sollen loben schon; Christus der uns selig macht; Da Jesus an dem Kreutze stund; Der Tag der ist so freudenreich; Gelobet seyst du Jesu Christ; Gott Vater hör auf mein Geschray; Herr des Himmels und der Erden; Herr nur du stiller verschwiegener Bach; Herr straff mich nicht in deinem Zorn; Herzliebster Jesu; Ich dank dir schon; Ich weiss das deine Güte; Jesu meine Freude; Lebt jemandt so wie ich; Lobe den Herren; Mag ich Unglück nicht widerstahn; Merk auf mein andächtig Flehen; Nun ist alle meine Lust; Nun ruhen alle Wäldera; Nun schleft sie schona; O du betrübter Tag; O Lamb Gottes unschuldig; O Traurigkeit; Seelchen was ist schöneres wohl; Sey mein Glücka; Straff mich nicht in deinem Grimma; Unser müden Augenlider; Vater unser; Wie lang o Gott; Wie selig ist der Mensche docha; Wo Gott der Herr nicht bey uns helt; Zu dir grundgüter Gotta

The Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther are generally considered to mark the beginning of the Reformation in Germany; they were written in 1517. Five centuries later the year 2017 will be Reformation year. This will be commemorated in various ways; not least in music. Although the present disc was probably not released in connection with the up-coming commemoration, it includes music which is specifically associated with the Lutheran Reformation. Two elements in Luther's views on liturgy are especially important: the use of the vernacular and the role of the congregation. He started to write and publish hymns in the early 1520s. His example was followed by others, for instance Johann Walter. On occasion texts were provided with music right from the start. Other texts were set to music much later.

Many of the chorales have become widely known, partly because they were included in motets, cantatas and oratorios by German composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but also because some of them found their way into hymn-books all over the world, and that includes the English speaking world. Chorales were not only sung by church congregations. The programme which Dietmar Berger has recorded sheds light on the private use of hymns. The pieces in the programme are taken from a book with music for viola da gamba solo, without accompaniment. In his liner-notes Berger writes: "It is conceivable that whoever wrote the chorales for gamba may still have sung the hymns while playing them." It is probably also possible that they were played in a small circle of family and friends, just as was the case with many sacred songs written in Germany in the 17th century.

The manuscript from which these chorales are taken and which is called the Berliner Gambenbuch is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It includes more pieces than these chorales. There are also dance movements and other pieces, some anonymous, some by French composers, such as Hotman and Du Buisson. It also includes some German secular songs three of which are played here as well: Nun ist alle meine Lust, Nun schleft sie schon and Unser müden Augenlider. It is notable that the latter song is set to a sacred tune: Psalm 42 from the Genevan Psalter which was later used in Germany for the hymn Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele.

The presentation of this production includes some inaccuracies. The cover and the short description at the rear inlay refer to these pieces as "chorale variations". Strictly speaking that is not correct. What we have here are ornamented chorale settings. This means that the chorale melody is kept largely intact. The arranger introduced some polyphonic elements through the use of double stopping. The melody is ornamented through the addition of notes, for instance to fill the intervals. Only three chorale settings are followed by one variation. There are many more variations on these discs, but these are of Berger's making, inspired by the few variations in the book.

The second inaccuracy is that the rear inlay claims these to be "world premiere recordings". However, only recently the label Capriccio released a disc by the German gambist Juliane Laake and the Ensemble Art d'Echo which also includes chorales from this same source. I assume that Naxos was not aware of Laake's recording when this disc was produced. I haven't heard her recording, so I can't compare them. The track-list shows that Ms Laake chose to perform several chorales in the form of suites. Berger treats every chorale independently. Both approaches seem to me perfectly legitimate.

Unfortunately it is not common to include lyrics in the booklet of a disc of instrumental music based on vocal works. In this case that would have made much sense. However, there is a problem here: for his edition of the chorales which was published in 2006 Konrad Ruhland tried to identify the sources of every single chorale but that was not always possible. The track-list includes a number of well-known titles, such as Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig and Jesu, meine Freude. Among the chorales Ruhland could not identify are Ich weiss dass deine Güte, Wie selig ist der Mensche doch and Wie lang o Gott.

Juliane Laake plays 18 chorales from this book, and also includes various other pieces from the same source. Add to that the different approaches to this repertoire and one may conclude that these discs are complementary rather than competitive. Berger delivers good performances and his own variations match the style of these chorales. If you don't have a particular liking for German chorales, you can still enjoy Berger's engaging performances and his creativeness in his variations.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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