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CD reviews

"Cantica Obsoleta"

Hélène Brunet, soprano; Reginald Mobley, alto; Brian Giebler, tenor; Jonathan Woody, bass

rec: [n.d., n.p.]
Olde Focus Recordings - FCR917 (© 2020) (79'33")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665): Salvum me fac Deus; Giacomo CARISSIMI (c1605-1674): Doleo et poenitet me; Daniel EBERLIN (1647-c1715): Ich kann nicht mehr ertragen; Christian FLOR (1626-1697): Inter brachia salvatoris mei; Christian GEIST (c1650-1711): Selig, ja selig, wer willig erträget; Caterina GIANI (fl 1650-1673): Liebster Jesu, trautes Leben; Andreas KIRCHHOFF (fl 1670): Sonata a 6 in g minor; Johann Philipp KRIEGER (1649-1725): Cantate Domino canticum novum; Johann Jacob LÖWE (1628-1703): Sonata a 6 in E flat; Johann Martin RADECK (1623-1684): Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe; Christian RITTER (c1645-c1725): Miserere Christe mei; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (1620-1680): Sonata a 5 in d minor

Beth Wenstrom, Edwin Huizinga, Adriane Post, Johanna Novom, Chloe Fedor, violin; Kyle Miller, viola; Loren Ludwig, Zoe Weiss, treble & bass viola da gamba; Kivie Cahn-Lipman, tenor viola da gamba, cello; Doug Balliett, violone; John Lenti, theorbo, guitar; Elliot Figg, harpsichord, organ

Gustav Düben (c1628 - 1690) was a member of a musical family. His father, Andreas, was born in Leipzig, studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam and entered the service of the Swedish court in 1620. In 1640 he was appointed conductor of the court orchestra. Gustav received his first musical education from his father, and then studied in Germany for some years. After his return to Stockholm he became a member of the court orchestra in 1648. In 1663 he inherited his father's positions as conductor and as organist of the German church. Although he has composed some music, mainly songs for voice and basso continuo, he has become best-known for his collection of music.

This collection, known as the Düben Collection, is huge: it contains about 2,500 handwritten works and more than 120 printed pieces. Both vocal and instrumental music is represented. Although there are some secular works, the largest part of the vocal music is religious. The collection reflects the needs of the royal court, but there are also some compositions which seem to be more suitable for the liturgical practice in the German church in Stockholm. Apparently it was Düben himself who was the rightful owner of this large corpus of music. After his death his son Gustav succeeded him, but in 1698 he was again succeeded by his younger brother Anders. When the latter resigned from all his musical duties in 1726, he donated the whole collection to Uppsala University.

The present disc aims at presenting pieces which are called cantica obsoleta; the liner-notes say: "[It] is likely the first time any of these cantica obsoleta have been heard in hundreds of years". That is hard to prove as there are quite a number of discs which include pieces from this collection. After all, it is one of the most important sources of German music of the 17th century. Many pieces appear only in this collection, and would not have been known without it. That said, we certainly get pieces here that are little-known, often by composers who don't often figure in recordings.

The programme opens with one of the two best-known composers, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. He was one of the greatest violinists of his time in the German-speaking world, who for most of his life worked at the imperial court in Vienna. There he was responsible for the composition of ballet music for Carnival. His oeuvre includes a number of brilliant pieces for solo violin, which reflect his own skills, but also music for an ensemble of strings. The Sonata à 5 in d minor is a characteristic example of his originality. It receives an outstanding performance here; notable are the dynamic accents, which are typical of Acronym's style of playing.

Johann Philipp Krieger can be reckoned among a 'forgotten' generation of composers, largely the generation between Schütz and Bach. To that generation also belong Bach's predecessors in Leipzig and composers who worked in Danzig (Gdansk). The best-known representative of that generation is Dieterich Buxtehude, who has always been known as a composer of organ music, but whose vocal oeuvre is only thoroughly explored in the wake of the Buxtehude commemoration of 2007. Krieger worked for most of his life in Weissenfels and has left a large corpus of sacred works in which we observe the gradual shift from the 17th-century sacred concerto to the cantata as we know it from the likes of Bach and Telemann. Cantate Domino canticum novum dates from 1681 and is an example of a sacred concerto; it is based on Psalm 98, and scored for four voices. The closing phrases are singled out: "Sing joyfully to the Lord, the whole earth".

Next is a piece by Giacomo Carissimi, who has become best-known as the first important composer of oratorios. He enjoyed international fame, and attracted pupils from across Europe, among them Germans, such as Christoph Bernhard. In Carissimi's oeuvre we find pieces of a dramatic character, sometimes called oratorio, but also motet. Doleo et poenitet me is ranked among the latter category, but has the traces of an oratorio, as it has four characters: Peccator I and II (two sinners; SS), Deus Pater (God the Father; B) and Christus (T). The sinners cry to Jesus for mercy, who in turn pleads to his Father for them, referring to his Passion and death.

The next composer is Christian Geist. He was born in Güstrow in Mecklenburg, and his first teacher was his father Joachim, who was Kantor at the cathedral school in Güstrow. 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. 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 Johann 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. Selig, ja selig, wer willig erträget ("Blessed is he who willingly beareth, this worldly suffering, this torment and scorn") is a strophic piece on a text by Johann Franck, a poet and author of about 110 hymn texts. The piece is scored for four voices (SSTB); the stanzas are separated by ritornellos of the strings (two violins and viola da gamba). The first and the last two stanzas are for the entire ensemble; the three stanzas in between are for soprano, alto and tenor respectively.

Johann Jacob Löwe is one of many neglected masters of 17th-century Germany. He was a violinist who was educated by virtuosos at the imperial court. For a short while he was at the court in Dresden, where Schütz took him under his wings and recommended him to the court of Wolfenbüttel for the post of Kapellmeister and after that to the court in Zeitz for the same function. He ended his career as an organist in Lüneburg. He composed sacred and secular vocal music and a large amount of instrumental music. The Sonata a 6 is a typical specimen of the stylus phantasticus that was so popular in the northern part of Germany.

With Samuel Capricornus we are in Stuttgart. He was born in Schertitz (Zercice) in Bohemia and baptised with the name of Samuel Friedrich Bockshorn. In order to escape from religious persecution his family fled to upper Hungary. In 1643 Capricornus went to Silesia to study Latin, theology and philosophy. After a short sojourn in Strasbourg he went to Vienna, where he came into contact with the main musicians who served at the imperial court, such as Giovanni Valentini, Antonio Bertali, Wolfgang Ebner, Johann Jacob Froberger and Giovanni Felice Sances. The Austrian court was under the spell of Italian music, and this was also the style which greatly influenced Capricornus. However, he didn't stay there for long; after a short period as a teacher in Reutlingen, south of Stuttgart, he returned to upper Hungary. For two years he acted as a teacher in Pressburg (Bratislava) and in 1651 he was appointed director of music at the Church of the Holy Trinity. In 1657 he was appointed Kapellmeister at the court in Stuttgart where he stayed for the rest of his life. Salvum me fac Deus was first included in a collection of sacred music published posthumously in 1669. In that edition, it was scored for bass with four viole da gamba, two sackbuts and basso continuo. In the Düben Collection, the instrumental ensemble consists of two violins and three viole da gamba instead. It is a setting of Psalm 69, which is a pray for salvation. The first verse sets the tone: "I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." This kind of images are well suited to be illustrated in music, and that is exactly what Capricornus does. It is also a text which is tailor-made for a bass, and the composer effectively explores the lowest range of the voice.

Christian Flor was born in Oldenburg in Holstein (now part of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein) and probably a pupil of Scheidemann or Tunder. His first job was as organist in Rendsburg, and later in Lüneburg. His best-known vocal piece is Es ist gnug, which has been recorded several times. Inter brachia Salvatoris mei is attributed to him, as in the Düben Collection the composer is only indicated with the initials C.F. The instrumental scoring is for three violas and that is not as unusual as the liner-notes suggest. It was originally scored for a soprano and has been transposed down for alto. Its text expresses the longing for death, which was very common in 17th-century Germany, and still was in Bach's time. Reginald Mobley delivers a moving performance.

The next piece is rather unusual: the composer is an Italian woman, whereas the text is German and sacred. Caterina Giani was a Florentine singer, who married Massimiliano Neri in 1654; she participated in the first performance of Francesco Cavalli's opera Calisto. Only one composition from her pen has come down to us. In the liner-notes to a recent recording, it is stated that it was originally a piece with a secular text in Italian. It is not explained how it received the German text on which it is sung here. However, as it is part of the Düben Collection it may have been a contrafactum from the pen of Gustav Düben. I'm not very happy with the performance as Hélène Brunet uses too much vibrato, as she does in several other pieces as well.

Johann Martin Radeck has already been mentioned, as Christian Geist succeeded him as organist in Copenhagen in 1684. Hardly any music from his pen has come down to us. Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe, on verses from Psalm 73, is one of the few vocal works that have been preserved. It opens with a long sinfonia, taking more than a third of the piece. It is scored for tenor; Brian Giebler has no problems with the coloratura and the declamatory nature of the piece, but uses too much vibrato.

Andreas Kirchhoff is another composer of whom very little is known and very little music has been preserved. The only pieces which bear his name are three sonatas in the Düben Collection. Unfortunately, the identity of the composer is hard to establish. Jakob Bloch Jespersen, in the liner-notes to his recording of music by Buxtehude and his circle, suggests that he may the Andreas Kirchhoff who became a civic musician in Copenhagen in 1679. Apart from his being mentioned in a book of 1687, nothing is known about him.

Hardly anything is known about Christian Ritter, not even the exact years of his birth and death. He is thought to have been born in Halle, and lived and worked there as well as in Dresden, Stockholm and Hamburg. Today he is mainly known because of one organ work - the Sonatina in d minor - and the cantata O amantissime sponse Jesu. It has been suggested that he may be the composer of the St John Passion that previously has been attributed to Handel. Miserere Christe mei is a strophic piece, which opens with a stanza that begins with the word "miserere", which sets the tone of the work. It is followed by eight stanzas in pairs of two scored for one of the four voices. The last stanza is for the entire ensemble.

Lastly, Daniel Eberlin is a largely unknown quantity, but he was a highly virtuosic violinist. A few years ago the Ensemble Diderot recorded a cantata from his pen with a virtuosic obbligato part for violin, undoubtedly written for himself. Ich kann nicht mehr ertragen is for four voices, but is in fact a dialogue between a soprano and a bass, written by Duke Anton Ulrich von Wolfenbüttel. The soprano represents a human soul and the bass a spiritual advisor. Each stanza of the human soul opens and closes with the words "I can no longer", whereas the bass replies that he can, if he leans on Jesus. "Should a Christian thus despair?" Before the closing "Amen", the four voices sing a stanza from the hymn Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist. Again, Hélène Brunet is disappointing because of her vibrato; her German pronunciation is also not perfect. It is a shame, especially as Jonathan Woody does very well here as in Capricornus's Salvum me fac Deus.

Woody and Mobley are the most convincing of the four soloists. Brunet and Giebler often use too much vibrato, although in the ensemble they keep it in check. However, these things prevent me from unequivocally recommending this disc, which otherwise has much to be happy with: the programme, with mostly unknown pieces of excellent quality, the nice singing of Mobley and Woody, and the engaging and colourful playing of Acronym. Those who have a more than average interest in this kind of repertoire, should investigate this disc anyway.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Hélène Brunet
Brian Giebler
Reginald Mobley
Jonathan Woody

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