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Benedikt Anton AUFSCHNAITER (1665 - 1742): Memnon sacer ob oriente

St. Florianer Sängerknaben, soprano; Markus Forster, Alois Mühlbacher, alto; Markus Miesenberger, Bernd Lambauer, tenor; Gerhard Kenda, Ulfried Staber, bass; Erich Traxler, organ (soloa)
Ars Antiqua Austria
Dir: Gunar Letzbor

rec: August 27 - 30, 2014, Neunkirchen, Stadtpfarrkirche
Pan Classics - PC 10349 (© 2015) (52'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Benedikt Anton AUFSCHNAITER: Beatus vir [1]; Confitebor tibi Domine [1]; Dixit Dominus [1]; Laudate Dominum [1]; Laudate pueri [1]; Magnificat [1]; Franz Anton HUGL (1706-1745)a: Fuga ex B; Fuga seu Prelude 1. toni - fuga 1. toni; Prelude 2. toni - Fuga 2. toni; Prelude 4. toni - Fuga 4. toni; Prelude 5. toni - Fuga 5. toni; Prelude 5. toni - Fuga 5. toni; Prelude 6. toni - Fuga 6. toni

Sources: [1] Benedikt Anton Aufschnaiter, Memnon sacer ab oriente animatus, seu Vesperae solemnissimae, op. 5< 1709

[SFS] Josef Pascal Auer, Simon Paul Bernhard, Daniel Mandl, soprano
[AAA] Andreas Lackner, Thomas Stienbrucker, clarino; Norbert Salvenmoser, Gerhard Schneider, Johannes Giesinger, trombone; Friedrich Kircher, Barbara Konrad, violin; Peter Aigner, Wolfram Fortin, viola; Jan Krigovsky, violone 8'; Roberto Sensi, violone 16'; Hubert Hoffmann, theorbo; Erich Traxler, Sergej Tcherepanov, organ

In 2014 Gunar Letzbor was artist in residence at the Festival Early Music Utrecht. At this occasion he performed the sacred music by Benedikt Anton Aufschnaiter which is the subject of the present disc. It made quite some impression, even though the acoustic was less than ideal. A modern concert hall, like TivoliVredenburg, can never emulate the atmosphere of a cathedral for which this music is written. I expected the programme to be released on disc and that has indeed happened.

It is not the first time Letzbor has given attention to his music. In 2002 he recorded Dulcis fidium harmonia symphoniis ecclesiasticis concinnata op. 4 of 1703 (Arcana A 313). That is one of only two collections of instrumental music from Aufschnaiter's pen. Far larger is his sacred output: between 1709 and 1728 he published four collections with Vesper music, offertorios and masses, and in addition a substantial corpus of sacred music has been preserved in manuscript.

Aufschnaiter was born in Kitzbühel; apparently nothing is known about his background and his first musical education. There is evidence that he studied in Vienna; among his teachers he mentioned Carissimi and Johann Caspar Kerll. The mention of Carissimi is interesting: it shows his interest in vocal music from early on but one also wonders how he may have studied with him. Did he go to Rome where Carissimi worked all his life or did he learn from him by studying his music? It is clear that he was under the influence of Italian music, just like Georg Muffat, whom he succeeded as Hofkapellmeister in Passau in 1705. It seems that he was not entirely happy with the quality of the instrumentalists in Passau, in comparison with Vienna. Could this be a reason that he focused on sacred rather than instrumental music? The fact that in his sacred oeuvre he largely avoids virtuosity in the string parts which is a feature of his collections of instrumental music points in that direction. It is all the more notable as he was not appointed church Kapellmeister like Muffat before him.

The music on this disc is taken from the op. 5, Memnon sacer ab oriente animatus, seu Vesperae solemnissimae which was printed in 1709. That is the first printed music which has come down to us; whether he published some sacred music before that is impossible to establish as his op. 1 and op. 3 have been lost. The op. 5 includes two complete sets of Vesper music: the common five psalms and the Magnificat. Letzbor decided to record the first set complete but did not attempt to perform it as part of a kind of reconstruction of a Vesper office. There are no plainchant antiphons nor any other music to replace it. Instead we hear organ pieces by Franz Anton Hugl.

Aufschnaiter's music as presented here fits into what seems to be a typically Austrian style of sacred music. It is written in an opulent style for voices - solo and tutti - with strings and basso continuo, plus trumpets (clarinos) and sackbuts. That is probably also inspired by the large spaces where this music was performed. Aufschnaiter's Italian leanings come to the fore in the theatrical traits which this Vesper music includes, for instance in the contrasts between episodes for the full ensemble and passages for one or more solo voices and basso continuo, with or without strings. Further evidence comes from the way some phrases or words are singled out. That is especially the case in Dixit Dominus, a psalm which inspired many composers to their most dramatic works; Handel is just one example. Here, for instance, the word "dominare" is emphasized through the entrance of the tutti whereas the more contemplative verse "De torrente in via bibit" is set as a solo for alto. Surprising then is Confitebor tibi Domine: a single soprano voice opens this song of praise. The tutti enter on the second verse: "Magna opera Domini" which has the form of a fugue. Solo voices also open Laudate pueri Dominum. Here it is the verse "Quis sicut Domine Deus noster" (Who is like the Lord our God) which is set for the full ensemble. Notable is the coloratura on "laetantem" ([a] joyful [mother of children]) for soprano. The Vespers end with an opulent setting of the Magnificat.

Listening to this disc I was just as impressed as during the concert I referred to above. That is also due to the performance. Gunar Letzbor manages to find the right approach to this kind of repertoire. It is not easy to perform it in the kind of space for which it was conceived. Letzbor keeps the sound transparent by using a relatively small ensemble - which one could question from a historical point of view - and by adopting relatively moderate tempi. The very clear phrasing and articulation are also helpful to avoid the text becoming inaudible. I also like the dynamic accents which reflect the difference between good and bad notes. Since early in his career Letzbor frequently cooperates with the St Florianer Sängerknaben and that is pretty much an ideal partnership. It is a very fine choir with singers who fully fit into his approach to this kind of music. Their delivery is excellent and the singers have very clear and agile voices; as a result three trebles suffice to make the top line clearly audible. One of the soloists, Alois Mühlbacher, has also been a member of this choir. He is here listed as an alto but I suspect that in this recording he takes care of the solo parts which are scored for soprano. He has a remarkably high voice and sings with admirable ease. The other adult soloists act on the same level. Ars Antiqua Austria delivers colourful and - when needed - powerful performances of the instrumental parts.

Let me turn to the organ music which is played between the vocal items. They are from the pen of Franz Anton Hugl, a little-known contemporary of Aufschnaiter - although of a later generation - who has no entry in New Grove. Fortunately Letzbor provides us of some useful information about him. He was from Bad Buchau (today in the German state of Baden-Württemberg) where his father worked as organist. He followed in his footsteps and acted as organist at the Schlierbach Monastery (Upper Austria) and lastly in Passau. He composed some vocal works but the main part of his output is music for his own instrument. In 1738 a collection of keyboard music in the galant idiom was published. The pieces recorded here are from a book with organ pieces which Karl Johann Ernst Hartmann, a bass singer at the cathedral, put together in 1733. It includes pieces by various composers, including Kerll, Eberlin, Pachelbel and Handel. Most pieces by Hugl are very short: the Prelude 5. toni and the ensuing Fuga 5. toni - last only 48 seconds. They are nicely played; it is a shame the booklet doesn't indicate which of the two organists is the performer. But the website of the ensemble specifically mentions Erich Traxler; I therefore assume he is responsible for the performance of Hugl's organ pieces.

All in all, this is a disc which gives a good impression of Aufschnaiter's music and makes one hope to hear more from his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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Ars Antiqua Austria

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