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"Harmoniae Sacrae - 17th-century German Sacred Cantatas"

Hana Blazíková, sopranoa; Peter Kooy, bassb
L'Armonia Sonora
Dir: Mieneke van der Velden

rec: May 2008, Delft (Neth), Oud-Katholieke Kerk
Ramée - RAM 0905 (© 2009) (62'59")

Christoph BERNHARD (1627/28-1692): Sie haben meinen Herrn hinweggenommenab [1]; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Sonata IV in C [2]; Johann Valentin MEDER (1649-1719): Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht in deinem Zorna; Gott hilf mirb; Benedictus A SANCTO JOSEPHO (BUNS) (c1642-1716): Obstupescite coeli super hocab [3]; Franz TUNDER (c1614-1667): An Wasserflüssen Babylona; Matthias WECKMANN (1616?-1674): Wie liegt die Stadt so wüsteab

(Sources: [1] Christoph Bernhard, Geistlicher Harmonien erster Theil, 1665; [2] Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Fidicinium sacro-profanum, 1683; [3] Benedictus a Sancto Josepho (Buns), Encomia sacra musice decantanda, 1683

François Fernandez, Sayuri Yamagata, violin; Kaori Uemura, Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda, Mieneke van der Velden, viola da gamba; Peter Rikken, violone; Leo van Doeselaar, organ

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had a very damaging effect on the state of the arts in Germany. The most famous German composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, described its effect this way: "Among the other free arts the noble art of music has not only suffered great decline in our beloved fatherland as a result of the ever-present dangers of war; in many places it has been wholly destroyed, lying amid the ruins and chaos for all to behold". The war had taken away most of the financial resources which otherwise would have been spent to art, and musicians had died as a direct or indirect effect of the war. But although much financial effort was required to restore the economy after the Peace of Westfalia in 1648 it is remarkable how quickly the arts rose up "by God's grace to their former dignity and value", as Schütz put it.

The music on this disc testifies to the rebirth of German music after the war. The sacred concerto was one of the main genres of religious music, and could be sung in church, but also as part of private worship. The texts are various: some are from the Bible - in particular the Book of Psalms - whereas others use free poetic texts, often reflecting German pietism. Stylistically these pieces are under the influence of Heinrich Schütz, called Musicus Poeticus because of the strong connection between text and music in his oeuvre, as well as the Italian stile concertato.

Some of the composers who are represented on this disc are well-known, and there is no shortage of recordings of their sacred music. That is in particular the case with Matthias Weckmann - I only recently reviewed Cantus Cölln's recording devoted to his sacred music - and Franz Tunder. It is fortunate that this disc also includes pieces by some of their lesser-known contemporaries, like Johann Valentin Meder and Christoph Bernhard.

Weckmann's sacred concerto Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste is his most famous composition. That is easy to understand as it is one of the masterpieces from 17th-century Germany. It is one of the sacred concertos Weckmann composed in 1663 under the impression of the plague which hit Hamburg where he was working as organist of the Jacobikirche since 1655. This work reflects the influence of the Italian dramatic style of, for instance, Giacomo Carissimi, whose music he was acquainted with. It has the character of a dialogue between the soprano acting as witness of the fall of Jerusalem, and the bass singing the words of the prophet Jeremiah, from whose Lamentations the text is taken. In the autograph Weckmann has indicated how it should be performed: “in this piece the discant must not be placed right next to the bass but a little away from him”, which underlines the importance of the dialogue character of this work. It also appears on the disc of Cantus Cölln I already mentioned. The performance on this disc is less theatrical but is no less expressive. Here every word gets its full meaning in the performance of Hana Blazikova and Peter Kooy. The players of L'Armonia Sonora are equally expressive in their realisation of the string parts.

The disc starts with a wonderful and highly expressive psalm setting. An Wasserflüssen Babylon by Franz Tunder is not set on the biblical text but on the rhymed version by Wolfgang Dachstein (1487-1553). Tunder also keeps Dachstein's melody to which he makes changes in order to express the text. Most striking is the use of a chromatic figure on "wir weinen" (we weep). Hana Blazikova gives a great performance in which every word is clearly audible and she colours her voice effectively to express the sadness of this piece.

Johann Valentin Meder is represented by two psalm settings. He was from the east of Germany, studied theology in Leipzig and worked as a singer and an organist. He was active in several cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen and Danzig, and in Lübeck he met Buxtehude. He was notable as an opera composer and was well acquainted with the theatrical Italian style. Ach Herr, straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn is a setting of Psalm 6, for soprano, strings and bc. A feature of Meder's compositional style is the emphasis on words by repeating them a number of times, like "ach" (ah), "nicht" (not) and "schwach" (weak). The word "müde" (weary) is set to a chromatic figure, and the phrase "meine Seele ist sehr erschrocken" (my soul is sore vexed) is followed by a sudden pause. The closing of the piece is also very expressive: the soprano sings the last word, "plötzlich" ([be confounded] suddenly), the last two notes are quickly echoed by the strings and then the music suddenly stops.

No less text expression can be found in Gott hilf mir, a setting of verses from Psalm 69, for bass, strings and bc. The solo part goes to the very bottom of the singer's range on the phrase "Ich versinke in tiefen Schlamm" (I sink in deep mire), which is followed by a pause. This piece also ends suddenly, again reflecting the last phrase: "hear me speedily". In this setting as in that of Psalm 6 the strings play an important role in depicting the text, for instance with tremolos. L'Armonia Sonora does a brilliant job here, exploring to the full every detail in the score.

Christoph Bernhard has been mainly known as a pupil of Heinrich Schütz, who in his writings gave a good insight into his teacher's views on music and composing. But he was also a highly respected musician and composer in his own right. Hermann Max devoted a whole disc to his music, and took most pieces from his first printed collection, the Geistliche Harmonien of 1665. From that collection the sacred concerto Sie haben meinen Herren hinweggenommen is also taken. It is a dialogue between Mary and Jesus after his resurrection. She doesn't recognize him, but as Jesus is taken away from the tomb she asks him, assuming he is the gardener, where they have taken him. In the dialogue she time and again repeats "ich will ihn holen" (I will take him away), from the fire, from the depth of the sea, from among the wild animals or even "the cruel Romans". The text is full of references to many biblical stories from the Old Testament. The most dramatic moment comes when the 'gardiner' reveals his true identity, which leads to 'duet' with the soprano singing "Rabboni!" and the bass "Mary!" This is set in a truly theatrical manner, and that is brilliantly explored in this performance.

In this piece the way Mary speaks about Jesus shows an amount of intimacy which is an expression of the world of German pietism. This had its roots in medieval mysticism, and in that respect Bernhard's sacred concerto isn't that different from the last item on this disc, Obstupescite coeli super hoc by the Dutch Carmelite priest Benedictus a Sancto Josepho (or Buns). It is about the personal salvation of the individual through Jesus's passion and death, and it concludes with the phrase: "So shall I die a thousand deaths. I would rather die, than fail to adore you, my most-beloved Jesus!". Its inclusion in this programme is a bit odd, as it is the only piece in Latin, the only work by a Roman Catholic composer, and is purely Italian in style, with very few similarities to the rest of the programme. There is one striking moment of chromaticism, on the word "mortuus" (died).

Lastly, Biber who is represented with an instrumental piece which is also a little odd. Biber's instrumental works are often performed and recorded and I had liked a vocal piece instead as his vocal oeuvre is not really well-known. But this sonata is well played and it gives the instrumentalists the opportunity to show their skills. The opportunity is well taken.

All in all this is a splendid disc which shows the depth of expression and the skills in the treatment of a text by German composers of the 17th century. The interpreters leave nothing to be desired, and the singing and playing is of the highest level. This is definitely one of my discs of the year.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

L'Armonia Sonora

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