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Tobias MICHAEL (1592 - 1657): Musicalische Seelenlust

Ensemble Polyharmonique
Dir: Alexander Schneider

rec: August 25 - 28, 2014, Kloster Wanzka
Raumklang - RK 3403 (© 2015) (58'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/N; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach, dass ich Wasser genug hätte a 2cd [2]; Der Herr ist mein Hirte a 5 [1]; Die Erlöseten des Herren a 5 [1]; Es stehe Gott auf a 1b [2]; Fürchte dich nicht a 1e [2]; Gott, es setzen dich die Stolzen a 5 [1]; Gott, wer ist dir gleich a 5 [1]; Herr, erzeige uns deine Gnade a 5 [1]; Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, Herr a 2ab [2]; Höre mein Gebet a 5 [1]; Ich danke dir, Herr a 1c [2]; Ich liege und schlafe a 5 [1]; Kommt, wir wollen wieder zum Herren a 5 [1]; Neige deine Ohren a 5 [1]; Siehe, ich stehe für der Tür a 1d [2]; Sei getrost bis in den Tod a 5 [1]; Tröste uns Gott, unser Heiland a 1a [2]; Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist a 5 [1]

Sources: [1] Musicalischer Seelenlust, erster Theil, darinnen ausserlesene ... Glaubens-Seufftzerlein, Andacht und Freude, 1634-35; [2] Musicalischer Seelen-Lust ander Theil, darinnen, gleichermassen, ausserlesene ... Glaubens-Seufftzerlein, 1637

Magdalena Harrer (soloa), Griet De Geyter (solob), soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto (soloc); Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor (solod); Matthias Lutze, bass (soloe); Juliane Laake, viola da gamba; Magnus Andersson, theorbo; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

The position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig was one of the most prestigious in Central Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was held by the most respected composers of their time. It is a little surprising that today little attention is given to their compositional oeuvre, with the exception of Johann Sebastian Bach. Among his predecessors Johann Hermann Schein is probably the best-known and he is not badly represented on disc, although largely with one work (or pieces from it): the Israelis Brünlein. Johann Kuhnau, Bach's immediate predecessor, is certainly a well-known name, but little of his music is performed or recorded, except his Biblische Sonaten, a collection of pieces for keyboard. His precedessors Johann Schelle (1677-1701) and Sebastian Knüpfer (1657-1676) don't fare much better. The present disc includes music by the least-known Thomaskantor of the 17th century: Tobias Michael.

Tobias was the second son of Rogier Michael (c1552-1619?) who was from Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands, sang in the Vienna Hofkapelle and acted as Hofkapellmeister in Dresden from 1587 until his death. Tobias received the first music lessons from his father and in 1601 became a member of the Dresden Hofkapelle. In 1609 he was admitted to Schulpforta, the electoral school near Naumburg that specialized in music and the humanities. From 1613 to 1618 he studied philosophy and theology at Wittenberg University. In 1619 the counts of Schwarzburg and Hohenstein appointed him Kapellmeister of the Neue Kirche in Sondershausen (Thuringia). In 1630 Johann Hermann Schein died and Michael applied for the post of Thomaskantor. He was chosen and the next year he took up his duties. The fact that he was elected unanimously attests to the high esteem in which he was held. According to Alexander Schneider, in his liner-notes, Schein may even have suggested him as his successor. He also refers to Schein expressing his concern about the quality of the choir. That was probably due to Schein's health problems. Michael was able to raise and then keep the standard, despite the tribulations caused by the Thirty Years' War. It is an indication of the choir's repute that in 1648 Heinrich Schütz dedicated his Geistliche Chor-Music to Leipzig and its "famous choir of such renown".

Michael's compositional output is not very large, even if we consider that part of it has been lost. It includes a number of occasional compositions and some chorales and sacred songs. The present disc includes pieces from the two volumes which Michael published between 1634 and 1637 under the title Musicalische Seelenlust. This is the most important part of his oeuvre. The first volume comprises 30 sacred madrigals which show strong similarity with Schein's Israelis Brünlein already mentioned. They have the same scoring: five voices - SSATB - and basso continuo. The texts - at least of the pieces which are selected here - are from the Bible, mostly from the Old Testament. Like Schein's sacred madrigals they show the influence of the Italian style. Key words are emphasized through musical figures or repetition, such as "weg" (away) in Die Erlöseten des Herren and "komm" (Ja, komm, Herr Jesu - Come, Lord Jesus) in Sei getrost bis in den Tod. The the former piece the contrast between "Freude und Wonne" (joy and gladness) and "Schmerz und Seufzen" (sorrow and sighing) is eloquently ephasized. Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist opens with daring harmonies depicting the "Trübsal" (affliction). The same goes for "Torheit" (folly) in Herr, erzeige uns deine Gnade.

The second volume consists of 50 sacred concertos: twelve for solo voice (three each for the four voice types) and twelve for two voices; the remaining concertos are for various numbers of voices with obbligato instruments. Here five solo concertos and two duets are selected. The texts are again from the Bible: three from the Book of Psalms, two from the prophet Isaiah, one from Jeremiah and one from Revelation. Michael has written them in the Italian monodic style, and was especially inspired by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger, the chirarrone virtuoso of German birth who also composed vocal works. Again we find here various specimens of striking text expression, for instance in Fürchte dich nicht (waters, rivers, fire) and in Es stehe Gott auf (flee, fire). Harmony for expressive reasons is used, for instance, in Ach, daß ich Wasser genug hätte on the word "beweinen" (weep).

It is a bit of a mystery to me why this music is hardly known. The madrigals are in no way inferior to Schein's which are available in various recordings. Michael's sacred madrigals deserve a complete recording. The same goes for his sacred concertos; the pieces selected here are of excellent quality. Two pieces which particularly striked me are the madrigalian setting of Psalm 23 (Der Herr ist mein Hirte), a beautiful introverted and intimate piece. And Ich liege und schlafe is just wonderful in its peace and quiet: "I will lay me down in peace, and sleep; for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety".

Tobias Michael has found the ideal advocates in the Ensemble Polyharmonique. It can hold its own with the best in the business. It is a group of five outstanding singers who have the perfect voices for this repertoire. The blending and the intonation are immaculate and so is the delivery. The text is the most important element in Michael's sacred madrigals and that makes it essential that it is always clearly understandable. That is not enough: some words are especially important and these are effectively emphasized. The individual members are equally convincing in the solo concertos. The expressive features of Michael's oeuvre are delivered with great intensity by these artists.

This is one of the finest and most interesting discs I have heard lately. I very much hope that the Ensemble Polyharmonique will have the opportunity to further explore the oeuvre of Tobias Michael.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Polyharmonique

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