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"Absorta est ..."

Jan Börner, alto
Ensemble Il Profondo

rec: May 2014, Solothurn (CH), Kapuzinerkloster
Resonando - RN-10002 (© 2015) (68'29")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte; Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665): Adeste omnes fideles; Martin KÖLER (COLERUS) (c1620-1703): Herr, wie lange [2]; David POHLE (1624-1695): Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (c1619-1684): O anima mea suspira; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1595-1663): Betrübet bist ist zu dieser Frist (WV 104); Georg SCHMETZER (SCHMEZER) (1642-1697): O dulcis amor Jesu; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele; Johann VIERDANCK (1605-1646): Sonata à 2 violini soli [1]; Romanus WEICHLEIN (1652-1706): Sonata III à 6 in a minor [3]

Sources: [1] Johann Vierdanck, Ander Theil, darinnen begriffen etliche Capricci, Canzoni und Sonaten, 1641; [2] Martin Köler, Sulamithische Seelen-Harmoni, das ist, einstimmiger Freuden-Hall etzlicher Geistlicher Psalmen, 1662; [3] Romanus Weichlein, Encaenia musices ... cum 5 et pluribus instrumentis, op.1, 1695

Eva Saladin, Anais Chen, Sonoko Asabuki, violin, viola; Johannes Frisch, viola; Dominique Tinquely, dulcian; Federico Abraham, violone; Mirko Arnone, tiorbino, theorbo; Daniele Caminiti, theorbo; Josias Rodriguez Gándara, archlute; Johannes Keller, organ

17th-century Germany is an incredibly rich source for performances and recordings of particularly sacred and instrumental music. The present disc includes three first recordings but most of the other items are also little known. There is just one exception: Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte, a lamento by Johann Christoph Bach, belongs among the most famous pieces of 17th-century German music.

The programme has no clear thread. Or, probably, it has after all: in the booklet Scheidemann's Betrübet ist zu dieser Frist is called a "solo for the real diva of this recording: the Italian processional organ, dating from the 17th century". It plays a prominent role in the whole of the programme; it is an interesting aspect of the performance practice in this recording which is discussed at length in the booklet. More about that later.

Let me first turn to the composers about whom the liner-notes unfortunately give no information at all. The programme opens with Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele, a setting of Psalm 43 vs 5 by Johann Theile. He was highly gifted, not only musically, but also intellectually. At the age of just 12 he was already a studying law at Leipzig University. That was mainly a way to improve his social position, since he was of humble birth. From 1673 - 1675 Theile was Kapellmeister at the Gottorp Palace, some 120 kilometers away from Lübeck, and then on Danish territory. Political circumstances in Denmark forced the Duke to leave Gottorp for Hamburg in 1675. Theile followed him and actively participated in the Hamburg Opera. When his employer returned to Gottorf he didn't follow him; some time later he took up the position of Kapellmeister at Wolfenbüttel. Here he succeeded Johann Rosenmüller, the next composer in the programme. He lived for many years in Venice but even before his Italian sojourn he was strongly influenced by the Italian style. That comes clearly to the fore in O anima mea suspira: the fourth line, "desidera vehementer" (yearn vehemently), is just one example of Rosenmüller's skills in connecting text and music. This piece also includes a recitative which was rather rare in German music at the time and clearly points to the future. The Italian declamatory style also left its mark in Theile's sacred concerto.

Whereas Theile and Rosenmüller - after his return from Italy - worked in the northern part of Germany Samuel Capricornus who was of Bohemian birth worked at several places, among them Vienna where he came under the influence of the Italian style which was the dominating force at the imperial court. From 1657 until his death he worked as Kapellmeister at the court in Stuttgart. Here he came into conflict with his colleague Philipp Friedrich Böddecker who criticised his treatment of counterpoint. Capricornus argued that it was allowed to bend the rules of counterpoint in the interest of expression. Adeste omnes fideles is an impressive specimen of his art. It is scored for alto who is joined by a violin which has a virtuosic part to play and considerably contributes to the expression of this piece's content.

Martin Köler (or Colerius) is by far the least known composer in the programme. Born in Danzig (Gdansk) he was one of the predecessors of Rosenmüller and Theile in the position of Kapellmeister in Wolfenbüttel; he occupied this post from 1663 to 1667. He succeeded Theile in Gottorp in 1675 where he remained until 1681. He may also have worked as Kapellmeister in Brunswick and Lüneburg. His relatively small oeuvre comprises a number of sacred songs. Herr, wie lange wil tu mein so gar vergessen is a setting of Psalm 13 and is taken from a collection of Psalms which was printed in 1662. It is scored for solo voice and bc; its intimate character is emphasized by the performance of the basso continuo part with only two plucked instruments: tiorbino and theorbo. Equally unknown is Georg Schmetzer (or Schmezer) who was born and died in Augsburg. For most of his life he worked as Kantor and director of music at the choir school of St Anna where he himself had enjoyed most of his own musical education. For this institution he composed some school plays which have been lost and probably also his two theoretical works. The text of O dulcis amor Jesu (O sweet love, Jesus, sweet goodness, my beloved) reflects the spirit of German pietism. It is scored for alto, two violas and bc and shows a division into two 'choirs'.

The programme ends with a piece by David Pohle which is in the same large scoring as Theile's concerto which opens the disc. Pohle was a pupil of Schütz in Dresden, where he also worked some time at the court. In 1660 he was appointed Kapellmeister in Halle, and during the 1670s he also worked for other courts. From 1678 to 1682 he was Kapellmeister at Zeitz, and from 1682 until his death he held the same position in Merseburg. Although these were important positions none of his works were published during his lifetime. Partly due to this much of his oeuvre has been lost, for instance a complete cycle of cantatas for the church year - just one of them has survived - and at least seven Singespiele. Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe is a mixture of verses from Psalm 73 - which Schütz used in his Musicalische Exequien - and free poetic texts. The solo voice is supported here by five strings and bc.

The vocal items are alternated by instrumental pieces. Heinrich Scheidemann was one of the founding fathers of the north German organ school. Betrübet ist zu dieser Frist is a set of three variations on a song whose text has not been identified; therefore it is impossible to say whether it is a secular or a sacred song. Interestingly there is a connection once again to Wolfenbüttel; this piece is one of the few which have been preserved in the composer's own handwriting as part of the so-called Wolfenbütteler Tabulatur. The melody is of English descent and was particularly popular in the Netherlands. It seems possible that Scheidemann became acquainted with this melody when he studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam.

Romanus Weichlein can be considered the odd man out in the programme as he was from Austria. If I am not mistaken Gunar Letzbor was the first who brought his oeuvre to our attention with a recording of the complete collection of ensemble sonatas which was published in 1695 under the title Encaenia Musices. It is his only extant instrumental music. Weichlein was born in Linz from parents who were both musicians and gave him a good musical education. He received his first musical training at the abbey of Lambach and entered the Benedictine Order in 1671. He went to Salzburg to study at the University where he became a doctor of philosophy in 1673. Here he also got acquainted with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. He returned to Lambach, and later became chaplain and musical director of the Benedictine convent of Nonnberg in Salzburg. The twelve sonatas from the 1695 set are scored for two violins, two violas and bc.

With Johann Vierdanck we are in northern Germany again. He was born from a Saxonian-Thuringian family and started his career as a choirboy in Dresden under Heinrich Schütz, who described him as a "fine, modest person and making a very good, solid beginning in composition". He became a violinist in the court chapel in Dresden, worked at the court in Güstrow and in 1632 travelled north to Lübeck and Copenhagen. In the last 11 years of his life he acted as organist in Stralsund. Although he composed a considerable amount of vocal music he has become best known for his instrumental works which were published in two volumes in 1637 and 1641 respectively. The second set includes fourteen sonatas for two violins without basso continuo; one of them - unfortunately not specified - is included here.

The largest part of the booklet is devoted to aspects of performance practice. I already mentioned the important role of the organ. It is described as an Italian processonal organ and dates from 1755 but its main parts seem to be from the 17th century. It has five stops and a pull-down pedal. The stops lend this organ its typical Italian sound. It is quiestionable whether this is the most appropriate instrument for this repertoire. "We have treated the organ as an independent body that contrasts with the four or five-voice string consort". This brings us to the overall approach: the pieces recorded here are performed as consort music. As a result there is something old-fashioned about these performances, referring to the stile antico of the 16th century. The solo voice is also part of the consort in the larger-scale pieces. "In general, the upper consort parts are higher than the alto voice part, thus creating a characteristic sonic effect where the voice is embedded into the middle of the consort texture". The voice takes a a more prominent role in the smaller-scale items. The positioning of the participants during the recording is in line with this approach. "The positioning of the organist directly in front of the organ façade massively complicated both visual and acoustic communication: spontaneous agogic accents were thus not really possible".

There is more - it is all in the booklet which is available for download as indicated in the header - but this should suffice. This is very interesting and thought-provoking. Whether this is the most appropriate way to treat this repertoire - or at least part of it - is a different matter. There are several aspects which raise questions, such as the lack of agogics in the vocal parts. The problem is that we hardly know where and how exactly this repertoire was performed. It obviously makes a difference whether a sacred concerto is performed during the Sunday service in a church or as part of private worship, for instance in an aristocratic chapel.

No doubt it is all done very well and the performers make a strong case for their approach. Jan Börner is a fine singer whose voice blends well with the instruments. He deals with the texts and their meaning convincingly but sometimes I would have liked a more declamatory way of singing, emphasizing specific elements in the text. But that may have been prevented by the positioning of the artists which I just referred to. The instrumental ensemble is outstanding. The performers deserve full marks for their original approach of this repertoire and their choice of music for this recording which largely avoids the well-known stuff and makes this disc a substantial addition to the discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Jan Börner
Ensemble Il Profondo

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