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"Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott - Luther and the music of the Reformation"

Vox Luminis/Lionel Meuniera; Bart Jacobs, organb

rec: May 2016, Gedinne (B), Eglise Notre-Damea,c; August 2016, Stavelot (B), Espace culturel des Capucinsa,d; August 2016, Cibourg (F), Eglise Saint-Vincentb
Ricercar - RIC 376 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (2.30'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/(D)/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
CD 1: "A liturgical year"
Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1595-1663): Praeambulum in d minorb; [Advent] Michael ALTENBURG (1584-1640): Nun komm, der Heiden Heilandac; [Christmas] Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (c1611-1675): Freude, Freude, große Freudeac [6]; Paul SIEFERT (1586-1666): Puer natus in Bethlehemb; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Es ist ein Ros' entsprungenac; [New Year] Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (SWV 14)ac [1]; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): O Jesulein, mein Jesuleinac [2]; [Canticum Simeonis] Michael PRAETORIUS: Herre, nun lässt du deinen Diener in Frieden fahrenac; [Passion] Delphin STRUNGK (c1601-1694): Lass mich dein sein und bleibenb; Caspar OTHMAYR (1515-1553): O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde großd; [Resurrection] Samuel SCHEIDT: Christ lag in Todesbanden (SSWV 22)ac [1]; Christ ist erstanden (SSWV 462)b [5]; [Ascension] Samuel SCHEIDT: Ascendo ad patrem meum (SSWV 9)ac [1]; [Pentecost] Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Veni Sancte Spiritusac; [Holy Trinity] Bartholomäus GESIUS (1555/1562-1613): Der du bist drei in Einigkeita; [Ein feste Burg] Melchior FRANCK (c1579-1639): Ein feste Burg ist unser Gottac; Michael PRAETORIUS: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gottb
CD 2: "The foundations of the Lutheran liturgy"
[Magnificat] Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (SWV 426)ac [7]; [Mass] Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Missa super Christ unser Herrac; [The sacraments] Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kamb; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Aus tiefer Not (SWV 235)d; Johann STEFFENS (1560-1616): Jesus Christus unser Heilandb; [Passion] Joachim A BURCK (1546-1610): Die deutsche Passion nach Johannesd; Samuel SCHEIDT: Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund (SWV 453)b [5]; [Doctrines] Johann Hermann SCHEIN: Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebotd [2]; Martin LUTHER (1483-1546): Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebota; Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Wir glauben all an einen Gottd; Balthasar RESINARIUS (c1485-1544): Vater unser der du bist im Himmeld; [German Requiem] Thomas SELLE: Die mit Tränen säenac; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungenac; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Selig sind die Toten (SWV 391)ac; [In memoriam Martin Luther] Samuel SCHEIDT: Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (SSWV 489)b [5]; Caspar OTHMAYR: Mein himmlischer Vaterd

Sources: [1] Samuel Scheidt, Cantiones sacrae, 1620; [2] Johann Hermann Schein, Opella nova, ander Theil, geistlicher Concerten, 1626; Heinrich Schütz, [3] Psalmen Davids, hiebevorn in teutzsche Reimen gebracht, durch D. Cornelium Beckern, 1628; [4] Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648; [5] Samuel Scheidt, Tabulatur-Buch hundert geistlicher Lieder und Psalmen, 1650; [6] Andreas Hammerschmidt, Chormusic auff Madrigal Manier: fünffter Theil Musicalischer Andachten, 1652/53; [7] Heinrich Schütz, Zwölff geistliche Gesänge, op.13, 1657

Victoria Cassano, Amélie Renglet, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanie True, Caroline Weynants, Kristen Witmer, soprano; Barnabás Hegyi, Jan Kullmann, alto; Olivier Berten, Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger, Pieter De Moor, tenor; Matthias Lutze, Lionel Meunier, Sebastian Myrus, bass; Bart Jacobsc; Haru Kitamikad, organ

The commenmoration of 500 years Reformation can be approached from different angles. Although it was a movement which manifested itself across Europe, the Lutheran Reformation obviously received most attention. In the course of this year (2017) I have reviewed several discs with music which in one way or another are related to the Reformation, and often in a specific way, for instance pieces written for commemorations of the Reformation or moments in its history. The present set of two discs offers a pretty comprehensive survey of the musical implications of Luther's reforms.

The two discs both have a specific theme. The first focuses on the ecclesiastical year, which was the core of the Lutheran liturgy, as we know from, for instance, the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. The second disc is called "The foundations of the Lutheran liturgy": here we find compositions which are related to specific aspects of Lutheran thinking and its liturgical implications. Obviously some parts of it could also have been included in the programme of the first disc, such as a setting of the Passion according to St John. Other pieces are not exclusively connected to specific Sundays or feast days of the ecclesiastical year, such as the Magnificat, which was a fixed part of Vespers, or the pieces which reflect Lutheran doctrine as laid down in Luther's Catechism.

This organisation of the material greatly helps to get a better insight into the world of Luther and his followers. It is mainly music from the early history of the Lutheran church which is presented here; the pieces all date from the 16th and 17th centuries. That has certainly something to do with the fact that this period is the core of the activities of Vox Luminis, but probably also because a large part of the repertoire from this period is still little-known. And indeed, one of the virtues of this production is that it includes quite a number of pieces which are rarely performed or recorded. Some composers represented here are hardly known at al, such as Michael Altenburg, Caspar Othmayr, Bartholomäus Gesius and Balthasar Resinarius. Even some composers whose names are somewhat better known are not well represented on disc, such as Thomas Selle and Andreas Hammerschmidt. The restriction to the 16th and 17th centuries also results in a considerable amount of stylistic coherence within the programme.

As we have come to expect from this ensemble, the performances are generally outstanding. Vox Luminis is one of the ensembles whose voices always blend perfectly. The text always receives maximum attention, and both the articulation and the German pronunciation leave nothing to be desired. Bart Jacobs delivers outstanding and technically impressive performances of the organ pieces. Even so, a more detailed review of the recorded items offers the opportunity to some critical comments here and there, also in regard to the liner-notes.

The first disc opens with the Praeambulum in d minor one of the best/known organ pieces by Heinrich Scheidemann, who can be considered the father of the north German organ school. The latter roots in the Italian stylus phantasticus and in the teachings of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the German Organistenmacher. All the organ pieces recorded here are written in the style of the north German organ school. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is one of Martin Luther's best-known hymns, still sung today across the world. Michael Altenburg is one of the lesser-known composers in this recording. His setting is for six voices; it is partly written in the polyphonic style of the stile antico and partly in the form of a harmonization. Here four stanzas are performed; only three are printed in the booklet. One of these is played as an organ version with ornamentation, the last is performed in the style of congregational singing: all the voices sing unisono with organ accompaniment.

Christmas is represented with vocal pieces by Hammerschmidt and Praetorius; the latter's Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen is one of the most famous pieces for Christmas and often performed at Christmastide. In contrast Hammerschmidt is hardly known. His motet Freude, Freude, große Freude is a brilliant piece about the announcement of Jesus's birth to the shepherds; it has some nice contrasts between high and low voices. In between is an organ piece by a little-known representative of the north German organ school, Paul Siefert, who worked in Danzig (Puer natus in Bethlehem). The celebration of New Year and Christmas are closely connected, not only in time but also in content. Whereas Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (Scheidt) focuses on God's care in the past year, O Jesulein, mein Jesulein by Johann Hermann Schein connects the two: "O Jesus, my little Jesus, (...) what do you bring me from heaven's throne as a New Year's Gift (...)?" It is taken from the collection Opella Nova which shows the influence of the Italian monodic style; the scoring is for two solo voices and bc. The Canticum Simeonis is performed here with a motet on a German text for seven voices by Michael Praetorius.

Passiontide was especially important in Lutheran doctrine; Luther's thinking was often characterised as 'theology of the Cross'. There is a large repertoire to choose from, and here we hear some little-known pieces by Delphin Strungk and Caspar Othmayr. The latter was one of the first who composed settings of Lutheran chorales, among them O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß. Delphin Strungk's chorale prelude on Lass mich dein sein und bleiben has the chorale melody on a different manual; that melody has become famous with the text O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. Christ lag in Todesbanden is a chorale from Luther's own pen; it is heard here as a motet for eight voices in two choirs by Scheidt, who emphasizes the second line ("Für unsre Sünd gegeben" - sacrificed for our sins) by joining the two choirs. The comments in the liner-notes on Scheidt's Christ ist erstanden are a bit confusing, suggesting that this piece is sung with organ accompaniment. That may be a possibility, but here it is performed as an organ work.

Scheidt's motet Ascendo ad patrem meam for two choirs, intended for Ascension Day, bears witness to the fact that Latin was not extinguished after the Reformation, as does Thomas Selle's motet Veni Sancte Spiritus, on a traditional text for Pentecost. This is a brilliant piece in three choirs, whose upper part is extremely high. This suggests that Selle, who worked in Hamburg, must have had outstanding singers at his disposal - the sopranos were boys, of course. Der du bist drei in Einigkeit is a motet for the feast of the Trinity by Bartholomäus Gesius. It is no coincidence that it is scored for three (high) voices.

Ein feste Burg is the only piece on this disc which cannot be linked to any feast. This hymn which is so often seen as the symbol of Lutheranism and Protestantism in general, is performed here in a polyphonic setting by Melchior Franck. Again the liner-notes are confusing: "An unaccompanied setting of the chorale, such as could have been sung by the faithful during Luther's lifetime, is followed by a polyphonic setting for five voices by Melchior Franck". However, we only get the latter here; there is no unaccompanied setting. Was this omitted during the production process? The disc ends with a large-scale organ arrangement by Michael Praetorius, whose organ works are seldom performed.

The second disc opens with the Magnificat on Luther's German text in a setting by Heinrich Schütz. The liner-notes point out that this canticle was often performed in alternatim settings, in which polyphony and plainchant, or - after the Reformation - polyphony and organ alternated. "[The] improvisation or composition of such verses became an important part of an organist's work as a result. This practice is represented here by the first verse of a Magnificat Primi Toni by Michael Praetorius", the booklet says. However, no organ piece is heard here. Its addition would have been rather odd anyway, because Schütz's setting is constructed as a unity, without a division into verses. Here - as in most 17th-century pieces - I would have liked to hear stronger dynamic accents. In particular verses like "He has shown strength with his arm" and "He has put down the mighty" should have been performed more vividly; Schütz was influenced by the Italian style after all, and Vox Luminis should have brought that out more clearly.

The lasting importance of Latin in the liturgy is documented by the Missa super Christ unser Herr by Christoph Bernhard, which consists of Kyrie and Gloria. Bernhard was a pupil of Schütz and worked for some time in Hamburg. The liner-notes refer to comparable pieces in Bach's Clavier-Übung III, which suggests that some of these are included here, but that is not the case. However, the choice of the next three pieces is inspired by that collection of chorale arrangements. Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam is a hymn for baptism and is heard here in a chorale fantasia by Hieronymus Praetorius - not related to Michael - who is one of the main representatives of the north German organ school. Aus tiefer Not is Luther's version of Psalm 130 (129) (De profundis) and is intended for confession. Schütz's setting is from his collection of settings of rhymed versions of the Psalms of Cornelius Becker; they belong to the least-known parts of his oeuvre. Becker published his Psalms without melodies; Schütz mostly created his own, but here he uses Luther's. Jesus Christus, unser Heiland is a hymn for communion and is heard here as a chorale fantasia by Johann Steffens, who was organist in Lüneburg.

Joachim a Burck worked for most of his life as Kantor and organist in Mühlhausen, which makes him an early predecessor of Bach. He composed a Passion which refers to the gospel of St John, but in fact the text is a compilation of all four gospels. It was published in 1568 in Wittenberg and is scored for four voices throughout. Some of the turbae are set for high or low voices, but otherwise Burck doesn't make contrasts within the text. "To draw clearer distinctions between the various protagonists, the recording of this work made by Vox Luminis for this anthology divides the various sections between two groups of singers, the first representing the Evangelist and the second the colloquentes, with the two groups joining forces for the opening and closing choruses as well as for the turbae." That seems to me a wrong decision. Often one choir enters too quickly after the other, suggesting a kind of dramatic dialogue, which the composer clearly did not intend. Moreover, when the two groups join we get to another dynamic level, and again, there is no indication that this was the intention of the composer. In a way it makes this piece more 'modern' than it is. The well-known Passion hymn Da Jesus an dem Kreuze stund is performed as an organ piece by Scheidt.

The next section, devoted to the Lutheran doctrines, is again inspired by Bach's Clavier-Übung III. The three chorales included here are also in that collection. Schein's version of Dies sind die heiligen zehn Gebot is for two voices and bc and is taken again from his Opella Nova. It is followed by the 12th stanza in Luther's own version, sung a cappella. Wir glauben all an einen Gott is performed in a polyphonic version by Johann Walter. Here, as in most pieces from the 16th century, the voices are supported by the organ. That does not play a basso continuo, but rather colla voce. It is not against the practice of the time, but I wonder whether it was very common. I would have preferred at least some of the older pieces being performed with voices alone, also because some of the items may have been sung in more private surroundings, where no instruments - and certainly no organ - was available. Vater unser der du bist im Himmel is performed as a motet by Balthasar Resinarius, who once was a member of the chapel of Maximilian I in Vienna before embracing Lutheranism.

The differences between Catholicism and Lutheranism manifest themselves certainly also in their view on death and eternal life. That is documented by a recent disc of Weser-Renaissance Bremen with funeral music for the Lutheran court in Gottorf from the late 17th century. However, there was no fixed funeral liturgy. The selection of the three pieces here is inspired by Ein Deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms. The three texts which are set by Selle, Hammerschmidt and Schütz respectively are also part of that work. All of them are for two choirs with basso continuo.

The disc ends with "In memoriam Martin Luther". Scheidt's Ich ruf zu dir is, according to the liner-notes, "the final work of the recording". It is not: the last work is a motet by Caspar Othmayr which was specifically written at the occasion of Luther's death, and includes the last words - in Latin - that he should have spoken on his deathbed. "Into your hands, o Lord, I commend my spirit. You have redeemed me, God of truth." In this five-part motet the first tenor sings these words.

Something needs to be said about the booklet. I have already pointed out several incorrect and confusing statements in the liner-notes. I have to add that the lyrics include several printing errors and that in some cases there are differences between the text as sung and the text printed in the booklet. There is another issue you need to notice. I was sent a German version: my booklet includes only German programme notes and no English translations of the lyrics. If you make an order, make sure you get the international edition, at least if you don't understand German. I have downloaded the booklet from and this has liner-notes and translations of the lyrics in German, English and French. However, the digital edition omits the original texts of the few items in Latin. If the printed booklet is identical with the digital edition, that is a serious shortcoming. Also regrettable is that the documentation is rather poor. In most cases the sources from which the pieces are taken, are not mentioned, and in the case of Schütz and Scheidt not even the numbers in the respective catalogues are given.

To sum up: this is a most interesting and musically rewarding musical document of Luther's influence in musical and liturgical matters which I strongly recommend. However, it deserved a better booklet and better documentation.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Vox Luminis
Bart Jacobs

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