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"Vater unser - German sacred cantatas"

Paulin Bündgen, altoa

rec: Oct 2017, Centeilles (F), Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 389 (© 2018) (79'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/[D]/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Rudolph AHLE (1625-1673): Cum Maria diluculoa; anon: Sonata a 6; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach daß ich Wassers gnug hättea; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Auf, laßt uns den Herren lobena; Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Vater unser im Himmelreich à 2 claviers et pédale; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611): Vater unser im Himmelreich; Johann FISCHER (1646-1716): Sonata Hertzlich thut mich verlangen; Johann Wolfgang FRANCK (1644-c1710): Weil Jesu, ich, in meinem Sinna; David POHLE (1624-1695): Herr, wenn ich nur dich habea; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Vater unser (sinfonia) [1]; Heinrich SCHWEMMER (1621-1696): Grabgesanga; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Was betrübst du dich, meine Seelea; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Salve mi Jesua; Sinfonia Da pacem Domine a 7

Source: [1] Johann Hermann Schein, Opella nova, ander Theil, geistlicher Concerten, 1626

Anais Ramage, recorder, bassoon; Stéphanie de Failly, Amandine Solano, violin; Catherine Plattner, Ellie Nimeroski, violin, viola; Samantha Montgomery, viola; Jérôme Lejeune, tenor viol; François Joubert-Caillet, bass viol; Sarah Van Ouderhove, bass viol, violone; Brice Sailly, organ

In the course of the 17th century a huge repertoire of sacred music was written in Germany, in particular in the Protestant part of it. There are two explanations for this. Firstly, although under Habsburg rule, the German lands were divided into many semi-autonomous regions, ruled by princes, who all had their own courts and musical establishments, which were expected to perform music on Sundays and feastdays of the ecclesiastical year as well as during the private worship of the rulers. In addition, churches in larger towns had their own choirs and instrumental ensembles, which were responsible for the liturgical music on a week-to-week basis. Secondly, Martin Luther rated music highly as a way to disseminate the message of the church as well as to express the feelings of the faithful. This resulted in a large number of printed editions with motets or hymns.

The programme that has been recorded by Paulin Bündgen and the ensemble Clematis documents the various features of sacred music in Protestant Germany.

Some pieces are in Latin (Tunder, Salve mi Jesu; Ahle, Cum Maria diluculo). Although Luther emphasized the importance of church music in the vernacular, he did not advocate the banishment of Latin from the liturgy. In many larger towns Latin was still used, especially for the Kyrie and Gloria. This was still the case when Johann Sebastian Bach was Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Many German composers of the 17th century embraced the newest trends in Italian music. The importance of the text, as advocated by Giulio Caccini, one of the main promoters of the seconda pratica, perfectly fit in with Luther's ideals regarding the role of music in the liturgy. Sacred concertos and cantatas aimed at echoing and further strengthening the message of the sermon. In Lutheran liturgy, the Word of God, and therefore texts, were in the centre of attention, rather than the rituals in the Roman Catholic liturgy. In order to communicate the message to the audience, composers illustrated key elements in the text through musical figures and the use of harmony (dissonants, chromaticism, modulations).

Hymns played a key role in Lutheran sacred music. Apart from being sung during service, first by choirs, but in the course of time also more and more by the congregation, they inspired composers to write harmonisations (Eccard, Vater unser im Himmelreich) and arrangements of various kinds, not only for organ (Böhm, Vater unser im Himmelreich), but also for instrumental ensembles (Fischer, Hertzlich thut mich verlangen). At the end of the 17th and in the 18th century, composers incorporated them into their cantatas.

Another feature of German music of the 17th century is the opulent scoring for strings (anon, Sonata a 6), in which the lower parts (either played by violas or viole da gamba) take a more important role than in, for instance, Italian music of that time (Ahle: three violins, three violas; JChr Bach: violin, three violas).

The programme also documents some of the main subjects of sacred music in Lutheran Germany. Luther's theology is often characterised as the theology of the Cross, which emphasized that the Passion of Jesus for the sins of mankind was an absolute precondition to receive the grace of God. As a result many motets and sacred concertos are about the sins of mankind and of the believers individually. The form of the Lamento, often used in Italian operas of the time, was tailor-made to express the sorrow over man's sins (Johann Christoph Bach, Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte). A second subject is death. This was a daily experience, especially in the time of the Thirty Years' War, but also as the effect of disasters and especially epidemics. Therefore memento mori is a frequent subject of sacred music (Heinrich Schwemmer, Grabgesang). Thirdly, for Luther the Book of Psalms was a particularly important part of the Bible. He called it "a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended, and compacted into an enchiridion or Manual." This explains why Lutheran composers so often set psalms or verses from psalms (Theile, Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele). Lastly, a considerable part of German sacred music reflects the spirit of pietism, which was in favour of making way to subjective sentiments of fervour, compassion and emotion (Ahle, Cum Maria diluculo).

It would be no problem at all to put together a number of programmes of this kind with completely different pieces. The oeuvre of Johann Theile, for instance, is hardly explored to date. He is one of the lesser-known names included here. On the other hand, Johann Christoph Bach's lamento is one of the most famous pieces of German 17th-century music. One could say that this programme is a mixture of the more or less familiar and the hardly-known. That said, some pieces in the programme may have been included in previous recordings, but these may not be available anymore. That goes, for instance, for Franck's Weil Jesu ich in meinem Sinn, of which I know recordings by James Bowman (Meridian) and Axel Köhler (Capriccio). Like Theile, Johann Rudolph Ahle is a largely unknown quantity and only a few experts may recognize the name of Heinrich Schwemmer. From that perspective, this disc adds something substantial to the catalogue.

Overall I have enjoyed this disc, not only because of the music, but also the performances. Paulin Bündgen has a nice voice and his German pronunciation is quite good. The text is always clearly intelligible, which is of vital importance in this repertoire. The strings are playing very well, although sometimes I would have liked a clearer articulation. That said, this disc does not entirely live up to my expectations. That is mainly the result of a lack of dynamics. In particular Bündgen could have delivered a more dynamically differentiated performance and should have set more marked accents. His performance is also not declamatory enough. The more straightforward pieces, such as Johann Michael Bach's Ach, laß uns den Herren loben, come off pretty well, but the strong emotions in the lamento by Johann Christoph Bach are somewhat underexposed. Over the years I have heard performances which were more incisive and made a stronger impact.

There are a couple of issues that need to be noted. The title of Franck's concerto Weil Jesu ich in meinem Sinn is consistently wrong in the track-list and in the liner-notes as the word "ich" is omitted. In the first section Bündgen sings "Manaffes", and that is also how the text is printed in the booklet. This is almost certainly a reading error and should be "Manasses", as it is sung by Axel Köhler. In the booklet the lyrics of Pohle's Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe are mixed up; lines from several stanzas have been printed at the wrong place. The Christian name of Eccard is not Samuel, as the track-list has it, but Johannes. The English liner-notes say that Georg Böhm arranged his organ chorale Vater unser for instruments, but in fact the arrangement was made by the performers, as the original French notes by Jérôme Lejeune have it. Lastly, the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts is a mistake.

All in all, despite some reservations, this disc deserves to be welcomed, and makes curious for more music by those composers who are hardly known. We still know only the top of a huge iceberg, as far as German music of the 17th century is concerned.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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Paulin Bündgen

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