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Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611 - 1675): "Ach Jesus stirbt"

Vox Luminis; Clematisa

rec: Sept 2019, Gedinne (B), Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 418 (© 2020) (70'47")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach Gott, warum hast du mein vergessen [2]; Ach Jesus stirbt [8]; Bis hin an des Creutzes Stamma [6]; Christ lag in Todesbanden [7]; Die mit Tränen säen [4]; Erbarm dich mein [8]; Ich bin gewiß, dass weder Tod [4]; Ich fahre auf zu meinem Vater [8]; Ist nicht Ephraim mein theurer Sohn [4]; O barmherziger Vater [1]; Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ists (Zweifach Echo à 12) [3]; Triumph, Triumph, Victoria [6]; Vater unsera [3]; Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz [8]; Wer wälzet uns den Steina [5]

[1] Musicalischer Andachten, ander Theil, Geistliche Madrigalen, 1641; [2] Geistlicher Dialogen ander Theil, darinnen Herrn Opitzens Hohes Lied Salomonis, 1645; [3] Vierter Theil, Musicalischer Andachten, geistlicher Motetten und Concerten, 1646; [4] Chor Music auff Madrigal Manier, Fünfter Theil, Musicalischer Andachten, 1652; [5] Musicalische Gespräche über die Evangelia, 1655; [6] Fest- Buß- und Dancklieder, 1658/59; [7] Kirchen- und Tafel-Music, 1662; [8] VI Stimmige Fest- und Zeit Andachten, 1671

[VL] Victoria Cassano, Stefanie True, Zsuzsi Tóth, Caroline Weynants, soprano; Alexander Chance, Daniel Elgersma, alto; Philippe Froeliger, Raphaël Höhn, Jacobn Lawrence, João Moreira, tenor; Matthew Baker, Lionel Meunier, Richard Myrus, bass
Rudolf Lörine, Moritz Görg, trumpet; Simen Van Mechelen, Miguel Tantos Sevillano, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Anaïs Ramage, bassoon; Bart Jacobs, organ
[Clematis] Stéphanie de Failly, Amandine Solano, violin; Ellie Nimeroski, Jorlen Vega Garcia, viola; Sarah Van Oudenhove, violone

Andreas Hammerschmidt was one of the main composers of religious music in Germany in the mid-17th century. Today he is overshadowed by the towering figure of Heinrich Schütz, whom he greatly admired and who once wrote a laudatory poem for one of Hammerschmidt's publications. He was born, either in 1611 or 1612, in Brüx in Bohemia, where his family belonged to the Protestant community. During the Thirty Years War Bohemia became Catholic again, and Hammerschmidt's father decided to move to Freiberg in Saxony. Very little is known about his musical education. Some quite important musicians and composers were active in Freiberg during the time Hammerschmidt lived there, such as Christoph Demantius and Stephan Otto, but there is no firm evidence that he was their pupil, even though he certainly knew them.

In 1635 Hammerschmidt was appointed organist at the Petrikirche, and the next year he published his first collection of music, Erster Fleiss, containing a number of instrumental suites. In 1639 he moved to Zittau, where he became the organist of the Johanniskirche. It was his last position, and there he composed the largest part of his oeuvre. The position of organist became increasingly important, as Hammerschmidt was responsible for composing and performing all church music and directing the soloists from the school choir and the instrumental ensemble of town musicians. In the early years in Zittau, though, Hammerschmidt – like so many of his colleagues in Germany – had to deal with the disastrous effects of the Thirty Years War. It is probably telling that before 1648 - when the Peace of Westphalia brought the war to an end - only one collection of large-scale sacred music was printed. More such music followed in the 1650s and 60s. His activities as composer and performer not only made him a man of reputation, but also brought him considerable wealth. In the early 1670's he suffered from ill health. He died 1675; his tombstone calls him the Orpheus of Zittau.

For this recording project, the performers decided to make a selection from eight different collections of Hammerschmidt's music, which results in a nice overview of the different genres and compositional techniques he used. The large variety in scorings, from small-scale pieces for solo voices and basso continuo, to large works for several choirs is one of the features of his oeuvre. In that respect he is not different from Schütz. Hammerschmidt mixes traditional German counterpoint with the modern concertante style from Italy. In 17th-century German music the text is always in the centre, and that is also the case here. One aspect in which Hammerschmidt is different from his elder colleague is the use of Lutheran hymns, which frequently appear in his oeuvre, whereas they are largely absent in Schütz' output.

Several pieces on this disc attest to that. In Christ lag in Todesbanden, Hammerschmidt arranges five of the seven stanzas of Luther's Easter hymn (which is printed complete in the booklet), in a scoring for three voices (two sopranos and tenor), three sackbuts and basso continuo. In this piece, Hammerschmidt now and then makes use of the antiphonal principle, in that the two sopranos and the tenor are juxtaposed and given different parts of the text. Two other pieces are also based on the then generally-known chorale melody: Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz and Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, both for six voices and basso continuo.

The thread of this disc is the period from Passion to Ascension, although a number of pieces in the programme are not specifically connected to a time of the year. The title of this disc refers to the piece which opens the programme. It is a work for six voices and basso continuo and is taken from Hammerschmidt's last printed edition of 1671. It is divided into three sections. The first and the third include parts of the text of the well-known hymn Christe, du Lamm Gottes. The opening word "Ach" is treated as was customary according to the then common rhetorical principles: an exclamatio followed by a pause. The second work for Passiontide is Bis hin an des Creutzes Stamm, scored for five voices and basso continuo, with five instruments ad libitum. The performers decided here to add strings, as well as five ripieno voices. It is an example of the options composers at the time offered interpreters. This piece comprises five stanzas; each ends with the same lines: "Take away, o God, our distress, Christ, your blood heals all".

I already mentioned the Easter hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden. Two further pieces are for Easter. In Wer wälzet uns den Stein, several dialogues taking place at the morning of Jesus's resurrection are combined, and two sopranos, representing the women at Jesus's tomb, get involved in dialogues with two angels (alto, tenor) and with Jesus himself (bass). The piece ends with the tutti, singing the first stanza of the hymn Christ ist erstanden von der Marter allen. This piece is taken from a collection of settings of dialogues from the Gospels (1655). One of the most exuberant pieces, not unexpectedly, is Triumph, Triumph, Victoria for five voices, two trumpets, three sackbuts and basso continuo. It opens with the lines "Triumph, triumph, victory and eternal alleluias", which is then repeated at the end of each of the next three stanzas. Two trumpets also participate in Ich fahre auf zu meinem Vater, a concerto for five voices from the 1671 collection. As one may expect, the piece is dominated by rising figures, illustrating Jesus's ascension into heaven.

The remaining pieces are not connected to particular Sundays or feastdays. Vater unser is a setting of the Lord's Prayer, but here Hammerschmidt does not use Luther's versification, but rather the original text from Luther's translation of the Bible. It is for nine voices, split into four solo voices and a five-part capella, a procedure we also find in the oeuvre of Schütz. Here strings are added, playing colla voce. Ach Gott, warum hast du mein vergessen is another dialogue, this time between Jesus (tenor) and Mary (soprano). The heart of the piece are verses from Psalm 42: "Why is my soul so troubled and so unquiet in me?" Die mit Tränen säen and Ist nicht Ephraim mein theurer Sohn are both for five voices and basso continuo, but performed differently: in the former piece the solo voices are joined by ripienists, whereas the latter is performed with one voice per part.

The disc ends with one of the most spectacular pieces in the programme. Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist's is a setting of Psalm 133: "Behold, how fine and lovely it is, when brothers dwell together in harmony". This piece is for twelve voices, divided into three choirs, two of which act as echo to the first. The second repeats the second half of the first choir's line, and then the third sings the last words. In several passages, among them the concluding lines, the three choirs join each other, to a splendid effect which underlines the importance of the text.

I was pretty excited when the release of this disc was announced in the liner-notes of an earlier recording. In the past, several discs with music by Hammerschmidt have crossed my path, and they convinced me that he was an excellent composer who is unjustly neglected by performers and the recording industry. This programme, recorded by such distinguished ensembles as Vox Luminis and Clematis, should help to change that. It is to be hoped that it will inspire other performers to delve into the large output of Hammerschmidt. Through this disc the listener gets a good impression of what he has to offer. It is an additional bonus that very few of the pieces included here have been recorded before. From that angle, this disc is also a substantial addition to the discography.

Vox Luminis is one of the finest vocal ensembles in the field of early music, and is especially convincing in the German repertoire of the 17th century. The singers have what it takes to bring this music to life, such as articulation, diction, pronunciation and a thorough understanding of the meaning of the text. Only this way a performance can make a lasting impression. Vox Luminis has done the relatively unknown Hammerschmidt a great service by presenting such a compelling overview of his oeuvre. My only slight reservation regards the dynamic bandwidth: I would have preferred some stronger dynamic shading here and there. The use of a large organ in the basso continuo is a nice bonus.

It is a shame that the booklet includes quite some printing errors. They are little blots on what is otherwise an admirable and enjoyable production.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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