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"Ein deutsches Barockrequiem" (A German Baroque Requiem)

Vox Luminis
Dir: Lionel Meunier

rec: Jule 2021 & July 2022, Gedinne (B), Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 445 (© 2023) (78'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Andreas SCHARMANN (fl 1663): Gedenke, Herr, wie es uns gehet; Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Und da der Sabbath vergangen war (sinfonia); Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Selig sind die da geistlich arm sind [1]; Christian GEIST (1650-1711): Die mit Tränen säen; Tobias MICHAEL (1592-1657): Die Erlöseten des Herren [3] ; Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL (1626-1712): Ach Herr, lehre doch mich [5]; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1675): Ach wie gar nichts sind alle Menschen [4]; Heinrich SCHWEMMER (1621-1696): Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand; Johann Hermann SCHEIN: Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen [2]; Ich will schweigen; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Der Tod ist verschlungen; Johann Philipp FÖRTSCH (1652-1732): Selig sind die Toten; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Ich hebe meine Augen auf zu den Bergen [4]

Sources: Johann Hermann Schein, [1] Opella nova, ander Theil, geistlicher Concerten, 1626; [2] Cantional oder Gesangbuch Augspurgischer Confession, 1627; [3] Tobias Michael, Musicalischer Seelenlust, erster Theil, darinnen ausserlesene ... Glaubens-Seufftzerlein, Andacht und Freude, 1634; [4] Andreas Hammerschmidt, Vierter Theil, Musicalischer Andachten, geistlicher Moteten und Concerten, 1646; [5] Wolfgang Carl Briegel, Zwölff Madrigalische Trost-Gesänge, 1671

Viola Blache, Victoria Cassano, Camille Hubert, Tessa Roos, Erika Tandiono, Zsuzsi Tóth, Caroline Weynants, soprano; Alexander Chance, Jan Kullmann, alto; Olivier Berten, Philippe Froeliger, Raphael Höhn, Jacob Lawrence, tenor; Lionel Meunier, Sebastian Myrus, bass
Tuomo Suni, Johannes Frisch, violin; Antina Hugosson, Raquel Massadas, viola; Nicholas Milne, Andreas Linos, Sarah van Oudenhove, viola da gamba; James Munro, violone; Bart Jacobs, organ

Johannes Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem is one of the great monuments in musical history. It is regularly performed and is available in many recordings. It never fails to make an impression, because of Brahms's music, but also his selection of texts from the Bible. Those who are acquainted with earlier music are reminded of another 'German Requiem', the Musicalische Exequien by Heinrich Schütz. The ensemble Vox Luminis recorded it early in its existence, and has performed it many times since. Its recording strongly contributed to its reputation as one of the best ensembles in the field of early music, and in particular in German music of the 17th century. The ensemble's founder and director Lionel Meunier and Ricercar's producer Jérôme Lejeune considered that it would be interesting to put together a work comparable with Brahms's Requiem, preferably with settings of the same texts by German composers of the 17th century. This has resulted in the present disc, appropriately called 'A German Baroque Requiem'.

It should be noted that the word 'Requiem' has nothing to do with its liturgical Catholic counterpart. The latter consists of fixed texts, whereas Brahms made his personal selection from the Bible. This is also the reason that it was not possible to find a 17th-century setting for each of the texts that Brahms used. In such cases an alternative has been chosen that in its content has some similarity with Brahms's texts.

As a kind of prelude, the programme opens with the Trauerklag by Andreas Scharmann, a composer about whom nothing is known. The manuscript of this work, the only one from his pen that has been preserved, indicates that it was written in Altdorf in 1663. It is a setting of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: "Consider, Lord, our condition. (...) The crown has fallen from our head. Alas, that we have sinned so greatly". The last phrase opens with the words "Oh weh!", which is sung homophonically by the tutti.

The second work is by Johann Hermann Schein: Selig die da geistlich arm sind is a setting of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5, the opening if Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. Brahms only uses a part of it, but as it was impossible to find a comparable setting of his text, it was decided to perform Schein's version of the complete episode from the Gospel. The first half of the Beatitudes ("Blessed are...") is scored for two or three voices, the second part ("for they shall ...") is for the tutti. In the booklet the 8th verse (Selig sind die reines Herzens sind, denn sie werden Gott schauen - Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God) is omitted in the booklet (the original German text that is; the English translation has it). The work is preceded by an instrumental introduction taken from a work by Thomas Selle. Unfortunately that has led to wrong track numbers in the libretto.

In Brahms's Requiem, the verse from the Beatitudes is followed by a text from Psalm 126: Die mit Tränen säen (Those who sow with tears). Christian Geist set these verses in combination with a verse from the apocryphical Book of Wisdom and a free text probably written by his brother Samuel. This work has the traces of an early cantata, as it opens and closes with sections for the tutti, which embrace a sequence of stanzas for one or two solo voices, separated by ritornellos.

Apparently it was not possible to find a setting of the text from Brahms's second movement, which opens with the words "Alles Fleisch ist wie Gras" - For all flesh is as grass. Tobias Michael's Die Erlöseten des Herren covers only the last section of it: "The redeemed of the Lord shall return". It is a motet for five voices and basso continuo. Keywords such as "Jauchzen" (rejoice) and "weg" (away) are emphisized through repetition.

Three works are selected as counterparts to Brahms's third section: "Herr, lehre doch mich". It is a combination of verses from Psalm 39 and the Book of Wisdom. The opening section can be heard here in a piece by Wolfgang Carl Briegel, who was Christoph Graupner's predecessor as Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt. The first lines are performed three times, first by the high voices, then by the low voices, and lastly by the tutti. This is followed by Ach wie gar nichts by Andreas Hammerschmidt, scored for six voices and basso continuo. The words "ach wie gar nichts" are used as a kind of ritornello and repeated a number of times. The third work is by Heinrich Schwemmer, who worked in Nuremberg for most of his life. He was a representative of the concertato style. Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand was written as funeral music. It opens with the same verses from the Book of Wisdom that Brahms used, but then continues with verses from this book and from that of the prophet Daniel.

For the fourth section of Brahms's work Meunier and Lejeune could have selected Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen by Heinrich Schütz, a setting of Psalm 84 from his Psalmen Davids. Fortunately, they did not, as it is available in other recordings, but rather selected a piece by Johann Hermann Schein, whose oeuvre is only partially known. This work is taken from a collection which is seldom included in recordings. Both settings include verses 1 and 2, but whereas in Brahms it is followed by the 5th verse, Schein took verse 4. Notable is the rather restrained opening of Schein's setting.

A 17th-century setting of the words of Brahms's 5th movement - "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" - could not be found. As an alternative we get another piece by Schein, Ich will schweigen. It is one of the few pieces on this disc that has been recorded before. Schein does not fail to illustrate the word "moths" with melismas.

We return to Hammerschmidt with a piece for Easter, which is used as a counterpart to Brahms's 6th movement, whose text refers to the Last Judgment and the resurrection ("for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised"). Hammerschmidt selected five verses from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Der Tod ist verschlungen is a jubilant piece for four voices, five strings and basso continuo. As in so many German pieces of the 17th century, the instrumental ensemble includes a strong section of low instruments, here two violas and a violone. However, in this work the two violins play a more important role as they join the voices in the exclamations "Victoria! Alleluia!", which are used as a ritornello.

Brahms ends with a text from the Revelation: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord". Again, Schütz has set this text in his Geistliche Chor-Music, but here we get a setting by Johann Philipp Förtsch, a composer who wrote strongly dramatic sacred music, and also wrote operas for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt, before he turned to a career as a physician. This is another work that points in the direction of the cantata of the 18th century. It opens with a tutti section which returns at the end. In between are stanzas for a solo voice and a quartet; the latter is omitted in the booklet.

As a postlude we come again to Hammerschmidt, with a setting of Psalm 121, "I lift up my eyes to the hills". It is a dialogue between a tenor soloist and an ensemble of five voices, supported by five strings and basso continuo. It shows once again the qualities of Hamnerschmidt, to whose oeuvre Vox Luminis devoted an entire disc a few years ago (Ach Jesus stirbt). It is a worthy conclusion of this recording.

This disc has many virtues. For a start, the way the programme has been put together deserves the highest praise. Rather than turning to well-known stuff, Meunier and Lejeune selected music that is mostly unknown. Even some composers are almost completely unknown quantities. In other cases they have turned to parts of the oeuvre of composers that is seldom explored. The very idea of trying to find counterparts to Brahms's famous work was a brilliant move. The performances also deserve nothing but praise. As always the ensemble is impeccable, and the solo episodes are performed with great conviction, both in the treatment of the text and from a stylistic point of view. These are entirely idiomatic performances, which confirms that German music is one of this ensemble's strengths. The instrumental ensemble is excellent as well, and the fact that Bart Jacobs plays the basso continuo on a large organ rather than a small chamber organ is a substantial contribution to the impact of these performances.

As one may have gathered by now, with this disc Vox Luminis strikes again. This disc deserves a strong recommendation.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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