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"Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott - Chorales, Motets and Sacred Concertos"

Birte Kulawik, Katja Fischer, soprano; Steve Wächter, alto; Michael Schaffrath, Albrecht Sack, tenor; Clemens Heidrich, Friedemann Klos, bass; Sebastian Knebel, organ, regal
Chamber Choir of the Frauenkirche Dresden; Instrumenta Musica
Dir: Matthias Grünert

rec: March 19 - 21, 2013 & Nov 23, 2014, Dresden, Frauenkirche
Rondeau - ROP6074 (© 2015) (69'01")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland: Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654) (organ chorale) [15]; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) (motet) [6]; Heinrich GRIMM (1593-1637) (chorale setting) [13]; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630) (sacred concerto) [14]; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706) (chorale arrangement)
Michael PRAETORIUS: Bransle de Montirande [11]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15]; Hans Leo HASSLER (chorale setting) [8]; Michael PRAETORIUS (bicinium) [10]; Adam GUMPELZHAIMER (1559-1625) (motet); Friedrich Wilhelm ZACHOW (1663-1712) (chorale arrangement)
Michael PRAETORIUS: Ballet des feus [11]
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15]; Michael PRAETORIUS (motet) [6]; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1610-1675) (motet) [17]; Erhard BODENSCHATZ (1576-1636) (chorale setting); Johann Heinrich BUTTSTEDT (chorale arrangement)
Michael PRAETORIUS: Philov [11]
Christ lag in Todesbanden: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15], (motet) [12]; Michael PRAETORIUS (sacred concerto) [10]; Lucas OSIANDER (1534-1604) (chorale setting) [3] Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL (1626-1712) (chorale arrangement) [18]
Michael PRAETORIUS: Courante LXX [11]
Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15]; Johann WALTER (1596-1570) (chorale setting) [1]; Michael PRAETORIUS (motet) [6]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672) (sacred concerto, SWV 417) [16]; Andreas ARMSDORFF (1670-1699) (chorale arrangement) [19]
Michael PRAETORIUS: Volte [11]
Vater unser im Himmelreich: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15]; Gotthard ERYTHRÄUS (c1560-1617) (chorale setting) [7]; Michael PRAETORIUS (sacred concerto) [10]; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611) (motet) [4]; Johann KRIEGER (1651-1735) (chorale arrangement)
Michael PRAETORIUS: Bransle de Torche [11]
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: Samuel SCHEIDT (organ chorale) [15]; Melchior FRANCK (c1580-1639) (motet) [5]; Martin AGRICOLA (1486-1556) (chorale setting) [2]; Michael PRAETORIUS (sacred concerto) [9]; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703) (chorale arrangement)
Michael PRAETORIUS: Courante CXXVI [11]

Sources: [1] Johann Walter, Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn, 1524; [2] Martin Agricola, Ein Sangbüchlein aller Sonntags Evangelien, 1541; [3] Lucas Osiander, Fünffzig geistliche Lieder und Psalmen mit vier Stimmen, 1586; [4] Johannes Eccard, Der ander Teil geistlicher Lieder auf den Choral, 1597; [5] Melchior Franck, Contrapuncti compositi deutscher Psalmen und anderer geistlichen Kirchengesäng, 1602; [6] Michael Praetorius, Musae Sioniae, V, 1607; [7] Gotthard Erythräus, Psalmos et cantica varia notas s. tonum musicum adstrictos, 1608; [8] Hans Leo Hassler, Psalmen und geistliche Lieder, auff die gemeinen Melodeyen, simpliciter gesetzt, 1608; Michael Praetorius, [9] Musae Sioniae, VIII, 1609; [10] Musae Sioniae, IX, 1610; [11] Terpsichore, 1612; [12] Samuel Scheidt, Cantiones Sacrae, 1620; [13] Valens Cremcovius, Cithara Davidica, 1624; [14] Johann Hermann Schein, Opella Nova, I, 1627; [15] Samuel Scheidt, Görlitzer Tabulaturbuch, 1650; [16] Heinrich Schütz, Symphoniae Sacrae, III, 1650; [17] Andreas Hammerschmidt, Kirchen- und Tafel-Music, 1662; [18] div, Tabulaturbuch Grobe, 1675; [19] div, Plauener Orgelbuch, 1708

In the build-up to the commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 various discs have been and will be released with music which in one way or another can be connected to this event. Obviously much attention will be given to the hymns which were written in the wake of the Lutheran Reformation, generally known as 'chorales'. These rank among the most important contributions of Martin Luther to music history. They take an important place in the oeuvre of most German composers from the late 16th until the mid-18th centuries and even beyond. The whole oeuvre of a composer like Johann Sebastian Bach would have been complete different in character if Luther hadn't had the ideal of creating a corpus of hymns which gave the faithful the opportunity to express their faith in their own language.

Luther himself wrote a number of such hymns. He often adapted them from ancient liturgical chants; in some cases he also composed the melody as he was well educated in music. Matthias Grünert, Kantor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, has selected seven hymns which can entirely or partly be attributed to Luther. They are presented in a mixture of vocal works and organ pieces in various forms. Grünert sensibly confined himself to compositions from the late 16th and the 17th centuries. This is also a part of music history in which many composers were active who are hardly known today.

The programme is divided into seven sections, each of them devoted to one chorale. The first five are connected to a period in the ecclesiastical year. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her and Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ are for Advent and Christmas, Christ lag in Todesbanden is an Easter hymn and Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott is for Whitsuntide. The remaining two are more general in character: Vater unser is the German versification of the Lord's Prayer and a central element in Christendom and certainly in Luther's thinking whereas Ein feste Burg is his most famous hymn and can be considered a kind of 'national anthem' of Lutheranism.

Every section opens with a chorale harmonization by Samuel Scheidt, from the Görlitzer Tabulaturbuch of 1650, the last collection he published. Scheidt was one of the most distinguished organists and composers of his time. He was a pupil of Sweelinck and worked his whole life in his native town Halle. Next follow three vocal pieces in which three different stanzas of the chorale are treated. These are followed by another organ piece, a chorale arrangement, mostly from the second half of the 17th century. Every section closes with a dance from Michael Praetorius' collection Syntagma Musicum.

Praetorius' oeuvre is the backbone of the programme: every section includes a piece from his pen. That is understandable: his oeuvre is very large and of a consistently high quality. Moreover he has something to offer for every scoring and in a wide variety of forms. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is a motet for eight voices in two choirs. Quite different is Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her which has the form of a bicinium for two equal voices. Such bicinia were written for pedagogical purposes and used for the teaching and practising of contrapuntal music in all clefs and church modes. In the same collection we also find Christ lag in Todesbanden which is a tricinium, here sung by soprano, alto and tenor. Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott is for four voices.

The other vocal pieces are either simple harmonizations or motets in various forms and sacred concertos. It is nice that Grünert included some pieces by composers who are hardly known. One of them is Heinrich Grimm (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) who was a pupil of Praetorius and worked in Magdeburg and then in Brunswick. Adam Gumpelzhaimer is also not a very familiar name. He worked for most of his life at the St Anna church and school in Augsburg, a centre of Lutheranism. Here one of his pupils may have been Melchior Franck who is represented with a motet on Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Every section includes a simple chorale setting. One of them is by Erhard Bodenschatz, who published several collections of music for church and schools which were still in use in Bach's time. Vater unser im Himmelreich is a four-part setting with the chorale melody in the soprano by Gotthard Erythräus. It is taken from his only extant work printed in 1608; these settings were meant to encourage the participation of the congregation. This type of chorale setting was established by Lucas Osiander, a theologian and composer who for some time acted as city pastor at St Leonhard's in Stuttgart and then as court minister and member of the consistory. Christ lag in Todesbanden is from his collection of Lieder und Psalmen of 1586 whose strictly homophonic settings enabled choir and congregation to sing together. Earlier he had expressed his ideal of the chorale melodies being "understandable to the entire Christian communion". Obviously Johann Walter had to be included (Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott); he was close to Luther, advised him in matters of liturgical music and can be considered the father of the Lutheran hymn.

One of the giants of German sacred music of the 17th century was Heinrich Schütz, known as the 'father of German music'. He is represented here with Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott from his Symphoniae Sacrae III. It is one of the relatively few pieces in which he makes use of the common hymn melodies, although he treats the melody here with considerable freedom, certainly in comparison with the other composers in the programme. Many composers of the next generation were under his influence and that certainly is the case with Andreas Hammerschmidt who was highly regarded in his time and one of the major composers of sacred music. Johann Hermann Schein was a close friend of Schütz and Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Every section closes with a chorale arrangement for organ. Johann Pachelbel (Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland) is the best-known; was one of the most important organists in Germany in the second half of the 18th century and had a considerable influence on Bach. His chorale arrangements belong to the best of what has been written in Germany. Johann Heinrich Buttstedt was born near Erfurt when Pachelbel was organist there; his oeuvre shows the latter's influence. Andreas Armsdorff (Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott was from the same region. Like Pachelbel Johann Krieger was from Nuremberg; they shared the same teacher there, Georg Caspar Wecker. Wolfgang Carl Briegel received his education in Nuremberg; for most of his life he was Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt until his death in 1712 when he was succeeded by Christoph Graupner. Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow worked in Halle and has become best known as the keyboard teacher of Handel.

The way the selected pieces are performed is as differentiated as the programme. The chorale settings are mostly sung by the choir, sometimes with instruments playing colla parte. But Martin Agricola's setting of Ein feste Burg is performed by tenor solo with regal. The same goes for the motets by Praetorius: in Komm, heiliger Geist the choir is supported by the instrumental ensemble, whereas in Ein feste Burg it is accompanied only by the regal. The sacred concertos are different in scoring. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland by Schein is for two sopranos and tenor, Hammerschmidt's Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ is performed by alto and wind instruments. Scheidt's Christ lag in Todesbanden is for two choirs which are supported here by wind and strings respectively.

The result is a compelling sequence of some of the most beautiful chorales in fine settings written in a period of about 100 years. It just shows what source of inspiration these hymns were for composers and what important place they had not only in the liturgy in Lutheran Germany but also in everyday life of the faithful. It is not only the more elaborate pieces - the motets and sacred concertos - which make this disc attractive. The simple chorale settings have a value of their own and these bring us most closely to everyday life in Lutheran Germany. The performances are generally very good. Although I would have preferred a somewhat smaller choir it gives a good account of itself. The instrumental ensemble is of the same quality. The support of the vocal forces is good, but the dances are a bit too restrained. The vocal soloists are adequate without making a very strong impression. Especially the sacred concerto by Schütz is a bit disappointing; there are much better recordings in the catalogue. But that is not the reason one will purchase this disc. The main attraction is the selection of little-known pieces and the fact that the chorales are placed in their historical context.

Lovers of the German chorale will certainly greatly enjoy this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Frauenkirche Dresden
Instrumenta Musica

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