musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Michael PRAETORIUS (1571/72 - 1621): Michaelisvesper

Paul Bartscht, Joshua Behlke, Daniel Bühl, Marius Demir, Gerrit Hülst, Stephan Koch, André Olszowy, Jan Marco Schäfer, Tim Schepan, Felix Wegmann, Mathis Winter, treble; Henning Voss, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Nils Ole Peters, baritone; Michael Jäckel, bass
Knabenchor Hannover; The Sirius Viols; Bremer Lautten Chor; Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble; Margit Schultheiß, harp, organ; Klaus Eichhorn, organ, regal; Axel LaDeur, organ
Dir: Jörg Breiding

rec: Oct 2 - 5, 2008, Mandelsloh, St Osdag
Rondeau - ROP7007 (© 2009) (80'48")

Das ist mir lieb a 5 [10]; Der Herr sei mit euch a 4 [4]; Es stehn für Gottes Throne a 7 et 11 [9]; Jubilate Domino omnis terra a 9 [1]; Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott a 4 [2]; Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott a 8 et 12 [1]; Laudate Dominum, laudate nomen Domini a 6 [8]; Magnificat a 8: Gloria Patri [6]; Meine Seele erhebt den Herren a 6, 10 et 14 [9]; Peccavi, fateor a 6 [1]; Vater unser im Himmelreich a 18 (exc) [7]; Vater unser in dem Himmel a 4 [3]; Venite, cantate in cythara Deo a 6 [8]; Vita sanctorum decus angelorum a 2 - 7 [5]; Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ a 4 [2,4]; Wir gläuben all an einen Gott a 4 [2]

(Sources: [1] Musarum Sioniarum Motectae et Psalmi Latini, 1607; [2] Musae Sioniae, V, 1607; [3] Musae Sioniae, VII, 1609; [4] Musae Sioniae, VIII, 1610; [5] Hymnodia Sionia, 1611; [6] Megalynodia Sionia, 1611; [7] Polyhymnia caduceatrix, 1619; [8] Polyhymnia exercitatrix, 1620; [9] Puericinium, 1621 [10] div, Angst der Hellen und Friede der Seelen, 1623)

Recordings of music by Michael Praetorius are rare. When his name appears in tracklists of discs it is mostly dances from his collection Terpsichore which are performed. His sacred music, and in particular the large-scale compositions which are based upon German hymns, are mostly neglected. But Praetorius' oeuvre is versatile and is in many ways a sampling of contemporary genres and compositional styles.

Praetorius was born in Creuzburg an der Werra, near Eisenach, where his father, who had studied with Martin Luther, worked as a pastor. As he did belong to the strict Lutherans he regularly lost his job and had to move. Two years after Michael's birth he had to move again, this time to Torgau. Here Praetorius senior became a colleague of Johann Walter, one of the main composers of hymns, at the Lateinschule. His successor, Michael Voigt, was Michael junior's first musical teacher. He matriculated at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1582, where he became acquainted with Bartolomäus Gesius, another composer of hymns.

In 1595 he entered the service of Duke Heinrich Julius of Brunswick-Wolffenbuttel as organist. His reputation was rising steadily, and in 1602 his salary was considerably increased, which allowed him to marry. In 1604 he was appointed Kapellmeister. Around 1610 he published a large number of collections of music. He also collaborated with the famous organ builder Esaias Compenius.

When his employer died his successor allowed him to work elsewhere for some time. He was in Dresden, where he met Schütz and became acquainted with the newest Italian music. He also worked in Magdeburg, Halle, Sondershausen and Kassel, and he visited Leipzig, Nuremberg and Bayreuth. It is probably due to overwork that his health deteriorated, which led to his death at the age of 49. His high reputation is reflected by the fortune he left, which was largely to be used to set up a foundation for the poor.

Praetorius left a large oeuvre: the modern edition of his works consists of 20 volumes. The German hymn plays an important role in his oeuvre, and he was the first to combine it with the Venetian polychoral style as well as the modern Italian stile concertato. "He himself thought of his musical works as musical sermons and, more than that, (in his own words) as a foretaste of the 'songs of praise we soon shall sing together with all the holy angels and archangels in the heavenly choirs everlasting'", Arne Spohr writes in the booklet.

This disc not only pays tribute to the art of Michael Praetorius, it also sheds light on a fact which is often overlooked: Luther reformed the liturgy, in the wake of his theological views, but preserved many elements of the traditional Roman-Catholic liturgy. To this also belonged the Vesper as well as the celebration of St Michael. This was the motivation to present a reconstruction of a Vesper of St Michael as it could have been performed at the eve of St Michael's Day. Liturgical reconstructions have been recorded a number of times before, in particular by Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort & Players. One of these was a Chistmette with music by Praetorius and some of his contemporaries (Archiv 439 931-2). But this kind of undertakings are risky: too often they are just too speculative and too imprecise to be really convincing. And that is the case here, I'm afraid.

It starts with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and here the 'reconstruction' goes off the rails already. The invocation is performed three times, in order to present three different settings: a monophonic antiphon, a large-scale sacred concerto and a simple four-part setting. But this reconstruction pretends to be a Vesper as Praetorius could have performed it - but this is definitely not the way he would have performed it. This is one of the traps of liturgical reconstructions: the inability to make a choice from the various ways such an element from the liturgy could be sung.

"These invocations are followed by the psalms", the programme notes tell. But as no information is given about how precisely the Vespers of the time were constructed, it is impossible to tell whether the first piece - a setting of verses from Psalm 116 - has anything to do with the Vesper. In addition, this piece Praetorius composed shortly before his death, and that leads to another problem: when would Praetorius have been able to perform such a Vesper? If an attempt is made to reconstruct a liturgical event, one should at least put a rough date on it, otherwise one gets compositions from very different episodes in the composers' life which in reality very likely have never been performed within one liturgy.
The next pieces have certainly nothing to do with a Vesper liturgy: Laudate Dominum, Peccavi, fateor and Venite, cantate in cythara Deo. This is admitted in the programme notes: "Replacing the psalms, the following three pieces have been taken into the Vesper because of their musical quality". Where does that leave the 'reconstruction'? The fourth piece is Jubilate Domino omnis terra, a setting of verses from Psalm 98 - was this part of the Vesper? This section of the Vesper is closed with a doxology - here the closing of a setting of the Magnificat. This again is a very unlikely practice in Praetorius' time.

The Credo also gives reason for question marks: it is performed again in three different ways. Towards the end the 'Choral' Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ is sung in versions from various sources - again something for which I can't see any historical justification. The 'Amen' is also taken from a larger work: it is the second ritornello from the chorale concerto Vater unser im Himmelreich.

This recording falls short of realising what it pretends to be: this 'Vesper' is definitely not what Praetorius ever could have performed. Fortunately the actual performance gives no reasons to complain.

The Knabenchor Hannover has played an important role in the performance of German music of the late 16th and the 17th century. In particular the music of Heinrich Schütz has been frequently performed and recorded. One of the best recordings in the choir's history was the Geistliche Chormusik by Heinrich Schütz, still one of the best interpretations of this collection of motets. And the choir also participated in the recording of Bach's complete sacred cantatas by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. In Bach and Schütz trebles from the choir gave impressive performances as soloists, among them Sebastian Hennig, son the choir's founder and director, the late Heinz Hennig. But in more recent years adult solists were used for the solo parts in recordings, like that with music by Schütz' pupil Andreas Hammerschmidt. I was glad to see that in this recording the solo parts are sung by trebles from the choir.

In this music a strong connection between soli and tutti is crucial as solo episodes and tutti passages are mostly tied together. But equally important is the quality of the solo voices, and I am happy to say that the trebles of the choir are fully up to the job. They all give very fine performances, with an immaculate diction and articulation and the ability to express the content of the text. The adult male singers fully fit in the ensemble.

In the tutti parts the choir displays its qualities and did remind me of the days of old, when Schütz' Geistliche Chormusik was recorded. The instrumentalists act at the same high level and give colour to the tutti episodes. As a result this disc is a monument for a largely ignored master on the brink between late renaissance and early baroque. The splendour of his music which is displayed here should encourage other performers to explore his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Knabenchor Hannover
Johann Rosenmüller Ensemble

CD Reviews