musica Dei donum
Iestyn Davies, Hugh Cuttinga, alto
Fretwork; Silas Wolston, virginals, organ
rec: July 21 - 23, 2020, Bury St Edmunds, The Apex
Signum Classics - SIGCD684 (© 2021) (64'39")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703):
Ach dass ich Wassers gnug hätte;
Christian GEIST (1650-1711):
Es war aber an der Stätte;
Giovanni Felice SANCES (1600-1679):
O dulce nomen Jesu;
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654):
Canzon super Cantionem Gallicam (SSWV 67) ;
Canzon super O Nachbar Roland (SSWV 66) ;
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630):
Banchetto Musicale: Suite No. 7 ;
Banchetto Musicale: Suite No. 14 ;
Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kama ;
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672):
Auf dem Gebirge (SWV 396)a ;
Franz TUNDER (1614-1667):
An Wasserflüßen Babylon;
Salve mi Jesu
Johann Hermann Schein,  Banchetto musicale newer ... Padouanen, Gagliarden, Courenten und Allemanden à 5, auff allerley Instrumenten, 1617;
 Opella nova, geistlicher Concerten ... auff italiänische Invention componirt, 1618;
 Samuel Scheidt, Paduana, galliarda, courante, alemande, intrada, canzonetto, ut vocant, in gratiam musices studiosorum, potissimum violistarum, 1621;
 Heinrich Schütz, Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648
Asako Morikawa, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen, Richard Boothby, viola da gamba
The lamento was a beloved genre in the baroque era. It had its origin in Italian opera of the early 17th century. The most famous example of such a piece is the Lamento d'Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi. Soon the lamento found its way into sacred music. In Germany, where the that was introduced in Italy around 1600, was quickly embraced, it was used as an expression of sorrow, about the sins of mankind, about the tragic sides of everyday life and about the Passion of Christ. The disc under review here is certainly not the first devoted to this genre. However, only one piece specifically refers to the genre of the lamento: Johann Christoph Bach's Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte is his best-known work and is often performed and recorded. Some other pieces are similar in character to the lamento, but there are also several pieces that have little or nothing to do with the lamento.
Johann Christoph Bach was considered a composer of particularly expressive music, and held in high esteem by members of the Bach dynasty, including Johann Sebastian. This lamento expresses regret about the sinfulness of human life: "Oh, that I had enough water in my head, and that my eyes were springs of tears, that I could weep for my sins day and night". This first section, repeated at the end, is an adaptation of the first verse from chapter 9 of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, where the reason of the weeping is "the slain of the daughter of Jerusalem". The same kind of adaptations are used in the second section, which is inspired by verses from Psalm 38 and the first chapter of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Most of the other vocal items are less well-known, even though most of them are available in other recordings. One of them is Franz Tunder's sacred concerto Salve mi Jesu, which is also a lament on the sinful state of mankind: "Save me, Jesus, father of mercy (...). To you we cry, banished children of Eve". It is an arrangement of a piece by the Italian composer Giovanni Rovetta, a token of the influence of the Italian style in northern Germany. Tunder worked for most of his life as organist in Lübeck, where he was succeeded after his death by Buxtehude.
Es war an der Stätte by Christian Geist is an example of a lamento - although not by name - which is about the Passion of Christ. According to the title-page of the autograph, this piece was intended for performance at Good Friday. The first section is a setting of the description of the burial scene from the Gospel according to St John: "They then took the body of Jesus, that had been removed, and wrapped it in pure gold (...). [They] rolled a large stone in front of the door of the grave and went away". This is followed by the hymn O Traurigkeit! O Herzeleid!. Geist has set all eight stanzas, but these are seldom performed complete; in the recordings that I know, the performers make a selection, and that is the case here as well, which I find very unfortunate. Davies sings the stanzas 1, 2, 6 and 8, but the booklet only includes the first. The complete chorale with tanslations are available at Hymnary.org.
Tunder's An Wasserflüssen Babylon is an arrangement of a hymn after Psalm 137 (Wolfgang Dachstein, 1525), where the Jewish people lament their fate in Babylonian captivity. Another piece based on a hymn is Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam by Johann Hermann Schein. The hymn is from the pen of Martin Luther, and dates from 1541. The event of Jesus' being baptized by John, as described in the third chapter of the Gospel after St Matthew is taken as the starting point for a hymn about baptism. Luther may have written it in the wake of a series of sermons about baptism which he held in 1540. The piece is scored for two equal voices in the soprano range, of which the second is strongly ornamented. Another piece for two voices - this case altos - is Auf dem Gebirge by Heinrich Schütz. It is included in his Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648. The text is based on Matthew 2, vs 18, where we learn about the killing of little children on the order of Herodes, who looks for the elimination of baby Jesus. This is commemorated at the Feast of the Innocent Children. As one may expect, Schütz has set the text in a highly expressive way, for instance on the words "viel Klagens, Weinens und Heulens" (much lamenting, wailing and howling).
One piece is from the pen of an Italian composer. O dulce nomen Jesu by Giovanni Felice Sances is the setting of a text which bears the traces of medieval mysticism: "O sweet name, Jesus, splendour of that eternal glory". Sances was from 1636 until his death in the service of the imperial court in Vienna, which was strongly under the spell of Italian music.
This disc offers a nice mixture of familiar and less well-known pieces from the 17th century, where composers aimed for a mixture of the various styles. On the one hand, they valued counterpoint highly; Schütz is a perfect example, as in the preface to his Geistliche Chor-Music he emphasized the importance of counterpoint as the foundation of music. On the other hand, German composers embraced the expressive possibilities of the new style and the use of a basso continuo. The pieces included here bear witness to that. Most of them don't require vocal virtuosity in the first place, but a thorough understanding of the text, its meaning and its Affekts. Iestyn Davies realises this and this has resulted in incisive performances. Johann Christoph Bach's lamento is one of the highlights. The text is in the centre, and Davies emphasizes its key elements. There is a nice and effective ornament on "Haupte" in the repeat of the opening section, but otherwise Davies is economical in this department, and rightly so. Another highlight is Geist's concerto, where the first section is sung in speechlike manner, in the way of an Evangelist in a Passion. In the hymn Davies is at his best; the four stanzas are beautifully sung, perfectly phrased and articulated, with fine dynamic shading.
Only here and there a (narrow) vibrato creeps in, for instance in Tunder's Salve mi Jesu. Unfortunately, it is much worse in the two duets. These are the least convincing items: the voices of Davies and Hugh Cutting don't blend that well, also because they use vibrato in different ways and in different places. In particular Cutting should have reduced his.
Most of the vocal items require instrumental support from a consort of viols. In German 17th-century music viols played a major role in sacred music, especially in pieces of a lamenting character. It bears witness to the importance of counterpoint. Fretwork plays the instrumental parts well, but I would have liked stronger dynamic contrasts. I assume that a German ensemble would play these pieces differently. The instrumental items leave nothing to be desired, as these are of a different character. The two canzonas by Scheidt are often played on wind instruments, and these performances on viols offer interesting alternatives. The two suites by Schein shed light on a lesser-known aspect of his oeuvre, that receives relatively little attention. These are short but entertaining pieces, which bring some relaxation in a programme which is dominated by really serious stuff.
All in all, this is an interesting and compelling disc which attests to the spiritual depth of German music of the 17th century.
Johan van Veen (© 2021)