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Johann PACHELBEL (1653 - 1706): "Vespers"

The King's Singers; Charivari Agréable
Dir: Kah-Ming Ng

rec: June 23 - 25, 2009, Toddington (Gloucestershire), St Andrew's Church
Signum Records - SIGCD198 (© 2010) (72'49")

Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693): Sonata à 5 in g minor; Johann KRIEGER (1652-1735): Sonata à 5 in a minor; Johann PACHELBEL: Ingressus in C [B flat] (P 88); Ingressus in d minor [c minor] (P 92); Ingressus in g minor [e minor] (P 96); Ingressus in A [G] (P 97); Ingressus in a minor [g minor] (P 98); Magnificat in E flat [C] (P 250); Magnificat in G [F] (P 253)

[KS] David Hurley, Timothy Wayne-Wright, alto; Paul Phoenix, tenor; Philip Lawson, Christopher Gabbitas, baritone; Stephen Connolly, bass
[CA] Bojan Cicic, Linda Hannah-Andersson, violin; Heather Birt, Rachel Stott, viola; Peter Wendland, viola da gamba; Michael Brain, bassoon; Elizabeth Harré, violone; Manuel Minguillon Nieto, theorbo; Kah-Ming Ng, harpsichord, organ; David Bannister, organ

Some composers are mainly known by just one piece. Luigi Boccherini, the composer of the menuet, is one example. Johann Pachelbel is also mostly known because of a single piece, the Canon. Organists know his organ works well, and these are frequently played in organ recitals as well as in the liturgy. Pachelbel was a versatile composer, though: he also composed a number of instrumental pieces and vocal works, both sacred and secular.

Johann Pachelbel worked in various places, but the last and most important position he held was that of organist at the St Sebaldus in Nuremberg. Here he was also expected to compose vocal music for the liturgy, and to that category belongs the music on this disc. The title is not quite correct, though. It suggest we get a Vesper liturgy here, but that is not the case. In fact, only two elements of the Vespers are performed, as the tracklist shows. The Ingressus is the Lutheran terminology for the versicle 'Deus in adiutorium meum intende' and the response 'Domine ad adiuvandum me festina'. This disc contains five settings of these two chants, for four to five voices, with a six-part string ensemble and, as Pachelbel specifically requires, a bassoon. In addition there are two settings of the Magnificat.

The music on this disc has been preserved in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. The manuscripts reached Britain thanks to Pachelbel's son Carl Theodorus, who in the early 1730s emigrated to America. On his way he passed through London, where he left the manuscripts. They are first mentioned in a sale catalogue for an auction in 1779.

All the pieces consist of sequences of soli and tutti. Elements in the text are emphasized in that they are set for the full ensemble. The pieces also contain many passages with extended melisma, for instance on the word 'gloria'. In most settings of the Ingressus much weight is given to the closing section, 'Sicut erat in principio', for instance by setting it in the form of a fugue, as in the Ingressus in g (e) minor. All the pieces - with the exception of the last two - begin with an instrumental Sinfonia.

As one can see from the track-list all compositions are transposed down (the transposition is added between brackets). No reason is given in the programme notes, but I assume in the original key the upper part is just too high for the male altos of The King's Singers. I regret this decision: the choice of performers should be adapted to the requirements of the repertoire, not the other way around. The King's Singers are an excellent vocal group, but more experienced in music of the renaissance and contemporary repertoire than baroque music, and especially German music. And that shows, because as well as they sing, the performance of Pachelbel's Vesper music doesn't really sound quite right.

The singers - and in particular the altos and the tenor - produce a sound which seems to me typically British, and would never be taken for German. An ensemble like Cantus Cölln would sing this music very differently, and for sure stylistically more convincingly. The "open" sound of the King's Singers doesn't really suit this repertoire, and there is also too much legato singing and too little dynamic shading. The singers have quite individual voices, which don't blend all that well in the tuttis. I also regret the Italian pronunciation of the Latin texts.

Charivari Agréable shows a little more awareness of the requirements of German music. The inclusion of the sonatas by Johann Krieger and Johann Caspar Kerll is not explained by Kah-Ming Ng in the booklet, but stylistically they fit well into the programme.

This disc is important in that it considerably adds to our knowledge of Pachelbel as a composer of vocal music. The pieces are recorded for the first time, and as the repertoire is of fine quality this disc deserves praise (*). But I hope that at some time in the future this music is going to be recorded in a stylistically more appropriate manner.

(*) Some larger-scale pieces from the same collection have been recorded by La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, directed by Roland Wilson, on the disc "Easter Cantatas" by Pachelbel (CPO 999 916-2).

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

The King's Singers
Charivari Agréable

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