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CD reviews

"Magnificat - Christmas in Leipzig"

Solomon's Knot

rec: Dec 10, 2018 (live), London, Milton Court Concert Hall
Sony - 19075992622 (© 2019) (70'46")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list
Score Bach
Score Kuhnau
Score Schelle

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Magnificat in E flat (BWV 243a); Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Magnificat in C; Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Machet die Tore weit

Zoë Brookshaw, Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Amy Carson, Lucy Page, soprano; Kate Symonds-Joy, contralto; Michal Czerniawski, alto; Peter Davoren, Thomas Herford, tenor; Alex Ashworth, Jonathan Sells, bass
Lleo Duarte, recorder, oboe; Inga Maria Klaucke, recorder, bassoon; Bethan White, oboe; Russell Gilmour, William Russell, Gareth Hoddinott, trumpet; James Toll, Agagta Darashkaite, Naomi Burrell, Claudia Norz, violin; Joanne Miller, Clifton Harrison, viola; George Ross, cello; Jan Zahourek, double bass; Alex McCartney, theorbo; Tom Foster, harpsichord, organ; Rosemary Toll, timpani

The disc under review here brings us to Leipzig, and the music of three composers who occupied the post of Thomaskantor, in chronological order: Johann Schelle, Johann Kuhnau and Johann Sebastian Bach. All three works are written for Christmastide.

The disc opens with a sacred concerto by Johann Schelle. He was born in Geising in Saxony, and spent his formative years in the electoral chapel in Dresden, which was then under the direction of Heinrich Schütz. At the age of 16 he entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig, and continued his studies in music with the then Thomaskantor Sebastian Knüpfer. When just 22 years old he was appointed Kantor in Eilenburg and in 1676 was elected to succeed Knüpfer as Thomaskantor. The Leipzig town council had made an excellent choice as Schelle's reputation soon spread throughout central Germany. "One contemporary witness reports that listeners 'flew in like bees' for the 'sweet honey' of Schelle's church music", Peter Wollny writes in his liner-notes to Robert King's recording of sacred music by Schelle. He connects it with Schelle's style of composing. "What was presented to the audience was a new style - a sweet and delightful sound, combined with carefully-chosen texts and performed with a well-developed sense for big effects and refinement".

One of the reforms under Schelle's direction was the replacement of Latin hymns with his own settings on German texts. That brought him into conflict with the mayor, but he won the support of the city's theologians. In his extant oeuvre we only find a few Latin pieces; the large majority is in German. The chorale took a central place in his oeuvre, in clear contrast to that of his teacher Schütz. Machet die Tore weit is a piece for the first Sunday of Advent. The Gospel of this day is from Matthew 21: Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, shortly before his crucifixion. This is compared with his coming into the world. It is a so-called 'concerto-aria-cantata'. It opens with a dictum, a literal quotation from the Bible, which is repeated at the end. In this piece, the quotation is taken from Psalm 24, vs 7: "Throw open the gates, open the doorway to the world, that the King of Glory may come in". This section is set in concertante, imitative style. In between are stanzas on free poetry, set in the form of arias for solo voice. Here we hear the four voices, successively soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The instrumental scoring reflects the celebratory nature of the event: two trumpets, timpani, two violins, two violas, dulcian and basso continuo.

The Magnificat was a fixed part of every Vesper service. However, liturgically it belongs to the Feast of the Visitation (2 July): Mary visits her cousin Elisabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Since early times, it became custom to perform settings of Mary's canticle during Christmas time. This explains why both Kuhnau and Bach composed a Magnificat which was explicitly intended for this time of the year.

Kuhnau's family was originally from Bohemia, but had fled during the Counter-Reformation because of their Protestant faith. Like Schelle, Johann Kuhnau was born in Geising. In 1670 he went to Dresden to study. There he entered the Kreuzkirche as a chorister. Soon he came into contact with Vincenzo Albrici, Kapellmeister at the court, where he had succeeded Heinrich Schütz. After a period in Zittau, he went to Leipzig in 1682 to study law at the University. In 1684 he was appointed organist at the Thomaskirche. In 1688 he published his dissertation.

Kuhnau was a kind of uomo universale, who was active as a lawyer, but also as an author of various books, spoke several languages and was also knowledgeable in theology and mathematics. In 1701 he succeeded Johann Schelle as Thomaskantor. In this capacity he was the teacher of three of Germany's most renowned composers of the generation of Bach: Johann David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner. The fact that the latter two were offered the job of Thomaskantor after Kuhnau's death in 1722 bears witness to the standard of Kuhnau as a teacher.

In his capacity of Thomaskantor Kuhnau composed a large amount of sacred music. This part of his oeuvre became increasingly the subject of criticism as it was considered old-fashioned. Kuhnau was rooted in the tradition of the 17th century and resisted the influence of Italian opera in music for the church. However, this should not be exaggerated: Kuhnau's output includes several pieces which show the influence of the Italian style in its use of recitatives and arias.

The setting of the Magnificat included here also bears witness to that. The similarity with Bach's setting is striking: in both works the text is divided into tutti and solo sections. Both also include four hymns which linked the work to Christmas: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, Freut euch und jubilieret, Gloria in excelsis Deo and Virga Jesse floruit. This was in line with a tradition in Leipzig to add so-called laudes, which is rooted in an age-old practice of adding tropes to an existing text. In the tutti sections, Kuhnau makes use of homophony and polyphony, the latter preferably in the form of the fugue. Some solo arias are quite virtuosic, and not even free of operatic traces. The instrumental scoring is opulent: two oboes, three trumpets, timpani, two violins, two violas and basso continuo. The scoring for split violas is reminiscent of the 17th century. This setting of the Magnificat is a typical mixture of tradition and modernity, as was a feature of much sacred music of Kuhnau's time.

Bach's Magnificat was one of the earliest pieces he performed in Leipzig, after having taken up the job of Thomaskantor. It was performed at Christmas 1723 in the key of E flat, with the Christmas interpolations which Kuhnau also inserted in his setting. Bach later reused his Magnificat for performance at the Feast of the Visitation. For that setting he transposed it to the key of D major and removed the Christmas interpolations. That is the most frequently-performed version. Obviously, Solomon's Knot opted for the first version in E flat. It is often performed at Christmastide, and it is easy to understand why it is such a popular piece. Not only does it include nice solo arias, it is also full of text expression, for which Bach also uses the instruments, which now and then have an obbligato part. The celebratory nature of Christmastide comes well off in this work.

The British ensemble Solomon's Knot specializes in early music, and Bach takes a special place in its repertoire. The music is here performed with two voices per part. This often means that the solo voices are joined by one ripieno singer. That is not the case here: the solo parts are divided among the singers of the same pitch. The instrumental ensemble is also rather small: four violins, two violas, cello, double bass plus winds and basso continuo. The latter includes both the harpsichord and the organ. In Schelle's concerto, a theorbo participates, a practice which is debatable.

Considering the often disappointing performances of German baroque repertoire by interpreters and ensembles of Anglosaxon origin, I am delighted to say that Solomon's Knot shows quite some insight into its features. The articulation is generally pretty good, and Latin is pronounced in the German way. In Schelle, the German pronunciation is rather good, but not perfect, and unfortunately one slip of the tongue was not corrected ("kommt" instead of "kömmt"). It is just a shame that the overall postive impression is compromised by the vibrato in most of the voices. It is mostly not very wide, but in particular in the ensembles it has a damaging effect.

This disc has considerable qualities, and I certainly have enjoyed much of it. However, as all three works are available in other recordings, some of which may well be devoid of the shortcomings of the present disc, I am not sure whether it is up to the competition.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Solomon's Knot

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