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"Weihnachtliche Renaissancemusik aus Nürnberger Handschriften" (Christmas music of the Renaissance from Nuremberg manuscripts)

Schola Cantorum Nürnberg; Egidienchor Nürnberg; Oltremontano; Instrumental ensemble
Dir: Pia Praetorius

rec: Oct 2013, Nuremberg, Egidienkirche
Spektral - SRL4-13122 (© 2013) (72'35")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Raphaela ALEOTTI (1570-after 1646): Angelus ad pastores; Facta est cum angelo; Blasius AMMON (c1560-1590): Ecce advenit Dominator Dominus; Magi videntes stellam; Parvulus filius; Rorate coeli desuper; Hans Leo HASSLER (1564-1612): Hodie Christus natus est; Nunc dimittis; O admirabile commercium; Verbum caro factum est; Paolo ISNARDI (1536-1596): Missa Angelus Domini; Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): In principio erat verbum; Resonet in laudibus; Claudio MERULO (1533-1604): Tribus miraculis; Giovanni Pierluigi DA PALESTRINA (c1525-1594): O magnum mysterium; Surge illuminare

[SCN] Dorothea Wagner, Doron Schleifer, soprano; Gudula Kinzler, contralto; Thomas Baumeister, Stefan Heidweiler, Rüdiger Ballhorn, tenor; Andreas Meixner, Markus Kühnlein, bass
[Oltremontano] Doron Davi Sherwin, Anna Schall, cornett; Robert Schlegl, Adam Bregman, Wim Becu, sackbut; Krzystof Lewandowski, dulcian, tenor cornett, rackett
[Instr ens] Justus Willberg, recorder; Leonard Schelb, Milo Machover, Hernando Leal, Haruko Nakajima, transverse flute; Dietrich Haböck, Miyoko Ito, viola da gamba; Véronique Musson-Gonneaud, harp; Maria Ferré Perez, lute; Elisabeth Seitz, psaltery; Guillermo Pérez, portative organ; Johannes Keller, keyboard

In the 16th century large amounts of sacred music were composed to be performed as part of the liturgy. Some chapels and churches were directed by composers who wrote their own music. Many purchased music by the most famous masters of their time which was printed in various cities across Europe, such as Antwerp, Venice or Nuremberg. These were either collections by one specific composer or anthologies with music by several masters. Some directors of music collected music themselves, partly from printed editions, partly from manuscripts circulating across the continent, depending of what they needed. The collections they put together are especially interesting because they give us insight into the liturgical practices in a specific church or chapel and sometimes also about the way it was performed.

The present disc brings together music from a collection of 23 partbooks which were compiled under the supervision of Friedrich Lindner who was Kantor of the Egidienkirche in Nuremberg and its grammar school. Lindner had received an excellent musical education at the court in Dresden, and after his voice broke he became active as a tenor. He also copied many pieces of sacred music which he then sent to various courts and cities. In Nuremberg he continued these activities which are partly responsible for the existence of this large collection of partbooks including more than 400 pieces. It tells us several things about the liturgical practices in Nuremberg. Although it had embraced Protestantism in 1525 the main language in liturgy was Latin; that remained the case until the end of the 18th century. All the pieces in the partbooks are on Latin texts. This explains that many composers who have always remained within the Roman-Catholic Church, are represented in the collection. With 118 pieces Orlandus Lassus is particularly well represented; Lindner was one of the main advocates of his music.

This disc with music for Advent and Christmas shows that composers outside Germany, and especially from Italy, are also represented. Moreover, the collection includes works by famous masters but also by composers who are hardly known, at least in our time. The importance of the Nuremberg partbooks - which New Grove refers to as the Lindner Choirbooks - is extended by the fact that it includes some pieces which are not known from other sources. That is the result of composers sending Lindner their works. The liner-notes don't tell who took the initiative: if composers delivered their compositions to him on their own initiative, that is an indication that he must have been held in high esteem. It is a shame that just one of his own compositions has survived complete. As that is written for Pentecost it could not been included here.

Let's have a look at some of the 'minor masters' on this disc. Blasius Ammon is represented with 22 pieces in the partbooks. He was from Austria, was a choirboy in the chapel of Archduke Ferdinand I at Innsbruck and went to Venice for further study. After his return he was active in several convents. Paolo Isnardi is one of the Italian composers whose music is included in these partbooks. He was from Ferrara where he was maestro di cappella at the Cathedral from 1573 until his death. Raffaella Aleotti was also from Ferrara, and one of the very few female composers of her time. It was so rare that she is called "Raphael" in the partbooks; the liner-notes suggest that Lindner may have assumed that the name "Raffaella" was a printing error. Like most female composers in Italy at the time and later in the 17th century she was a nun. The other composers in the programme are fairly well known, although some are not that well represented in the catalogue. That goes especially for Hans-Leo Hassler, whose large oeuvre has hardly been explored as yet.

In 1585 Lindner started editing a series of volumes with mainly Italian music, some of which had the traces of the seconda prattica. The music performed here is in the stile antico in which all the parts are of equal importance. Most of them are performed with instruments, playing either colla parte or replacing one or several voices. In addition some motets are performed instrumentally. The participation of instruments in performances of sacred music in Nuremberg, and in particular in St Egidien, is well documented. These were mostly played by the town waits, supplemented by their pupils, the so-called expectants. One of the most notable aspects of this recording is the size of the ensemble which is more than 50 in some pieces. This is justified with a reference to the inauguration service of the University of Altdorf in June 1576. A description mentions "over 50 people" performing motets, a mass and vespers. That is certainly interesting and proves that in some cases large ensembles were used. However, one has to consider that this was probably an exception rather than the rule as this was an occasion of a particularly festive character. It seems to go a little too far to conclude from this that such large ensembles were used on a more regular basis.

That said, it is an interesting option to hear music performed with such a large ensemble. I am surprised how transparent the sound is in those pieces which are performed by the choir, mostly with additional instruments. Obviously the latter have not as much presence as in the pieces which are performed by the Schola Cantorum. In both cases the transparency and the relatively good intelligibility of the text is due to the style of singing where vibrato is largely avoided. A good example is Hassler's motet Verbum caro factum est. The performances of the Schola Cantorum Nürnberg, an ensemble of soloists, are very good; it consists of nice voices which blend well.

There are two aspects which I find a little odd. The first is the fact that the sections of the mass are interrupted by other pieces. That makes sense in case of a reconstructed liturgy, but not in a programme like this. The second is the change in the line-up within single pieces. In Rorate coeli desuper by Ammon, for instance, the first part is performed by a solo soprano and instruments, the second by the Schola Cantorum and instruments; they then also perform the repeat of the first section. In Palestrina's O magnum mysterium the first part is performed with choir and instruments, the second with the Schola Cantorum and instruments, the latter adding ornamentation; towards the end the choir enters again. I can't see any justification for this.

These are only minor blots on an excellent and very interesting production. It includes many pieces which are virtually unknown; some of them are recorded here for the first time. The performances are generally excellent; articulation and dynamics help to bring out the content of the music. In short, this is a very welcome addition to the discography of renaissance polyphony in general, and Christmas repertoire in particular.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Egidienchor Nürnberg

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