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"Barocke Kantaten & Geistliche Konzerte für Bass und Violine" (Baroque cantatas & sacred concertos for bass and violin)

Ensemble Colcanto

rec: June 2015, Bad Schallerbach (A), Kirche auf dem Magdalenaberg
Spektral - SRL4-15145 (© 2015) (67'52")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Hic est panis; Nisi Dominus (C 10); Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): Gottlob, mein Glaube stehet veste (GWV 1152/20); Rupert Ignaz Franz MAYR (1646-1712): Nisi Dominus; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen (TWV 1,884); Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Salve, coelestis pater misericordiae

Reinhard Mayr, bass; Christiane Gagelmann, violin; Barbara Julia Reiter, cello; Bernhard Prammer, organ

The stile nuovo which was born in Italy around 1600 soon disseminated across Europe. In particular in Austria and Germany many composers enthusiastically embraced the new and often virtuosic style. That doesn't mean that they slavishly copied everything that came from Italy. Especially in the northern part of Germany which was dominated by Protestantism, most composers took some distance from the most theatrical elements which were part of both sacred and secular music, for instance from the pen of Monteverdi.

The present disc includes sacred music from the 17th and 18th centuries and here two aspects are notable. The first is that all the sacred concertos and cantatas are scored for bass. In Italy the high voices - soprano and alto - were the dominating forces in vocal music, as far as the solo parts are concerned. Their role became increasingly important during the 17th century, largely under the influence of opera in which castrato voices more and more took the lead. They also played a major role in sacred music, which is reflected by the often virtuosic character of solo parts. North of the Alps castratos played a minor role, and in the northern part of Germany they were virtually absent. Sacred music was written for all sorts of voices and sung by boys and men. This explains why it is possible to put together a programme of sacred music for a solo bass.

The second aspect which needs to be mentioned - and here we find a clear parallel with Italian music - is the often virtuosic treatment of the violin. During the 17th century Germany and Austria developed a violin school which was in no way inferior to the best players from Italy. However, the violinists from this region added a technique which was far less often practised in Italy: the scordatura. This manifested itself especially in the oeuvre of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, one of the greatest violinists of his time. He used this technique also in the sacred concerto Hic est panis. "Instead of the usual G-D-A-E, the violin is now tuned to C-G-C-E flat, making the open strings resound as a C minor chord. This sets up a tonality which helps lend a dignified and exalted feeling to the work", Michael Malkiewicz writes in his liner-notes.

It is a setting of two verses from John 6: "This is the bread that comes down from heaven above. Those who partake of this bread will be given eternal life". It is a real dialogue between voice and violin. The same is the case with Biber's setting of Psalm 126/127, Nisi Dominus. The role of the violin is different here, for instance through an instrumental introduction of considerable length. In both pieces the role of the violin is as important as that of the bass, and it is reasonable to assume that Biber composed those parts for himself. The violin also plays a prominent part in the other setting of the same text, by Rupert Ignaz Mayr who was also a professional violinist himself.

Obviously there was some difference in the choice of texts between the Protestant and the Catholic parts of the German-speaking world. Composers from the former preferred texts from the Book of Psalms. However, sometimes a traditional text was adapted. That is the case with Franz Tunder's sacred concerto Salve coelestis pater, which is an adaptation of the Salve Regina. Those elements which are connected to the veneration of the Virgin Mary are removed and replaced by references to God the Father. The violin mostly imitates the voice and there are several moments of text expression, for instance chromaticism. Johann Pachelbel worked for most of his career in the southern part of Germany, for instance in Stuttgart, but was a Protestant, and that comes to the fore in his many organ arrangements of then common hymns. They also play a major role in his sacred vocal music. There are no references to hymns in his sacred concerto Ach Herr, wie ist meiner Feinde so viel, a setting of Psalm 3. Pachelbel was not a violinist himself, but the violin part is technically challenging and the piece opens with an instrumental introduction. It is also used in the interest of text expression, for instance at the verse "I lie down and sleep and I wake up", where Pachelbel fully explores the contrast in the text.

The pieces by Biber, Pachelbel and Tunder are specimens of the genre of the sacred concerto. The two remaining compositions by Graupner and Telemann are known as cantatas. In the second half of the 17th century these two terms are often used indiscriminately, but the main difference is that the sacred concerto is through-composed and not formally divided into sections. That is different with the cantata, which was modelled after the Italian secular chamber cantata and consisted of a sequence of recitatives and arias. That is also the case with the two cantatas recorded here.

Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen by Telemann is the setting of a text by Erdmann Neumeister whose texts were also used by Johann Sebastian Bach. It seems likely that his libretto was the source of inspiration for the anonymous author of Bach's Kreuzstab cantata (BWV 56). It is a cantata for the 21st Sunday after Trinity and is an early work. It is about the believer willing to follow in Jesus's footsteps which includes carrying his own cross. In the first aria the cross is illustrated by a number of accidental sharps (both Kreuz in German). In the closing aria the contrast between heavenly life and life on earth is illustrated by an ascending figure in the vocal part and a descending figure in the violin part.

Gottlob mein Glaube stehet veste by Graupner dates from August 1720 and is written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. The tenor of this cantata, whose text was written by Graupner's father-in-law Johann Conrad Lichtenberg, is that the believer states that his faith is built on a rock and not on sand. This contrast is illustrated with musical means in the aria which opens the cantata. There are several other moments in this cantata where voice and/or violin depict elements in the text. It is notable that the score indicates the participation of two violins playing in unison.

Graupner's cantata and Biber's sacred concerto Hic est panis are recorded here for the first time. The other pieces have been recorded before but that doesn't mean they are very well-known, probably with the exception of Biber's Nisi Dominus. Therefore this disc is welcome from the perspective of repertoire. Although Reinhard Mayr has been working with this ensemble for ten years his career is not confined to early music, and he cannot be considered a baroque 'specialist'. He has a pleasant voice which is suitable to this repertoire and overall he sings quite well. Even so, I am not really happy with these performances. He often sings too loud and too undifferentiated in regard to dynamics and articulation. Especially in the recitatives he sings too much legato and not really declamatory; he also takes too little rhythmic freedom and the tempi in the recitatives seem a bit too slow. Although his singing is not marred by an incessant vibrato, there is a constant slow fluttering of his voice, deriving from the pitch. After a while it starts to irritate. Christiane Gagelmann is excellent in the violin parts.

This disc is recommendable for the choice of repertoire and the quality of the music, but in regard to the performances I have some substantial reservations.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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