musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Fischer (JCF): Sacred music

Anna Hlavenková, Gabriela Eibenová, soprano; Markus Forster, alto; Jaroslav Brezina, tenor; Michael Pospíšil, bass
Boni Pueri (Czech Boys' Choir) (Pavel Horák); Musica Florea
Dir: Marek Štryncl

rec: May/July, 2001, Prague, Bazilice Nanebevzetí Panny Marie na Strahove
Supraphon - SU 3534-2 231 (53'20")

Concertus de Sancta Cruce; Missa Inventionis Sanctae Crucis; O Crux Venerabilis; Offertorium de Dedicatione Templi

This CD is part of a series of recordings devoted to music from the archive of the Knights of the Cross with Red Star in Prague. This monastic order was founded in 1237 and concentrated on charity and social work. In the 17th and 18th centuries the headquarters of the order became a major cultural centre in Prague. After the building of the Church of St Francis (1688) much attention was paid to the musical elements of the liturgy. The new developments in European music were reflected in the music performed in that church. The choir consisted of students, some of which became well-known composers later on, like Gluck and Jiri Antonin (or Georg) Benda.

The order's music archive consists of a number of important works. Fortunately it survived the German occupation of Prague in WW II as well as the time of communist rule. One of the composers whose music is in the archive is Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746). In his time he was much praised and considered one of Europe's main composers. Today he is mainly known for his keyboard works, in particular his Ariadne Musica, which contains 20 preludes and fugues in different keys, which - according to Bach-biographer Forkel - was a direct inspiration to Johann Sebastian Bach to compose his Well-Tempered Clavier. But his vocal works were almost unknown until now. As far as I know this is the first recording of any vocal works by Fischer. It is well documented that Fischer maintained personal contact with the order, which could explain why so many of his works are associated with it. The compositions recorded here are composed for the main feasts of the order: the Invention of the True Cross, and the Exaltation of the Cross.

One of the characteristics of Fischer's music as performed here is his eclecticism: he was influenced by Italian and Central European as well as French music. If he uses trumpets, as in two works on this CD, one thinks of the music of another Bohemian composer: Biber. But sometimes Fischer writes in French style: some instrumental sections are very much in Lully-style. And then he sets music to words in true Italian style.
Nevertheless, one never gets the impression he is just borrowing - his music isn't a patchwork of different styles. He seems to have absorbed them and used them to develop his very own musical language. In that respect he is comparable to Bach.
Having heard his vocal music for the very first time I must say that I am very impressed with its quality. I would like to hear much more of it. But we should be thankful for what this CD has to offer, even if the duration is a little on the short side.

The performance is first class. The orchestra is one of the best period instrument ensembles of Eastern Europe and its playing here is technically flawless, energetic and lively, but also sensitive. The same qualities apply to the boys' choir Boni Pueri, which makes an excellent impression here. It produces a beautiful sound and it articulates very well. Since solo and tutti passages are strongly interwoven it is extremely important that the soloists blend well with the choir. The two adult sopranos (Gabriela Eibenová is only taking part in O crux venerabilis) are doing exacty that. Ms Hlavenková has an extremely beautiful, boyish voice. Her contributions are highlights in this recording. So are those of the (Austrian) male alto Mark Forster, whose ability to switch from falsetto to chest register without any audible "break" is most admirable. The tenor and bass are a little less convincing. The tenor is a little rough and unpolished, and Michael Pospíšil has some problems with the lower notes. But these are small criticisms in relation to the overall high quality of this recording.

One other negative aspect - apart from the short duration - is the lack of an English translation of the texts of the vocal works. That's not a problem with the mass, of course, but the other works are specifically related to the order of the Knights, and are not generally known.

Johan van Veen (© 2002)

CD Reviews