musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Franz Xaver RICHTER (1709 - 1789): Sacred and orchestral music

[I] "Te Deum 1781"
Markéta Böhmová, Pavla Radostová, soprano; Piotr Olech, alto; Jaroslav Brezina, Jakub Kubína, tenor; Jirí Miroslav Procházka, bass; Luise Haugk, oboeb
Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Roman Válek
rec: June 17 - 20, 2017, Lulec, Kostel sv. Martina
Supraphon - SU 4240-2 (© 2018) (49'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/CZ; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/CZ
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in Fb; Exsultate Deoa; Symphony No. 52 in D; Te Deum 1781

[II] Super flumina Babylonis; Miserere mei Deus
Markéta Böhmová, Pavla Radostová, soprano; Kamila Mazalová, contraltoa; Piotr Olech, alto; Jaroslav Brezinab, Jakub Kubína, tenor; Jirí Miroslav Procházka, bass
Czech Ensemble Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Roman Válek
rec: June 12 - 15, 2019, Znojmo, Kostel sv. Michala
Supraphon - SU 4274-2 (© 2019) (67'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/CZ; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/CZ
Cover, track-list & booklet

Miserere mei Deus a 10 voci per il Venerdí Santoa; Super flumina Babylonis a 12 vocib

In recent years various discs with music by Franz Xaver Richter have landed on my desk. There is unmistakably a growing interest in his music. This probably is the result of a general tendency that the music written between the baroque and the classical periods is taken more seriously. Richter is one of the main representatives of the so-called 'Mannheim school' and one of many musicians and composers from Bohemia, who made a career outside their own region, such as Germany, Austria and Italy.

It is not exactly known where he was born. New Grove mentions Holešov, but more recent research suggests that this was rather the first place where he worked. He was educated as a bass singer and as a violinist. Between 1727 and 1736 he spent some time in Vienna, where he seems to have been the pupil of Johann Joseph Fux. He also arranged a number of works by Antonio Caldara, who acted as court composer in Vienna. In 1746 Richter joined the court chapel in Mannheim, where he was active as an opera singer and violinist, but especially as a composer. In 1769 he was appointed maître de chapelle in Strasbourg Cathedral; here he remained until his death in 1789.

Richter left a pretty large oeuvre, consisting of instrumental works - both orchestral and chamber music - as well as vocal music. His instrumental music dates from his Mannheim period, whereas most of his vocal works were written in Strasbourg. Whereas his instrumental music has received some interest in the past, the performance of his vocal oeuvre is a more recent development. The two discs under review here are the third and fourth in what the liner-notes call a "long-term Richter project". I have welcomed the previous two volumes, and the most recent additions are further fine additions to the discography.

Richter may have been a representative of the Mannheim School, he was considered a rather conservative composer, especially because his adherence to counterpoint, which attests to the influence of Fux. In the 1760s, he published a treatise under the title of Harmonische Belehrungen. This preference for counterpoint has left its mark in his symphonies, concertos and his vocal music.

The second of the two discs reviewed here opens with a setting of Psalm 136 (137), Super flumina Babylonis. This was the fruit of a contest, which took place in France in 1767. In 1762 Antoine Dauvergne became, with Nicolas-René Joliveau and Gabriel Capperan, a co-director of the Concert Spirituel. He succeeded Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, and as they had a bad relationship, the latter removed all the manuscripts he had collected during his period as a director. As a result, the Concert Spirituel needed new repertoire, especially in the genre of the grand motet, one of the pillars of the organisation's repertoire. Composers were invited to write a motet which had to last between 25 and 30 minutes, and should include at least two arias, a duet and two choruses, one of which in the form of a fugue. There were 22 participants, and one of them was Richter. He did not win one of the three prizes, but his composition earned much praise, for instance by the newspaper Mercure de France. It received its premiere at the Concert Spirituel in 1769 and was performed there again in 1774 and 1780.

In the autograph, used for this recording, the motet is preceded by the Sinfonia in g minor, which indicates that in one of the later performances these two works must have been performed together. That is also the case here. This symphony's style suggests that it was written in Mannheim. The motet itself starts with a tutti section, again opening with an instrumental introduction. It is especially in the tutti sections that Richter's command of counterpoint manifests itself. The arias show the influence of contemporary opera, and the performers rightly include cadenzas. Some are probably a bit too long, but that is also a matter of taste. One of the most dramatic sections comes at the very end, at the text "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones".

This motet may have given Richter the advantage over his rivals, when he applied for the post of maître de chapelle of Strasbourg Cathedral in 1769. There he worked until his death, and there the largest part of his sacred music has been written. The setting of Super flumina Babylonis is followed by another psalm setting, this time of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei Deus, one of the seven penitential psalms. It is one of three settings, written shortly after Richter's appointment in Strasbourg, between 1770 and 1773. They were intended for performance during the last three days of Holy Week, known as triduum sacrum. The first, in B flat, is for Holy Wednesday, the second, in c minor, for Maundy Thursday, and the third, in f minor, for Good Friday. The latter is performed here and is notable for several quotations from Pergolesi's Stabat mater. However, it is not entirely clear whether Richter does quote this work deliberately. The authors of the liner-notes state: "In this case, it is questionable whether deliberate references are involved, because similar turns of phrase were routinely employed in period compositions on the topic of suffering, death, and penitence." The basic structure of this motet is the same as that of the previous work: a sequence of tutti and solo sections. However, the tutti sections include more soloepisodes than Super flumina Babylonis. The arias are generally shorter and less operatic, which probably can be explained from the text and the time of performance (Good Friday).

Obviously, the other disc, released previously, is of a more jubilant character. The main work is a setting of the Te Deum which dates from 1781 and was performed during the celebrations marking the centenary of the city's coming under French administration. Like the large-scale motets on the other disc, it is divided into tutti and solo sections, and again the arias show the influence of opera. The brass play an important part in this work, as one may expect, considering the text and the occasion, for which it was written. It is preceded by the Symphony No. 52 in D, which is an appropriate choice, as it has an obbligato part for trumpet, which has given this work its nickname of 'trumpet sinfonia'. A copy of this work, preserved in Darmstadt, is dated around 1750, which indicates that it must have been written in Mannheim.

The Concerto in F for oboe, strings and bc is of a much later date: a handwritten copy from around 1770 is preserved in Regensburg. It is a lovely piece in which the oboe is the primus inter pares rather than the virtuoso soloist. Notable are the written-out cadenzas, which are entirely natural and give some idea about what a cadenza at that time was expected to be.

The disc ends with a piece from the same time as the Miserere on the previous disc. Exsultate Deo is called a Motetto ad Altare primum and is part of a set of four Motetti per la processione del Corpus Christi. It is a setting of Psalm 80, and the reference to instruments is not lost on Richter. "Bring hither the timbrel" is illustrated by strokes at the kettledrum, and fanfare motifs accompany the text "blow the trumpet". It is a fitting end of a disc, which is a bit short; I would have liked a little more. After all, there is no lack of material: the work-list in New Grove indicates that there is much more to discover.

The fact that these two discs are part of a project devoted to Richter's oeuvre, gives reason to hope that many more jewels will be brought to light. Having heard quite a number of his compositions over the years, Richter is becoming one of my favourite composers from the third quarter of the 18th century. Both his vocal and his instrumental works are of excellent quality, as these two discs prove.

Richter is served exceptionally well by Roman Válek and his ensembles, whose members also take care of the solo parts, and they do so very well. They all have fine voices, and have a good feeling for what it takes to bring this music to life. They have no problems with the coloratura, and in the duets and ensembles their voices blend well. Only on the second of these discs the soprano and tenor sometimes use a little too much vibrato, but it is hardly disturbing. Overall they behave rather well in this department. On the first disc the instrumental works - and especially the Symphony in D - suffer a little from the reverberant church acoustric. A smaller venue would have been prefereable.

Lastly, I need to mention that Válek opted for a French pronunciation of Latin in Super flumina Babylonis, because it was performed in Paris at the Concert Spirituel. That is an entirely correct decision. In the other vocal works, Latin is pronounced the Italian way. I just wonder about the pronunciation in Strasbourg. It would not surprise me, if that was the same as was common in France.

I strongly recommend these two discs, and I urge anyone to look for further recordings of Richter's music. I am looking forward to the next recordings of this exciting project.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Czech Ensemble Baroque

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