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CD reviews


Huelgas Ensemble
Dir: Paul Van Nevel

rec: July 12, 2009 (live), Saintes, Cathédrale St. Pierre
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697579872 (© 2010) (61'58")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein; Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir; Christe der du bist Tag und Licht; Kompt her zu mir spricht Gottes Sohn; Mit Fried' und Freud' ich fahr dahin; Mitten wir im Leben sind; O wir armen Sünder unser Missetat

Michaëla Riener, Els Van Laethem, soprano; Sabine Lutzenberger, Witte Maria Weber, contralto; Bernd Oliver Fröhlich, Tom Phillips, tenor; Willem Ceuleers, tim Scott Whiteley, bass; Bart Coen, Peter Declercq, renaissance recorder; Silke Jacobsen, recorder, bass-crumhorn; An Van Laethem, renaissance violin; Susanne Braumann, Matthieu Lusson, viola da gamba; Hendrik Jan Wolfert, violone

The Reformation of Martin Luther in Germany had wide implications, not only religious but also cultural. Luther wanted the whole congregation to sing rather than a selective number of professional musicians. And he wanted the congregation to sing in the vernacular. This resulted in a large number of hymns being written and composed by some of the leading poets and composers. Many of them have become widely known, also outside Germany, not only through hymnbooks, but also because composers used them for their compositions, from the 16th century until our time.

This disc by the Huelgas Ensemble sheds light on two composers in whose oeuvre these hymns play an important role. Johann Sebastian Bach doesn't need any special attention, but Michael Praetorius certainly does. His oeuvre is huge, but only a very small proportion has been explored and is available on disc. The Michaelisvesper which Jörg Breiding put together from his works is an important contribution to our knowledge of Praetorius as a composer of religious music.

The direct juxtaposition of the way Praetorius and Bach treat the hymns which were written in the wake of the Lutheran Reformation is very interesting. As Bach's music is frequently performed most people are quite used to his harmonic language. But if you first hear Praetorius' setting of a chorale and then Bach's, the difference is shocking. It makes clear how much has changed in about 100 years. Praetorius in many ways is still rooted in the stile antico of the renaissance, whereas Bach's music is based on Affekt, and in his chorale settings harmony is used for expressive reasons.

Another difference is the rhythm. Whereas Praetorius mostly keeps the rhythm of the chorales as they were composed, in Bach's time many rhythms have been equalized. The direct comparison between Praetorius' and Bach's setting of Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ is very revealing.

The settings by Bach are mostly harmonisations as they were published in 1765 and 1769 under the supervision of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and were reprinted by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1784 and 1787. In his foreword Carl Philipp Emanuel emphasizes their "quite unique treatment of harmony and the natural flow of the middle voices and the bass line". Some of these settings were taken from other sacred works, in particular cantatas, but others were independent settings. It isn't known for sure for what reason Bach made these settings, but it is reasonable to assume they were part of the material he used as a music teacher.

The settings by Praetorius are all from the nine volumes of Musae Sioniae, which were printed between 1605 and 1611. In them he arranged Lutheran hymns in various ways, as simple harmonisations, in the form of motets, as bicinia or tricinia, or in large-scale concertos. These books with hymn settings are an amalgam of the then common styles and composition techniques. Praetorius was acquainted with the polychoral style of the Venetian masters, in particular Giovanni Gabrieli, but he also was aware of the new concertato style which came into existence in Italy. In several large-scale concertos he combines the polychoral style with concertato elements.

In the decades around 1600 it was very common to use instruments, either to support the singers or to replace the voices. This is also practiced here, and so we hear recorders, bass-crumhorn, violins, viole da gamba and violone. They are not only used in Praetorius' compositions, but also in Bach. Some of his chorale settings are first played by the instruments and then sung by the vocal ensemble, and the instruments also sometimes play colla voce. As the instruments are all renaissance models, their use in Bach's settings is rather anachronistic.

But this is only a minor issue in this recording which I rate highly. The pieces by Praetorius are excellent and show what a fine composer he has been. His oeuvre really deserves a thorough exploration. The performances are outstanding, both vocally and instrumentally. The texts are well articulated and pronounced, and even without reading the lyrics in the booklet they are pretty well understandable.

The programme notes by Paul Van Nevel are to the point. Unfortunately no BWV numbers of Bach's settings are given, and in the case of Praetorius the sources the various pieces are taken from are not specified. Considering this is a live recording the sound quality leaves nothing to be desired.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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