musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586 - 1630): Sacred concertos & secular songs

[I] Cymbalum Sionium
La Capella Ducale; Musica Fiata
Dir: Roland Wilson
rec: Oct 20 - 21, 2014, Leipzig, Bethanienkirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875051442 (© 2015) (76'07")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alleluia! Ich danke dem Herren a 8; Alleluia! Wohl dem der den Herren fürchtet a 8; Canzon a 5; Ehr sei Gott in der Höh' allein a 10; Gehe hin, bis das End komme a 5; Gott sei mir gnädig a 6; Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn a 8; Laetatus sum a 8; O Domine Jesu Christe a 6; Quem quaeris Magdalena a 12; Quem vidistis, pastores a 8; Sic Deus dilexit mundum a 8; Venite, exsultemus Domino a 12; Verbum caro factum est a 6; Wo ist dein Freund hingangen a 6

[LCD] Monika Mauch, Constanze Backes, soprano; Alexander Schneider, Rolf Ehlers, alto; Tobias Hunger, Hermann Oswald, tenor; Joachim Höchbauer, Ulrich Maier, bass
[MF] Anette Sichelschmidt, violin, viola; Roland Wilson, Frithjof Smith, recorder, cornett, cornetto muto; Detlef Reimers, Cas Gevers, Ercole Nisini, sackbut; Adrian Rovatkay, dulcian, great bass shawm; Axel Wolf, lute, theorbo; Christoph Anselm Noll, organ

[II] Musica boscareccia
Julla von Landsberga, Christine Maria Rembeckb, soprano; Florian Götz, baritonec
United Continuo Ensemble
Dir: Thor-Harald Johnsen
rec: Sept 8 - 11, 2014, Borna (D), Kunigundenkirche
Pan Classics - PC 10326 (© 2015) (58'52")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach weh, bin ich Amorb; Als Filli zart einst etwas durstig wardaB; Concordia zu jeder Zeitab; Courente; Der edle Schäfer Coridonab; Der kühle Maienab; Frau Nachtigallab; Gagliarda - Courente; Intrada; Juch holla, freut euch mit mir!ab; Mirtillo mein, dein Deliaab; O Coridon, heut blüht dein Glück; O Luft, du edles Elementabc; O Scheiden, o bitter Scheidenab; O Seidene Häreleinac; Padouana; Padouana; Unverhofft kommet ofta; Wenn ich durch Ach mein Liebesqualabc

Thomas Engel, recorder; Johannes Frisch, violin; Jörg Meder, viola da gamba, violone; Johanna Seitz, harp; Thor-Harald Johnsen, lute, guitar; Thomas C. Boysen, theorbo, guitar; Johannes Hämmerle, harpsichord, organ


The post of Thomaskantor was one of the most prestigious in Central Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Johann Sebastian Bach is by far the most famous composer who occupied this position. His predecessors have received far less attention. Johann Hermann Schein is the best-known from these but he is not that well represented on disc. Only a few recordings are entirely devoted to his oeuvre and most of them focus on his collection of sacred madrigals which was printed in 1623 under the title of Fontana d'Israel, Israelis Brünlein. A few discs include pieces from other collections, such as Opella Nova (2 volumes, 1618/1626).

In the liner-notes to his recording Roland Wilson expresses his surprise that the first collection of sacred music, Cymbalum Sionium sive Cantiones sacrae of 1615, has received to little attention. At the time Schein composed these works he acted as private music teacher and house music director to his friend Gottfried von Wolffersdorff. This collection was probably crucial for the course of his career. It was only shortly after the appearance of these cantiones sacrae that he was called to Leipzig to audition for the position of Thomaskantor, which had been vacant since the death of Sethus Calvisius in November 1615. He was accepted and took up his position in the fall of 1616.

Cymbalum Sionium is an amalgam of different styles. The number of parts varies from five to twelve. According to Wilson this could be one of the reasons that so little of this repertoire has been recorded: "[There] are hardly any pieces in the collection that are suitable for a modern choir." Those which come most close to 'choral music' are those which are rooted in the stile antico, just like the sacred madrigals from Israelis Brünlein. Examples are O Domine Jesu Christe and Gehe hin, bis das Ende komme. That doesn't mean that these are old-fashioned pieces; as in much 17th-century music the tradition of counterpoint is mixed with modern influences from the Italian stile nuovo in regard to text expression and the use of a basso continuo.

The collection also includes a number of larger-scale pieces for two or three choirs. The cori spezzati technique had been developed in Venice and had disseminated in Germany especially through the editions of polychoral music from the pen of Michael Praetorius and Hans-Leo Hassler. Unlike the former the latter had been in Venice himself. Some of these pieces the cori spezzati technique is used to emphasize the dialogue character of the text. That is the case, for instance, in Quem vidistis, pastores, a dialogue between the angels and the shepherds. Another is Wo ist dein Freund hingangen on a text from the Song of Songs. In both cases the pitch of the two choirs differs: the one is dominated by high voices, the second by the lower voices. In the latter case Wilson decided to use solo voices - soprano and tenor respectively - for the two participants in the dialogue.

This piece is scored for six voices; in this performance two voices are sung whereas the remaining four are played on cornett and sackbuts. In this collection the use of instruments is not specified or even indicated. That doesn't mean that their use is not justified. It was common practice to include instruments in performances of sacred music, either to play colla voce or as a substitute for voices. Wilson also mentions that "[the] extreme high and low parts in many pieces make the use of instruments essential (...)". As a result in high choirs the lowest voice is mostly sung and in low choirs the highest whereas the highest and lowest parts are mostly performed instrumentally. Even so, in various pieces the singers have to go to the ends of their tessitura and this attests to Wilson's remark that "Schein often made extreme demands on his musicians and often exceeded the for the time usual range".

A remarkable piece which differs from the others is Gott sei mir gnädig, a setting of the German translation of Psalm 51 (50), one of the penitential psalms, known by its Latin title of Miserere mei, Deus. Just like Lassus' penitential psalms every verse has the character of a motet and is scored for different combinations of voices. This allowed Schein to connect text and music more closely.

This disc is of the utmost importance: it is likely that most pieces are recorded here for the first time, although the track-list doesn't include any reference of this kind. This production is even more important for its sheer musical value. This is excellent music and it is easy to understand why this collection was instrumental in Schein's rise to fame. The two ensembles directed by Roland Wilson deliver very fine performances. Whether in a mixture of voices and instruments or singing a cappella, the singers and players are fully up to the job; the ensemble is excellent. Only the delivery is probably less than ideal; sometimes the text is not easy to understand.
This disc should open the ears of other musicians and ensembles and encourage them to delve into Schein's large oeuvre.

When Schein took up the post of Thomaskantor he didn't want to confine himself to the composition of sacred music. It is telling that he called himself Director Chori Musici and General Director of Music. This indicates that he saw a comprehensive role for himself in music life in Leipzig. Schein scored his first success as a composer of secular music with a collection of German songs and instrumental dances which was printed in 1609 as Venus Kräntzlein; at that time he was a student at Leipzig University. After being appointed as Thomaskantor he published three further collections of secular vocal music and one of dance music. The United Continuo Ensemble selected a number of songs from Musica boscareccia, oder Wald-Liederlein auff italian-villanellische Invention. It appeared in three volumes between 1621 and 1628. The title directly refers to the roots of these pieces: the Italian villanella, also known as canzone napolitana. New Grove defines villanelle as "popular songs that originated in Naples and flourished from about 1537 to about 1650". One could see them as the lighter counterpart of the madrigal. Villanelle were always strophical and often homophonic. The texts of Schein's songs are from his own pen and reflect the arcadian world of shepherds and shepherdesses. Characters are called Phyllis and Coridon, just like in arcadian cantatas by Italian baroque composers from the early 18th century.

This part of Schein's output is hardly better known than his sacred music from Cymbalum Sionium. One of the main recordings of this kind of repertoire comes from Cantus Cölln but that has been released many years ago and may not be available anymore. Schein aimed at a wide variety of performance practices: he suggests several ways to perform these songs. Soprano parts can be transposed an octave downwards and sung by a tenor; in pieces with two soprano parts one can be sung and the other performed instrumentally etc. Whereas Cantus Cölln delivers vocal performances here the performers have explored the various suggestions by Schein. In all items instruments play their part, and one item is even performed instrumentally. It works wonderfully in the light-hearted items. Only in the more dark-coloured O Scheiden I would probably have preferred a strictly vocal performance.

But the three singers and the United Continuo Ensemble have captured the spirit of this music very well. The voices and instruments blend perfectly and the singing and playing is excellent. The vocal items alternate with some dances which receive spirited performances. The documentation should have more precise: there is no indication as to from which volume of Musica boscareccia the various pieces are taken and the dances are not identified at all. But at least the booklet includes the lyrics with translations. All is set for an hour of musical entertainment.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Julla von Landsberg
Christine Maria Rembeck
La Capella Ducale & Musica Fiata
United Continuo Ensemble

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