musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Balthasar FRITSCH (c1570/80 - after 1608): "... und weil die Music lieblich ist - Madrigals and Dance Music"

Ulrike Hofbauer, sopranoa
Musicke & Mirth

rec: July 3 - 6, 2016, Brugg (CH), Reformierte Stadtkirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985411952 (© 2017) (66'51")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

I. Galliarda; I. Padovana; II. Galliarda; III. Galliarda; III. Padovana; IV. Padovana; V. Galliarda; VIII. Padovana; XI. Padovana; XII. Padovana; XIV. Galliarda; XVI. Galliarda; XVIII. Galliarda; XIX. Galliarda; XX. Galliarda; Ach thu dich zu mir kehrena; Alslang dich Gott hie leben lesta; Bey meiner Mutter bin ich gewesena; Das eilend scheiden schwera; Daß ich nicht deines gleichen bina; Gedult thu hana; Mein Hertz ist mir gen dira; Mich thut wunder nemen sehraa; Trawrig muß ich jetzund singena; Was lieblich ist mich hoch erfrewta

Sources: [1] Primitiae Musicales, 1606/07; [2] Newe deutsche Gesänge nach Art der welschen Madrigalien, 1608

Jane Achtman, Irene Klein, Tore Eketorp, Elizabeth Rumsey, viola da gamba

The fact that a composer has sunk almost completely in oblivion, does tell us very little about his importance. Balthasar Fritsch is a good example. I had never heard of him, but he seems to have played quite an important role in Germany, and especially in Leipzig, around 1600. The disc under review here is the first ever devoted to him and includes pieces from the only two extant collections of his oeuvre.

Very little is known about Fritsch. We don't know when exactly he was born; it is assumed it was between 1570 and 1580. His musical roots seem to be in the circles of the Ratsmusik. Many towns in Germany had such an ensemble which was responsible for the music at public occasions. In New Grove it is stated that he was a violinist. That is possible, but it seems equally possible that he was educated on the viola da gamba. His pavans and galliards seem to point in that direction. These were printed in 1606/07 under the title of Primitiae musicales, which indicates that this was his first published music. They are dedicated to the dukes Adolf Friedrich I and Johann Albrecht II of Mecklenburg, two brothers who were 18 and 16 years old at the time and studied in Leipzig. They had heard Fritsch play a string instrument and were probably his pupils for some time.

The collection includes 12 pavans and 21 galliards. These were among the most common dances of the time, and were often played in pairs, especially in England. The different number of the pavans and galliards here indicates that they are not conceived as pairs here. Even so, the reference to England makes sense, because this consort music clearly shows the influence of William Brade, who in the late 16th century moved to Germany, and worked at several courts in Germany and Denmark in the early 17th century. They are written in the stile antico, and dominated by counterpoint. Interestingly Fritsch includes some echo effects in his music, which clearly refers to Italy. However, echo effects were also used by organists of the North German organ school, especially under the influence of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. These pieces by Fritsch may have influenced Johann Hermann Schein, who in 1617 published a collection of suites under the title of Banchetto Musicale, which were intended for a consort of viols in the first place. Schein was a key figure in music life in Leipzig, as he was Thomaskantor from 1615 until his death in 1630.

In 1608 Fritsch published a collection of twelve songs on German text under the title Newe deutsche Gesänge, nach Art der welschen Madrigalien. The term 'Welsch' refers to the Italian style; Fritsch seems to have been well acquainted with the style of Italian madrigal composers, who aimed at a closer connection between text and music. That has clearly left its mark in these madrigals, which Fritsch again dedicated to some young aristocrats who may have been his pupils. In his dedication he refers to his "most magnanimous patrons": four brothers from the House of Walwitz zu Dobritz in Anhalt and a certain Hans-Georg Vitzthum von Eckstadt from Kannawurf in Thuringia. It is notable that the four brothers were also the dedicatees of a collection of mainly instrumental music by Christoph Demantius (Conviviorum deliciae, 1608). Again, Fritsch's "German songs for five voices in the manner of Italian madrigals", as he put it himself, may have influenced Schein, in the composition of his Venus Kräntzlein of 1609.

The madrigals have different texts. Some are clearly secular, such as Ach thu dich zu mir kehren (Ah, turn to me, you lovely nut-brown maid), others are of a moralistic nature, such as Mich thut wunder nehmen sehr: "I truly wonder why Man wants to rise so high". Gedult thu han auff Gottes Bahn is a spiritual song, and the madrigal in five sections Daß ich nicht deines gleichen bin is a mixture of spiritual and secular elements. There was no watershed between those two genres at the time.

These madrigals were printed as partbooks, as was common practice, and all of them are texted. That does not necessarily mean that they have to be performed vocally. It was usually left to the discretion of performers to decide which parts to sing and which to play. In this case, I often had the impression that the upper voice was meant to play a kind of solo role. There are a number of passages, where all the parts are moving forward, whereas the upper voice keeps silent. Therefore the performance here, with soprano and a consort of viols, could well be more than just an option; it may be in line with what Fritsch had in mind in the first place.

The attention given to Balthasar Fritsch here is well deserved. I was struck by the quality of his music. The madrigals include many moments of eloquent text illustration. In the third section of Trawrig muß ich jetzund singen, for instance, the contrast within the phrase "Turn my sadness into joy" is effectively depicted. Such moments don't pass by unnoticed. Ulrike Hofbauer is the ideal interpreter of these songs, whether secular or spiritual. She shows a great stylistic understanding of the way Fritsch set the text and composers at the time expected the performers to communicate it. Her diction and pronunciation are excellent and she has the right amount of flexibility to deal with the coloratura passages. The ensemble Musicke and Myrth acts at the same level. Fritsch's consort music is just wonderful stuff, and that comes perfectly to the fore in these performances. The players produce a warm and transparent sound, and there is some subtle dynamic differentiation. Singer and players are a perfect match.

All said and done, it is especially "weil die Music lieblich ist" (because the music is lovely), as Was lieblich ist mich hoch erfreut says, why this disc deserves a strong recommendation.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Ulrike Hofbauer
Musicke & Mirth

CD Reviews