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Concert reviews

"Was ist doch besser als die Nacht?" - Andreas Hammerschmidt and his time

Movimento/Veronika Skuplik
concert: March 3, 2012, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Heinrich ALBERT (1604-1651): Der Tag beginnet zu vergehen; Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Aus der Tiefe; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1675): Gott, es ist mein rechter Ernst; Herr, wie lange willst du mein so gar vergessen; Ich schlafe; O barmherziger Vater; Revertere anima mea; Vulnerasti cor meum; Was ist doch besser als die Nacht; Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh; Biagio MARINI (1594-1663): Passacalio à 3 & à 4; Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1617-1684): Sonata IV à 3; Johann SCHOP (1590-1667): Lachrimae Pavan; Thomas STRUTIUS (1621-1678): Siehe, mein Freund steht hinter unsrer Wand; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Gott, hilf mir

Nele Gramß, soprano; Charles Daniels, tenor; Veronika Skuplik, Catherine Aglibut, violin; Frauke Hess, viola da gamba; Michael Freimuth, theorbo; Christoph Lehmann, organ

It is the fate of many composers who were highly respected in their time that they are forgotten in modern times. In many cases they are the victim of some especially famous contemporaries who belong to the canon of modern performance practice. For a long time Bach overshadowed his contemporaries, and today many composers from the classical era remain under the radar which is almost completely collimated at the big three: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Andreas Hammerschmidt had the bad luck, in a way, to be a contemporary of Heinrich Schütz, who is considered the most important master of the German 17th century. To some extent that was already the case in his own time, but that didn't lead to other composers being ignored.

Hammerschmidt was certainly not overlooked in his time. He was one of the most prestigious composers and died a rich man. The number of his published collections of music and the regularity with which they were printed are an indication of the high esteem in which he was held. His oeuvre is sizeable and consists of mainly vocal music, largely sacred but also including some books with secular songs. His oeuvre reflects the strong influence of Heinrich Schütz, as the music of so many German composers of the mid-17th century. One aspect in which Hammerschmidt is different from his elder colleague is the use of Lutheran hymns which frequently appear in his oeuvre whereas they are largely absent in Schütz' output.

It is not quite sure when Hammerschmidt was born, either in 1611 or 1612. Therefore last year and this year the ensemble Movimento is commemorating his birth with a disc which includes a survey of his output - which will be reviewed on this site in the near future - and public concerts with a selection from his oeuvre - fortunately different from the programme on the disc. On 3 March such a concert took place in Utrecht. Here it wasn't only Hammerschmidt's music which was performed, but also compositions by some of his contemporaries: Heinrich Albert, Biagio Marini, Christoph Bernhard, Johann Theile, Thomas Strutius and Johann Rosenmüller. As one can see there were several names on the programme of little-known composers.

The programme was a mirror of the time and the spirit of Lutheran Germany. In Luther's theology the Bible played a central role. In the sacred music of the time we therefore find many settings of texts from the Bible, in particular the Book of Psalms. Luther also wanted the congregation to sing, and this resulted in a large number of hymns. These were sung in church, but poets also wrote texts with a moral content which were sung outside the liturgy. Lastly, Lutheranism embraced medieval mysticism, and this resulted in the emergence of Pietism, which had a special liking for the love poetry of the Song of Songs, one of the books of the Old Testament. Its content was largely spiritualized as the love between a man and a woman symbolized the love between the believer and Jesus.

The evening started with a spiritual but non-liturgical song by Heinrich Albert, Der Tag beginnet zu vergehen, written by Simon Dach. This made sense in two ways. The night served as the central issue of the programme, and Hammerschmidt also set texts by poets of his time. One of them was Justus Georg Schottel, whose poem Was ist doch besser als die Nacht was sung throughout the concert. The most famous poet of the 17th century was Martin Opitz. Komm Nordwind du is inspired by the Song of Songs, and serves as the link with the second aspect of the programme, the spirit of Pietism.

Several pieces on the programme were settings of verses from from the Song of Songs, like the sacred concertos Ich schlafe and Vulnerasti cor meum, both by Hammerschmidt. Siehe, mein Freund steht hinter unsrer Wand is an evocative dialogue of the lover and his beloved by Thomas Strutius.

Another book of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, was a rich source of inspiration for composers as well. This doesn't surprise as Martin Luther considered it a "little Bible", a kind of handbook of the content of the Bible as a whole. Specimens of Psalm settings by Hammerschmidt are Herr, wie lange willst du mein so gar vergessen (Psalm 13) and Revertere anima mea (Psalm 116). Two of his collegues were also represented with psalm settings: Johann Theile with Psalm 69, Gott, hilf mir, a model of text expression, and Christoph Bernhard with Psalm 130, Aus der Tiefe. The latter's opening phrase includes an astonishing big leap from the lowest to the highest register of the voice. Lastly, the Lutheran hymn was represented with Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh.

In addition we heard some instrumental pieces: Marini as a representative of the Italian style, Rosenmüller reflecting the Italian influence in Germany, and Johan Schop - in a way the odd man out - with diminutions over the famous Pavana lachrymae by John Dowland, referring to the influence of English consort music in Germany.

The main burden of the concert was carried by Nele Gramß and Charles Daniels. Both are seasoned interpreters of 17th century repertoire. The latter is probably the best British interpreter of German music, with a perfect pronunciation and a deep understanding of the German style. At first he was a bit overshadowed by Ms Gramß and in particular the two violins, at least where I was seated. But after a while the balance improved, and his voice increased in strength. His interpretation of Theile's Gott, hilf mir was just brilliant, with every inch of text expression fully explored. He was equally impressive in Hammerschmidt's Ich schlafe. His performance of Revertere anima mea was very much Italian, like a piece by Monteverdi. I felt that was a little overdone. Nele Gramß was clearly challenged in Bernhard's Aus der Tiefe. The leap at the beginning was not quite perfect, and as her voice tends towards the mezzo-soprano range she had some trouble with the highest notes. There wasn't anything wrong with her expression, though, and that was also the case in Vulnerasti cor meum. Strutius' dialogue was definitely one of the highlights of the evening, with a perfect interplay between the two singers. The violin parts were nicely played by Veronika Skuplik and Catherine Aglibut, although I could imagine larger dynamic shades.

All in all, it was a captivating concert, with a nice portrait of a neglected composer and some of his contemporaries. Every time German music of the 17th century is performed one is astonished by the general level of composing and the emotional impact of the music written at the time. All of Hammerschmidt's contemporaries who were included in this programme are well worth being put into the centre of a programme themselves. There is still much to discover.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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