musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Maarten Engeltjes, alto
PRJCT Amsterdam
concert: Oct 31, 2023, Utrecht, Pieterskerk

anon: Daphneb; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte; Johannn Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54); Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704): Passacagliaa; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Klag-Lied (BuxWV 76); Philipp Heinrich ERLEBACH (1657-1714): Wer sich dem Himmel übergeben; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Salve mi Jesu

Rie Kimura (soloa), Matthea de Muynck, violin; Simone Siviero, Francesco Bergamini, viola; Evan Buttar, viola da gamba, cello; Alon Portal, double bass; Edoardo Valorz, harpsichord (solob), organ

The month November is a time of remembrance and reflection. The Catholic Church celebrates All Saints' Day (1 November) and All Souls' Day (2 November). November also marks the end of the ecclesiastical year; in December the new year starts with Advent. The time of the year may have inspired Maarten Engeltjes and the ensemble PRJCT Amsterdam to put together a programme of music of a reflective character, including lamentos.

Most of the pieces were from the pen of Lutheran composers, which means that sin, as the ultimate cause of death and mortality, is given much attention. By coincidence, the concert I attended took place on 31 October, which is also Reformation Day. And to complete the picture: the venue was the Pieterskerk, which was not only the ideal place for reasons of acoustic, but is also the place of worship of the Walloon Church (Église Wallonne), itself a product of the Reformation.

Sin was the central subject of the two works that embraced the programme, both by members of the Bach family. The opening work was Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte by Johann Christoph Bach. It is a lamento, a genre that had its origins in Italian opera - the most famous example is the Lamento d'Arianna from Monteverdi's lost opera - but was soon embraced by German Lutheran composers as a vehicle for sacred texts. The opening section of the piece, which is repeated at the end, says it all: "O that I had water enough in my head, and my eyes were founts of tears, that day and night I could bewail my sins". It is one of the most famous pieces of the 17th century, and Johann Christoph Bach was known in his family as a particularly expressive composer. That is easy to understand when one listens to this lamento. It requires a subtle approach, and that did it receive from Maarten Engeltjes. At first I was disappointed when he started the piece with a pretty heavy vibrato, but fortunately that diminished in the course of the work and the programme. Part of the expression was due to the dynamic differentiation; some episodes were sung piano, with subtle text expression. The last phrase (before the repeat of the opening section) - "For the Lord hath filled me with sorrow on the day of his terrible wrath" - could have had more bite.

The other work which had sin as its central subject was Johann Sebastian's cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54). It is an early work, dating from 1714, which explains the scoring for five instrumental parts, with split violas - a common practice in the 17th century. It is not entirely clear for which Sunday this work was written. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, suggests that it may have been performed in the fall of that year rather than on Sunday Oculi (the third Sunday in Lent). It is a rather short work: two arias separated by a recitative. The work opens with an instrumental introduction, which includes repeated notes in the strings, which emphasizes the urgency of the first aria's message: "Resist sin, or else its poison takes hold upon you". It is important to play it in the right tempo, which means: not too slow. That was the case here, and the repeated notes received just the right amount of weight. In all three sections the vocal part includes some rather low notes. Engeltjes's low register is well developed, and sometimes he turned to his chest voice with good effect. The recitative was sung with the right amount of rhythmic freedom. The message of this cantata was effectively communicated, thanks to Engeltjes's excellent singing and the perfect collaboration with the instrumental ensemble.

In between these two pieces by members of the Bach family we heard some other items from the 17th century. The second work was from the pen of Franz Tunder, one of the main representatives of the north German organ school. Salve mi Jesu is a sacred concerto which attests to the continuing role of Latin in Lutheran worship. Those who know the Marian antiphon Salve Regina may have recognized many parts of the text. What we have here is a 'lutheranisation' of a Catholic chant. That means that it includes some words and phrases which composers of the original text liked to emphasize, such as "suspiramus", "gementes et flentes". Tunder does the same in this 'protestant' version, and that was not lost on Engeltjes, who gave it maximum weight.

We then heard an instrumental piece, and a famous one at that: Rie Kimura played the Passacaglia for violin solo, which closes the collection of so-called Mystery Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. It is not a piece of a lamenting nature; it is generally called 'The guardian angel'. However, it is certainly a piece of reflection, following fifteen stages in the life of the Virgin Mary. It is a sequence of contrasting Affekte, and that came perfectly off in the performance, which was incisive and of great intensity.

Pieces of a personal and biographical nature from pre-romantic times are rare. One such piece has become well-known: Dieterich Buxtehude's Klag-Lied on the death of his father, on a text from his own pen. The piece comprises seven stanzas, but unfortunately it is seldom performed complete. That was also the case here: all the stanzas were printed in the programme, but only the first, fourth and seventh were sung. The performance was excellent, though, and its intimate character was well observed. The modesty of the ornamentation was entirely right.

Another instrumental piece followed: anonymous variations on Daphne, a song that Jacob van Eyck also used for variations. It was the only secular work in the programme, but as the story of Daphne is rather tragic, it fitted in with it. Edoardo Valorz played it nicely at the harpsichord, but I wonder how much the audience in the back of the church have heard of it. In this venue it was probably not a very good choice. An organ work may have been more appropriate.

The last piece before Bach's cantata BWV 54 was a work by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, a composer who can be reckoned among the most expressive of the German Baroque, which makes it all the more regrettable that the largest part of his oeuvre has been lost. The extant part of his output comprises some cantatas and a collection of "moral and political arias" with the title Harmonische Freude musicalischer Freunde. The word 'political' should not be misunderstood: it does not refer to politics in the modern sense of the word but rather means 'secular'. The titles - which are not identical with the opening lines - sum up the message. The title of Wer sich dem Himmel übergeben says: "He who has entrusted himself to heaven will at last enjoy peace and happiness". This again refers to sin as the cause of unhappiness: "Righteous deeds and a clear conscience make a soft pillow upon which innocence may repose." Erlebach's songs seem to receive some interest since a few years, and that is well deserved. Engeltjes convincingly showed the expressive power of these songs, which also have melodies which immediately go to the heart of the listener.

Most of the pieces in the programme were rather well-known, but that is not really a problem if they are performed as well as they were during this concert. After a somewhat shaky start, Maarten Engeltjes was in fine form, and the instrumental ensemble was his excellent companion. I was happy with this concert, and so was the large audience, which received two encores. The first was the famous lament from Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen, known as The Plaint: "O let me weep, for ever weep, my eyes no more shall welcome sleep". One could probably call the performance 'Italian', as the dynamic contrasts were larger than I can remember having heard from British performers, but I liked it, and it did justice to the expressive text. The second encore was the famous song Bist du bei mir, in a mixture of the original setting by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Bach's adaptation.

The recollection of the music and the performances may have helped the audience to stand the heavy rainfall that awaited them when they left the church.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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