Ensemble Polyharmonique, Alexander Schneider
For many years now, I had planned to “re-discover” Tobias Michael’s music; there are two sets of original part-books in The British Library and, although I only managed to transcribe one piece the last time I was there, I did make a listing of the contents of both, and was impressed, not only that he involved different combinations of instruments with the voices, but that he wrote out ornamentation for the singers. Those are, of course, the two volumes of his Musicalische Seelenlust, published 20 years into the 30 years war and full of the sort of music you would expect from the generation after Schütz and Schein and before Rosenmüller and Schelle – harmonically pointed, emotive settings of richly poetic texts, full of the imagery of loss, hope, tragedy and faith. Only seven of the 18 pieces on the CD come from the second volume; each of the five singers (SSATB) take one solo each, and there are duets for the two sopranos and tenor/alto.
The other works are all for the full ensemble, supported throughout by bass viol, chamber organ and theorbo. The sound is capital “g” gorgeous – the voices individually are beautiful and the balance they achieve in combination is astonishing and ravishing. Time and again I was reminded of anthologies that appeared in the early 17th century that contained German sacred contrafacta of madrigals by composers such as Monteverdi and Rovetta – for emotional power, Michael’s five-part works would not struggle in such esteemed company. As for the more concertato pieces, the five voices of Ensemble Polyharmonique are fairly put through their paces by the technical demands, without ever losing a serene sense of control. It is also unsual to have a CD of 17th-century music where the performers do not feel the need to intersperse the vocal music with instrumental repertoire; I take this to be further endorsement of the quality and variety of these two fine volumes. I hope we will have the remainder of Michael’s output soon!