Johann Kuhnau: Complete Sacred Works III

Opella Musica, cameratata lipsiensis, Gregor Meyer
cpo 555 021-2

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his third volume with music for Christmastide  begins with one of Kuhnau’s most frequently performed works, his Magnificat  – I heard it paired with the Bach Magnificat  in a concert by Vox Luminis just before Christmas – and it has four laudes, like Bach’s early E-flat version which intersperse the choruses and arias that make up the fourteen movements of this substantial work. The five-part writing calls for two sopranos and for two viola parts like much string writing in late 17th-century Germany, and indeed like some of Bach’s Weimar period writing. Eloquent writing (and playing) for the obbligato oboe signals the relatively late date of composition.

The first setting heard on this CD of O heilige Zeit  is scored for soprano and bass soli, with strings and oboe, and a chorus. In the bass aria that follows the first of the accompanied recitative for soprano, the substantial organ is heard to fine effect defeating the power of the old serpent, and the soprano solo has a very ‘baroque’ feel with an obbligato oboe and strings. The second setting of this same text is a longer and earlier work, more through-composed with less breaks between the sections, but with finely crafted almost operatic setting of the words and dramatic accompanied ariosos. Scored for five-part strings and continuo (here including a lute).

Frolocket, ihr Völker und jauchzet, ihr Heiden  is as substantial a work as the Magnificat, and scored for five-part strings, three trumpets and timpani, with an obbligato organ part. The opening chorus is followed by a recitative and then an aria; in the aria, Kleines Kind, a tenor solo with very florid writing, the solo violin intertwines with the obbligato organ. Another paired recitative and aria follows, this time for alto with a more conventional string band accompaniment. The writing here anticipates a more melodic and tuneful pre-galant style of writing which was to re-emerge in vocal writing from the mid century onwards, and the cantata ends with a contrapuntally orchestrated chorus.

These are stylish performances with one voice per part both vocally and instrumentally, and the music is freshly edited for this project which it is hoped will be completed in time for the 300th anniversary of Kuhnau’s death in 2022. This recording was made in St Georgen, Rotha in June 2016, and there is a useful note on the organ there rebuilt in 1718 by Gottfried Silbermann and his assistant, Zacharias Hildebrand. The organ carefully conserved in 1980 is tune at A=466 to a meantone temperament. The performances are pitched at A=415.

This CD is a fine example of scholarship paired with musicianship. The project is important not just because it illuminates Bach’s antecedents in Leipzig, but because the music is fine in its own right. If we are to understand Bach’s cantatas and discover appropriate ways of performing them, we need this kind of research and performance practice. Unusually for Germany, groups like this approaching the music from a historical perspective perform one-to-a-part, whereas the tradition of performing Bach in Germany is still coloured by the 19th-century assumption that the chorus parts are to be sung by choirs with many singers per part. While the male singers of Opella Musica are splendid, I continue to have reservations about the soprano voices, both of which have an over-produced ‘modern’ singerly quality: it is not needed and can be overcome, as the singers in Vox Luminis make clear.

But this should not deter you from buying this – and the other – CDs of Kuhnau, as wonderful music-making in their own right.

David Stancliffe

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