Categories
Recording

Byrd: Sacred Works

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York, conducted by Jeremy Filsell (2022) with Nicholas Haigh, Assistant Organist; and Gerre Hancock (1981)

Recorded in St Paul the Apostle, Columbus Circle, New York (2022) and St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York (1981)

Mass for Four Voices, Propers for Corpus Christi (2022),
The Great Service (1981)
1441:01 (2 CDs)
Signum Classics SIGCD776

This double album has a bland title, “Sacred Works” but … what wonderful works. We cannot have too many recordings of music this good, and when it is performed as well as it is here, we are all winners. After 2023 marked Byrd’s successful, enjoyable and rewarding Quatercentenary, 2024 is the centenary of the rediscovery of Byrd’s Great Service in Durham Cathedral, by his indefatigable cheerleader E.H. Fellowes, and of its first performance in (probably) three centuries, which took place in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster sung by the Newcastle upon Tyne Bach Choir under W.G. Whittaker, himself no mean Byrd scholar. So it is excellent to welcome back into the catalogue St Thomas Choir’s recording of the complete work made in 1981 and hitherto only available as an LP. What sounds as if it might be intrusive traffic noise from Times Square, outside the recording venue, can be heard but this is a small price to pay for the privilege of having access to this stunning performance. (Credit to the engineers who made the transfer from the original LP, a copy of which I used to own.) Of five other available complete recordings, only two are by Anglican church choirs – King’s College, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey – and neither of those are, like St Thomas New York, unaccompanied. So this is also a unique recording. The performers set out their stall right from the opening verse passage of the Venite, the first canticle in the Service; this is delivered with crystal clarity, the fleeting dissonance on “strength” distinctly audible in the generous acoustic. The recording was made just too soon to take advantage of Craig Monson’s imminent edition (1982) with its new thinking as regards certain verse and antiphonal passages, but there is still some variety between the verse, antiphonal and full passages as laid down in Fellowes’ edition (1948).

Modern trends in Byrd scholarship also impinge upon the rest of the album, the disc and a half recorded over forty years later, which feature the Mass for Four Voices and Propers for Corpus Christi. And these are proper Propers, as they include not only those items for the Feast which are in book one of Gradualia (1605) but also Byrd’s expansive unpublished setting of Sacris solemniis – all nine and a half minutes of it – composed while he was still influenced by Sheppard, whose mentorship of the fledgling Byrd is unfailingly neglected in favour of Tallis. Current scholarly thinking advocates performances of Byrd’s masses by small mixed ensembles, resembling those documented as performing such music in secret recusant chapels during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, ironically a closet Anglo-Catholic … allegedly. Nevertheless, these masses have now become staples of choral Holy Communion in (protestant) Church of England cathedrals, churches and chapels, as well as in similar Roman Catholic establishments. Also, they are so well composed as to sound as fine in great spaces as in small. The Choir of Saint Thomas Church, New York sings the mass with as much beauty, feeling and expertise as any historically informed ensemble, and I say this as one who favours authenticity so far as it can be achieved in early music. The generously reverberant acoustic takes some getting used to, but once the ears are, so to speak, tuned in, the sound becomes quite ravishing, and although tempi are varied judiciously during the course of the Mass, this is never to the detriment of the clarity of Byrd’s eloquent polyphony, with its sublime melodies, harmonies … and dissonances! In each of his works, Byrd relates a narrative. In liturgical performances, tempi can be varied, subtly or otherwise, but usually in response to musical criteria, such as Classical or Romantic models, or in a perceived need to push on or put the brakes on. St Thomas’s interpretation seems rather to respond to Byrd’s narrative, his response to the text and his inflections in his music that propel his vision. Jeremy Filsell’s subtle pacing does not routinely include sudden bolts after passages of restraint: for instance, in the Credo it is appropriate to show some animation at “Et resurrexit” but he keeps the Choir’s powder drier at the equally tempting “Et unam sanctam” which then allows the singers to wind up over a longer span towards an effective climactic conclusion. Also in the Credo is one of the most sublime passages of singing that I have ever heard in a Byrd Mass on disc, where the layclerks alone sing “et ex patre natum ante omnia saecula”. That said, I must also compliment the boys on their fine singing throughout the entire work, not least those trebles entrusted with the solo passages. A word of congratulation also to the Rector, Revd Canon Carl F. Taylor, who fulfils his roles as Celebrant and Gospeller consummately.

This is a truly radiant recording. As I said of another recent Byrd release, whatever the number of versions you possess of the Mass for Four Voices – many, few, one, none – do, please, give serious thought to purchasing this one … and then buy it! It comes with two priceless bonuses: Byrd’s incandescent Propers for Corpus Christi including that early unpublished setting of Sacris solemniis with its echoes of Sheppard, not Tallis, and its pre-echoes of the treasures to come in Byrd’s music; plus the greatest of all settings of the complete Anglican Service, sung by a Choir as fine in 1981 as it would still be four decades later.

Richard Turbet

Categories
Recording

Muffat: Missa in labore requies

Le Banquet Céleste, La Guilde des Mercenaires conducted by Damien Guillon
58:53
Versailles Spectacles CVS106

It would be hard to find a better example of the current strength of early music in France than this splendid collaboration between two ensembles based not in a major population centre but in the provinces. One, the vocal ensemble Le Banquet Céleste, is likely to be familiar to anyone who follows the early music scene, but La Guilde de Mercenaires, fundamentally a wind and brass ensemble and like Le Banquet based in Brittany may be a less well-known name. In a note Damien Guillon tells of how their mutual ambition to perform and record Georg Muffat’s monumental 24-part Missa in labore requies (‘rest in our toil’), words taken from the medieval sequence, Veni Sancte spiritus) came to be realised in the superb acoustic of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles.

Muffat’s Mass is one of a number of such works composed for Salzburg Cathedral as part of the Counter-Reformation assault on the senses, the creation of brilliantly theatrical liturgy. Salzburg Cathedral, with its separate galleries, offered an ideal venue (there is a strong temptation to say stage) in which to exploit the polychoral tradition that had developed in Venice in the 16th century. Such works required the disposition of both vocal and instrumental choirs distributed in the various galleries. The most famous of such works is, of course, the so-called Missa Salisburgensis, once attributed to the Italian composer Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672), but now firmly established as the work of Biber.

The Muffat has a strange history, having come down to us in an autograph score in Joseph Haydn’s estate. Even more oddly given its celebratory character no specific occasion is known to have inspired its composition, though Peter Wollny’s note is in little doubt that it was composed for Salzburg. However, the note by Ernst Hintermeier for the earlier harmonia mundi recording directed by Konrad Junghänel, postulates that it may have been composed for the induction of a new archbishop at the court at Passau in 1690, the year Muffat left Salzburg to become Kapellmeister there. The disposition of the Mass calls for two SATB vocal choirs, here with two voices each, plus three instrumental choirs, one of strings and the other two for wind and brass. A small continuo group completes the forces, which throughout are deployed in a dazzling array of combinations ranging from sumptuous passages for the full ensemble to passages of chamber-like finesse and interiority. As so often in large-scale works it is unexpectedly these moments of intimacy that tend to remain longer in the memory than the more overtly spectacular passages, impressive though those are. But the work as a whole seems to me richer in imagination and invention than the works of Biber of this kind with which I’m familiar. There are so many examples that it is difficult to single out individual moments. ’Laudamus te’ from the Gloria may however be one such, an exuberantly florid display of solo voices led by the soprano of Choir I over running bass, the whole creating a kind of perpetuum mobile. Shortly after that the dense fugal tapestry of ‘Qui tollis’ creates a passage of wonderful penitential breadth. Often the passages one expects to be highlighted are especially memorable. The crucial central part of the Credo, for example, is a sublime setting of ‘Et incarnatus est’ for two sopranos, while the ‘Crucifixus’ is a polyphonic solo SATB quartet accompanied by only organ continuo. Here the muffled drumbeats at the mention of Jesus’s death remind us of the essential theatricality of the music. The opening of the Agnus Dei inspires another exquisitely contemplative soprano solo before building to an impressive climax at ‘Dona nobis’. The Credo and Sanctus are punctuated by a Dixit Dominus from Biber’s Vesperae Longiores ac Breviores , the brevity and comparative simplicity the answer to the command for such discipline from freshly installed Salzburg Archbishop Ernst von Thun. Mozart it seems was not the only one to be hampered by such edicts in Salzburg!

The performance of the Muffat is on the highest level throughout both as to the vocal and instrumental contributions. I’ve mentioned the soprano soloists several times during the course of this review and Violaine Le Chenadec (choir I) and Myriam Arbouz (choir II) certainly deserve special mention, but it is to the credit of Damien Guillon that the whole performance deserves the highest possible praise. The same goes for the engineers who have gloriously wrapped the performance in the distinctive acoustic of the Chapelle Royale. It’s a performance I would tend to prefer to the fine but more objective Junghänel.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Gratia plena: Hans Memling

Psallentes, The Royal Wind Music, Hendrik Vanden Abeele
71:04
Le Bricoleur LBCD 14

Unusual to have one CD based on a famous old master painting, but along with The Sword and the Lilly, a meditation on van der Weyden’s ‘The Last Judgement’ (Inventa INV 1008), we have another musing, this time on ‘The Annunciation’ by Hans Memling. His exquisitely detailed rendition of angelic musicians has allowed instrument builders to reconstruct instruments which have not survived in any other form, so he is an obvious inspiration for a CD programme. Like the Inventa CD, this CD programmes music relevant to the subject and details of the painting, assembling polyphony by de Ghizeghem, Agricola, Obrecht, Dufay, Compère, Mouton and Josquin played on recorders by The Royal Wind Band and sung by Psallentes, who also provide plainchant. The performances from these splendid Flemish ensembles are, like Memling’s painting, exquisitely detailed and wonderfully evocative. The sounds conjured up by consorts of beautifully tuned and blended Renaissance recorders are a delight, as are the female voices of Psallentes, also beautifully pure and focussed. My favourite tracks are where the voices and recorders combine in the larger-scale polyphony and culminating in a stunning account of the Gloria from the famously demanding Missa Maria zart by Obrecht, given a delightfully transparent performance here. With the imaginative blending of voices and recorders and the sheer musicality of these accounts, I was more persuaded by this painting-based musing, although the rather shallow supporting booklet in which Vanden Abeele writes a ‘Dear Hans’ letter to Memling and offers Gratias agimus tibi to him for the CD’s artwork rather trivialises this excellent project. I am on record elsewhere opining that a serious scholarship-based musical programme, such as this most definitely is, deserves a seriously scholarly programme note rather than some self-indulgent performer’s flight of fancy.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Senfl

Singer Pur, Ensemble Leones
66:30
Oehms Classics OC 1726

This collaboration between the vocal group Singer Pur and the instrumental Ensemble Leones presents a programme of motets with a block of Senfl’s secular music in the middle. This latter element consists largely of no fewer than seven settings of the song “Ich stund an einem Morgen” and three of “Was wird es doch” – perhaps as much of both as one could wish for. While, with the exception of the extended consort piece ‘Das lang’, Senfl’s secular idiom is perhaps quite familiar and ultimately pretty conventional, his sacred music is altogether more complex and interesting and generally underperformed and recorded. A student of Heinrich Isaac, Senfl found employment with the Hofkapelle of Emperor Maximilian I in Vienna and Munich, so it is hardly surprising – with considerable musical resources at his disposal – that Senfl wrote such demanding and richly textured sacred music. Singer Pur present most of the sacred music unaccompanied, and produce their usual lovely vocal blend and intelligent readings of the music. The rich combination of voices and stringed instruments in the opening “Sancta Maria virgo”, such as would have been commonplace in the Munich Hofkapelle, home of the Bavarian State Orchestra, made me wish that both groups had combined forces in more of the sacred music on the CD. Be that as it may, this CD makes a strong case for Senfl’s sacred music being afforded more attention and respect than it is currently. His setting of “Media vita in morte sumus” is a masterpiece.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

The sword & the lilly

15th-century polyphony for Judgement Day
Fount & Origin, James Tomlinson
67:57
Inventa INV1008

This CD of choral music from the 15th century is – in the words of the programme note – ‘a meditation on van der Weyden’s The Last Judgement’, a magnificent painting in the ‘doom’ tradition, dominated by a wonderfully winged St Michael. Rather than exploring the theme of the Last Judgement in music, the programme takes us on a tour of the painting in the manner of the Radio 4 “Moving Pictures” series, finding works or movements from works which reference its various visual elements. Thus we open with an episode from Ockeghem’s Requiem before moving on via a number of anonymous motets to the Missa L’Homme armé/Dum sacrum mysterium by Johannes Regis, a Magnificat by Johannes Martini and the Dies Irae from Brumel’s Requiem. The singing is elegantly idiomatic and expressive and perhaps the greatest virtue of the recording is the high percentage of anonymous pieces, works which tend to be overlooked when choirs are selecting repertoire for recordings. I am not a natural admirer of picking and choosing movements from larger works and combining them with a fairly random selection of shorter pieces from throughout Europe, and I found myself wanting the rest of pieces such as the Ockeghem, Regis and Brumel. As a taster for these larger works, I suppose this programme may serve to draw listeners unfamiliar with these pieces into exploring them further, while also offering the parts in a wider context of anonymous smaller works. Ultimately for me, this CD seemed a rather unsatisfying random selection of works, which had at best a tangential connection with one another.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Septem dies: Seven Days with Music at Prague University (1360-1460)

Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, Corina Marti
63:51
Supraphon SU 4282-2

In their efforts to provide a snapshot of the complete musical lives of students at Prague University in the century from 1360-1460, Corina Marti and the Schola Gregoriana have drawn on the work of a number of musicologists on the University’s considerable collection of musical manuscripts to provide sacred and secular monophony and polyphony for this varied and beautifully executed programme. The singing is wonderfully idiomatic, the singers sounding equally at home in plainchant and polyphony, while Marti provides instrumental interludes and accompaniments on the clavisimbalum. In this way, liturgical music relevant to the seven-day round of religious services is punctuated by student songs and instrumental pieces of the sort they would have played for entertainment. A lavish book of background information provides an intriguing context for the music, and the whole package is a testimony to the very fruitful interaction of scholars and performers. Much of the music here has been freshly transcribed and is receiving its first performance in modern times. The whole team behind this admirable and vivid recording, made in the generous acoustic of the Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary in Milevsko, has more than achieved its stated aim of representing the musical landscape that would have confronted a student at Prague University in the 14th and 15th centuries.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Lully: Grands Motets – Volume 3

Les Épopées, conducted by Stephane Fuget
72:40
Versailles Spectacles CVS087

Volume 3 of the Versailles edition of Lully’s motets – part of a more extensive series devoted to motets of the 17th and 18th centuries – brings four grands motets: Plaude, laetare Gallia of 1668; a setting of the Benedictus of unknown date, but probably the late 1660s; the tiny Domine salvum fac regum, an undated early work that lasts under four minutes; and the dramatic Notus in Judaea Deus, a late work probably dating from around 1684 or 85. Also included is a splendid Magnificat composed between 1663 and 1666 by Henri Du Mont (1610-1684), composer of the Chapelle Royale from 1672 to 1683. The recording was made in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles and has an imposing depth and resonance, though I always feel the acoustic of this wonderful building is at its best when it has an audience, which is not the case here.

The grands motets of Lully and contemporaries such as Du Mont always carry with them a question mark as to whether they are directed more at praise of the king, Louis XIV or God. There is little doubt here in the case of the grandest and most panegyric of these works, Plaude, laetare Gallia for it owes existence to the christening of the Dauphin at St Germain-en-Laye (then the royal palace), an occasion attended by so many it had to be held in the courtyard rather than the palace chapel. Like all the grands motets it is cast in contrasting sections that include solos, chamber-like writing for a small group of soloists (the petit choeur) and the full chorus (grand choeur). The orchestral writing is often elaborate and, in a ceremonial work such as this, intended for the large forces employed here. As one might expect for such an occasion the overall mood is bright and often exuberant, though the heart of the work is a more supplicatory and lyrical passage based on the text, ‘O Jesu, vita credentium! (O Jesu, life to those who believe), its long lines beautifully sustained by the unidentified tenor soloist. It would indeed have been helpful to have the excellent soloists drawn from the chorus identified as they deserve to be in the context of performances that convey outstandingly all the varied features of these works.

The most ambitious work as to scale is the Lully Benedictus, which is divided into nine sections ranging from the measured opening tenor solo, via the chamber-like intricacy of ‘Sicut locutus est’ for tenor and bass and solo instruments and the full choral texture of ‘Salutem’ to reach a magnificent peroration in the sublime solo bass ‘Per viscara misericordiae’ and the theatrical contrast of ‘in tenebris, et in umbra mortis sedent’ (in darkness and in the shadow of death) and ‘ad dirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis’ (to direct our feet into the way of peace). The text of Notus in Judaea Deus, based on Psalm 75 (76) and the most colourfully orchestrated of these motets allows for even greater theatricality, its invitation to word painting at references such as ‘the earth trembling and then becoming still’ not passed up by Lully. The Du Mont setting of the Magnificat is a supreme example of his work, combining polyphony that displays a clear influence of Venetian sacred music in addition to exquisitely lovely beautiful cantabile writing at a passage such as ‘Et misericordia’, a tenor and bass duet with choral interjections.

It has already been made clear that the performances are of outstanding quality, leaving this an essential addition to a series of great value.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

Charpentier: Te Deum

La Chapelle Harmonique, conducted by Valentin Tournet
64:31
Versailles CVS098

In the time of Charpentier the text of the Te Deum was particularly associated with giving thanks to God for victory on the battlefield. Within this context, Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed four settings, of which the present example, H 146, is much the best known and for reasons that extend beyond the use for many years of its instrumental prelude as a flagship theme for major Eurovision transmissions. Charpentier expert Catherine Cessac suggests that H 146 may date from 1692 and the victory of Marshall  Luxembourg at Steenkerque.

Like all such works, the Te Deum’s principal mood is by definition celebratory, enhanced here by the inclusion of trumpets and timpani. But there are, too, more reflective moments of contrast. ‘Te per orbem’, for example, is wonderfully expressive, originally in the hands of outstanding tenor Mathias Vidal, then as a trio involving the addition of haute-contre David Tricou and bass Geoffroy Buffière, the gradual addition of soloists to form an ensemble being a favourite device of Charpentier’s. The succeeding ‘Tu devicto’ for solo soprano is quite ravishingly projected, its long cantabile lines relished with near-sensual delight by Gwendoline Blondeel. Yet ultimately it is the sheer joyous verve with which Valentin Tournet directs the work – and his chorus is magnificent – that sets the seal on a terrific performance.

The opening work on the CD could hardly be more contrasted as to character or performance style. It is a setting of De profundis (H 189), Psalm 129 (or 130 in the Protestant Bible), one of the seven penitential psalms and the psalm set more frequently by Charpentier than any other, a total of no fewer than eight times. H 189 was composed in 1683 on the occasion of the death of Queen Marie-Thérèse. Scored unusually for five-part strings and nine vocal parts, it explores a rich variety of textures and colour. The mood is set at the outset by an orchestral prelude in spacious sentimental style. The breadth and depth carry on into the opening choral setting of the first words ‘De profundis clamavi’, directed by Tournet with quite remarkable concentration. The choral writing here is mostly syllabic homophony, the choir’s cohesion and balance near perfectly sustained. The next number, the deeply expressive ‘Fiant aures tuae’ is initially a soprano solo that brings a new feel to the music, the lyrical lines exquisitely drawn by Blondeel and ultimately by both she and second soprano, Cécile Achille. The final verse, employing words familiar from the Mass for the Dead, ‘Requiem aeternam, dona eis’, rounds off an immensely impressive and profoundly moving work with a return to the breadth of the opening.

The final major work is the Magnificat, H 79, one of ten settings by Charpentier. This one is modestly scored for four vocal parts and four-part strings with a pair of flutes and is dated by Cessac as 1692 or 3. The opening verses are set with a lively sense of the praise they involve, evoking an infectious exuberance. Later contrast comes with more reflective verses such as ‘Suscepit Israel’ an haute-contre solo exquisitely sung by Tricou. But it is the joyous spirit that prevails, the Gloria bursting in to thrust aside the more thoughtful words that precede it and end the work by returning to the elation of the opening.

Finally the Magnificat and Te Deum are separated by four short ceremonial pieces for brass and timpani, the final one for timpani only, by J D Philidor, in some ways an odd idea as it means the prelude to the Te Deum fails to open with quite the startling impact it normally has, its thunder stolen by nearly two preceding minutes of timpani! A quite outstanding addition to the Charpentier discography from one of the rising stars in the already crowded constellation of outstanding French early music musicians.

Brian Robins

Categories
Recording

John Sheppard: Missa Cantate

+ Laudem dicite; Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis; Martyr Dei qui unicum; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Beata nobis gaudia; Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
76:22
Gimell CDGIM 053

Peter Phillips has done remarkable work with The Tallis Scholars (TTS), the choir he founded in 1973, recording, performing, broadcasting, editing, writing about and generally evangelizing for British (sic – Tomkins, though no Carver) and European music of the Renaissance. The standard of performance has always been high, sometimes transcendent – Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua, Sheppard’s Media vita and from left field the Agnus of Missa Da pacem by Bauldeweyn misattributed to Josquin, to name only a few at random. The choir’s personnel never stagnate, and nor therefore do their performances. This is illustrated by a concert which I recall attending in December 2014 at St John’s Smith Square, during which TTS sang the exhilarating but unfamiliar Magnificat by Edmund Turges, and the familiar Lullaby by Byrd which nonetheless received a revelatory rendition.

With their pinpoint tuning and use of high pitch, TTS have an ideal composer in Sheppard, with his thrilling melodies, enthralling counterpoint, spicy harmonies and startling dissonances. The works selected for this recording each contain all of the above. Every piece was intended for the Roman Catholic liturgy that passed into obsolescence in England almost simultaneously with the death of Sheppard himself. The mass, which is for six voices, runs for nearly half an hour on this recording, and two of the motets, Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria and Gaude virgo Christiphera, take over ten minutes, while all the others except Martyr Dei qui unicum take over five, all giving Sheppard ample scope for exhibiting his unique and remarkable style.

There are five other current recordings of this Mass, and while two of these are by other adult chamber choirs, the other three are by cathedral or collegiate choirs of men plus boys (and, in one case, boys and girls): The Choir of Westminster Cathedral; St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh; and the trebles of Salisbury Cathedral joined by the lower voices of the Gabrieli Consort, most of whom will have had ecclesiastical backgrounds. This version by The Tallis Scholars (many of whom also have ecclesiastical backgrounds) sounds the most secular of all these. It seems in places to come over as quite assertively accented, either on the beat in the Mass, or corresponding with changes of notes in the plainsong in works which are built around the chant in one of the voices. The versions sung by the ecclesiastical choirs seem to have more of an ethereal flow, appropriate to the acoustics of the buildings in which Sheppard’s works would be sung liturgically, while The Tallis Scholars’ interpretation is ideal for the sort of drier acoustic usually encountered in secular concert halls. This is the reality of the modern world: fabulous early liturgical music being rediscovered, cherished, and performed democratically, for mental and spiritual refreshment and delectation, as well as for sheer listening pleasure, outwith the sacred environment for which it was originally intended. Ironically in view of what I have just written, The Tallis Scholars made this recording in Brinkburn Priory, but it still comes across to this listener as an interpretation suited for the likes of Cadogan Hall. This in no way is any sort of denigration of a fine recording, expertly sung, which contains consistently wonderful music, sometimes achieving sublimity as in the case of the increasingly famous Amen to Jesu salvator saeculi, redemptis.

Three of Sheppard’s other four surviving masses (all a4) – Plainsong Mass for a Mean, Western Wind and Be not afraid – are available on commercial recordings, so it would be good to have the French Mass on CD etc. to complete the set, and to enable the listening public to hear more of this great composer’s music.

Richard Turbet

Categories
Recording

Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld

Veronika Winter, Franz Vitzhum, Markus Brutscher, Martin Schicketanz, Rheinische Kantorei, Das kleine Konzert, Hermann Max
cpo 555 311-2
110:28 (2 CDs)

It is hard to underestimate the widespread influence of the powerfully evocative and image-laden libretto known as The Brockes-Passion!

Conceived by B. H. Brockes (1680-1747), the Hamburg statesman and poet, andpublished c. 1712, with various settings by several noteworthy composers of the day, Keiser, Mattheson, Telemann, Handel, Fasch and Stölzel; even Bach’s St John Passion contains several elements, as did Telemann’s early Hamburg Passions of the 1720s, sadly lost.

In 1992, great efforts were made to reconstruct Bach’s musical library, and the music of G. H. Stölzel appeared terribly under-represented, save the famous aria “Bist Du bei mir” from the Notenbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach. Gifted musically from a tender age, Stölzel was a Leipzig student in 1707, active in the Collegio Musico. After some private tuition, he made an Italian tour, meeting famous masters. After working in Gera and Bayreuth, (the latter a centre for early opera), then from 1719 was court kapellmeister in Gotha, gradually turning his hand from operas to sacred music. And so we find the setting of a passion-oratorio circa 1720, not long before he set the Brockes Passion in 1725. It has also been discovered that a cantata cycle (on texts by Benjamin Schmolck) was performed by Bach in Leipzig 1735-6, and Stölzel’s earlier 1720 Passion-oratorio on Good Friday 1734.

Much of Stölzel’s musical legacy was neglected and destroyed, in part due to Georg Benda’s careless disregard for it. Hermann Max is to be most heartily congratulated for diligently compiling the score from parts found in the Schloßmuseum SonderhausenBach obviously admired the music, since he re-worked the aria from the 13th Betrachtung: “Dein Kreuz, o Bräutigam meiner Seele” into “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” from BWV200.

As per usual Hermann Max has drawn a fine team of performers around him, and the main soloists give a good account of themselves. For an early example of a Passion-oratorio, with 22 Betrachtungen (Contemplations) and 20 Chorales (all with clearly defined sources), it lacks the dramaturgic fluency of the Brockes Passions and others I can think of, yet does include passages for “Christliche Kirche” and “Gläubige Seele”, the latter acting like a kind of accompagnato leading into the reflective arias. Some of these arias (for example, tracks 6 and 12) exude a style close to that found in Graun and Telemann’s Der Tod Jesu (1755), yet others feel lacking in their overall effect and intensity, somewhat “underpowered”, given the vivid and descriptive wording. One senses an active, refined musical (operatic) mind at work, however, the musico-poetic grasp isn’t always alert or activated; nor is the broader instrumental palette. The Evangelist here gives a very good narrative link, using a device termed: Historic Present. The Duet of Gläubige Seelen (21) is rather fine, yet short-lived. The narration up to the lovely Aria “Allerhoechster Gottessohn” (27) seems a fairly weak response to the drama; so too the Aria (30) “Cease, ye murderous claws”! Finally, in the aria (33) we have some sensitive and emotive instrumentation, as the composer deploys a flute, yet it is again all too short-lived!

CD2 opens with the tenor aria that Bach used, yet in my very honest opinion, the following numbers for alto and soprano are musically far superior; indeed, Veronika Winters contributions here are truly noteworthy and soar aloft! So too the chorus before the final section stands out. The closing sections are most effective, being woven around the famous chorale, O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid. This actually feels more like a liturgical Passion with a few extra twists, than a Passion-oratorio. Every new Passiontide work should be judged on its own merits; alas, due to the sheer dominance of just a handful of works at Easter, many will fall foul of deep-rooted routines and certain perceived expectations, which is disappointing, as so many works will not even get to see the light of day, being held at bay until some fortunate discovery allows the spirit of these pieces to be heard alongside the more familiar. Hermann Max has once again presented on CPO another noteworthy Eastertide Passion, which is an historic document of finest musicology in action.

David Bellinger