March 06, 2014


Meine Seele: German Sacred Music. Matthew White, countertenor; Tempo Rubato conducted by Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Il Diario di Chiara: Music from La Pietà in Venice in the 18th Century. Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Glossa. $18.99 (CD+DVD).

C.P.E. Bach: Complete Keyboard Concertos, Volume 20—Concerto in E-flat, Wq 47 (H 479); Concerto in F, Wq 46 (H 408); Sonatina in D, Wq 109 (H 543). Miklós Spányi and Cristiano Holtz, harpsichords; Tamás Szekendy, fortepiano; Concerto Armonico Budapest. BIS. $21.99.

E.T.A. Hoffmann: Missa in D minor; Miserere in B-flat minor. Sibylla Rubens and Jutta Böhnert, sopranos; Rebecca Martin, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Yorck Felix Speer, bass; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Rupert Huber. CPO. $16.99.

Harrison Birtwistle: The Moth Requiem and Other Choral Works. Roderick Williams, baritone; BBC Singers and Nash Ensemble conducted by Nicholas Kok. Signum Records. $17.99.

     It is a commonplace to speak of the enormous influence of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), but like other clichés, it is at once true and somewhat off the mark. Bach was not especially influential during or immediately after his own lifetime, being labeled “old Bach” when his music was considered rather passé – and then largely passed over in favor of his sons, notably Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is also important to remember that J.S. Bach did not himself appear out of nowhere, having been substantially influenced by other composers and organists – and not only Dietrich Buxtehude. An excellent ATMA Classique CD called Meine Seele does a fine job of placing “old Bach” in historical perspective while giving listeners a chance to hear some genuine rarities of sacred music (and a touch of the secular as well) by composers who have long since vanished into total obscurity, as well as a couple who have not quite disappeared. The CD begins, quite fittingly, with one of Bach’s own sacred works, the cantata Widerstehe doch dir Sünde (BWV 54). Then it launches into a series of beautifully sung and played works that have in common the period in which they were written and the heartfelt nature of their communication. The only two reasonably familiar composers here are Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), represented by the brief concerto Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, and Bach’s contemporary, Georg Muffat (1653-1704), from whom a very well-made secular organ passacaglia is offered. The other composers and works on this fascinating CD are Franz Tunder (1614-1667), with a very short Sinfonia sur “Da pacem Domine” and a motet, Salve, mi Jesu; Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1715), with Overture and Suite No. 3 and a cantata, Trocknet euch, ihr heissen Zähren; Johann Rosenmüller (1619-1684), with a motet, Ascendit Christus, and a pleasant set of secular dances; Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694), with an aria, Auf, laßt uns den Herren loben; and Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692), with the concerto Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele. The blurred boundaries between the sacred and secular are quite apparent on this CD – the notion that forms such as the concerto were entirely worldly was yet to emerge – and the elegant expressiveness of all the music is very well conveyed throughout.

     As with J.S. Bach, so with his equally renowned contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose music influenced Bach and was arranged by him. Vivaldi was long associated with the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, but was scarcely the only important musician involved with the famous convent, orphanage and music school – although his accomplishments far overshadowed those of others, both composers and violinists. The intriguingly titled Il Diario di Chiara, which includes a CD of music and a DVD of the eponymous 32-minute film by Lucrezia Le Moli and Fabio Biondi, features works by Vivaldi and six other composers, all within the context of the life of Chiara (or Chiaretta), who was taken into the Ospedale della Pietà after being abandoned at the age of two months – and who rose to become one of the most acclaimed violinists and viola d’amore players in Europe in the middle of the 18th century. The personal diary of Chiara – who was taught by Vivaldi – is the underlying connection among the musical works on this Glossa release, which offers a series of concertos and sinfonias: two by Vivaldi, two by Antonio Martinelli, and one apiece by Giovanni Porta, Nicola Porpora, Gaetano Latilla, Fulgenso Perotti and Andrea Bernasconi. All these composers taught at the Ospedale della Pietà, and all were clearly highly accomplished in creating the music of their time, which is played by Europa Galante with real élan and close attention to period style. None of the pieces here is a particular standout musically, but that is not the point of this release. Three of the works, one of Vivaldi’s and both by Martinelli, are specifically dedicated to “S.ra Chiara,” and all the others are associated with her in one way or another. The recording thus stands as a tribute to an important virtuoso of her time and to the music that swirled around her and that she inspired – and it also serves to show how Vivaldi fit into the musical life of his time and place, just as Meine Seele does for J.S. Bach.

     As the music of Vivaldi’s and J.S. Bach’s time evolved toward the Rococo and then the Classical, one of the primary figures in musical life was Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose middle name was a tribute to his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, who like “old Bach” is considered a grandest-of-the-grand Baroque composer. The transitional nature of C.P.E. Bach’s work, which is more dramatic and intense than the more-mannered Rococo compositions of his time and therefore leads more directly toward the world of the Mannheim Orchestra, Haydn and Mozart, is especially clear in his keyboard works, which have been explored in a wide-ranging and excellently played series from BIS. The 20th and final release in the series in many ways encapsulates C.P.E. Bach’s place in musical history, offering three works for double keyboard: a sonatina and an F major concerto for two harpsichords, plus an E-flat major concerto for harpsichord and the newer fortepiano – the most interesting work on the disc, showing clearly how the composer was trying to move beyond the Baroque models of his father while striving for expressiveness and use of new instrumental combinations within accepted but still-evolving forms. The influence of “old Bach” is still heard here, particularly in some of the virtuosic requirements placed upon the harpsichord, but the musical language is less contrapuntal and more emotionally direct than it generally was in the secular compositions of J.S. Bach – although still several steps from the intensity of later composers’ music.

     The influence of “old Bach” on sacred music was in many ways deeper than his influence on instrumental works, permeating in sensibility, if not necessarily in structure, much later works from differing religious traditions. Thus, there are echoes of Bach’s time, if not directly of any specific work by him, even in the avowedly Catholic Missa and Miserere by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), who is far better known for his writings on music, his adoration of Mozart, and his creation of eerie stories that were enormously influential on composers and dramatists alike in the 19th century, than he is for his own compositions. There are about 85 of those, and although Hoffmann was Lutheran, one-quarter of his pieces are sacred works for use in Catholic worship – including the Missa in D minor and Miserere in B-flat minor that are beautifully performed on a new CPO disc. The Mass – for soloists, four-part choir, strings, organ, woodwinds (excluding flutes and oboes) and brass, with two horns added in some sections – has some small textual departures from the standard form but is otherwise rather conventional in design and approach, looking back toward the Classical era that in turn looked back through C.P.E. Bach to “old Bach.” The Miserere is more impressionistic and stronger in feeling, being more of a Romantic work – and one written almost entirely at a slow pace. Varied instrumentation among the piece’s 11 movements helps provide contrast despite the similar tempo indications and the exclusive use of flat keys. Interestingly, despite the somewhat Romantic feeling of the music – Hoffmann was a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic periods, as C.P.E. Bach was between Baroque and Classical – Hoffmann’s Miserere actually looks directly back through a tradition that stretches to Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere of the early 17th century, before the days of “old Bach,” all the way to that of the Renaissance of Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521). This very well sung disc of Hoffmann’s sacred music not only shows him as a composer of considerable skill but also makes clear the extent to which his time owed a debt to the Baroque and even before.

     Nor does the debt end there, as may be seen in a very fine Signum Records release that includes six world première recordings of choral works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934). The clearest connection between this very modern composer, whose theatricality pervades his music even when it is not overtly written for the stage, and the music of J.S. Bach and other antecedents, is heard on this CD in Three Latin Motets from “The Last Supper” (1999), taken from Birtwistle’s operatic retelling of the Last Supper story through a character meant to represent the audience, and in The Moth Requiem (2012), a work for 12 female voices, three harps and flute that manages to be thoroughly modern-sounding while still evocative of Requiem settings of the past. Birtwistle’s complex music, which often involves juxtaposition of sound blocks and sometimes, especially in earlier pieces such as Carmen Paschale (1965), has a distinctly ritualistic feel, will surely not be to all tastes; but this (+++) disc provides an effective introduction to it – and is particularly well performed. Birtwistle’s music certainly sounds nothing like that of “old Bach” or, for that matter, of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but it does draw on similar themes and reinterpret them through a contemporary lens. The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003), the longest work on the new CD, does so clearly, just as Birtwistle’s very brief Lullaby (2006) and lengthier On the Sheer Threshold of the Night (1980) recall atmospheric music of the past without being directly beholden to any specific work or composer. Those seeking insight into a significant modern British choral composer will find a good deal of it here.

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