Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Passion in English

Passiontide has come. That means that in many places Passions, and in particular the two Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach, are going to be performed. The recording industry doesn't let this time of the year pass by unnoticed either. One of the most recent releases is a recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion by the ensemble Ex Cathedra, directed by Jeffrey Skidmore (Orchid Classics).

This ensemble has made several fine recordings, but mostly of lesser-known repertoire. From that perspective a recording like this may come as a surprise. It is the recording of a live performance on Good Friday 2009. The peculiarity of this performance is that Bach's Passion is sung on an English text, in a new translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell. "Their aim was to use language close to that currently spoken", according to the liner notes. The Bach expert John Butt is very enthusiastic about the translation, something which I find incomprehensible.

I don't understand the reasoning behind such an undertaking. The booklet says that the translators believe a translation like theirs "would more effectively communicate the Passion narrative". It is worthwhile to translate the lyrics of the original as accurately as possible, in order to communicate the content to an audience which doesn't understand German. But in this case the translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music. And that causes all sorts of problems.

In many respects we notice here the same problems as in Ton Koopman's reconstruction of Bach's St Mark Passion. Here the problems are even greater because of the difference in language. In general the music and the English text just don't match. In some recitatives there are more notes than text, and parts of the text have to be repeated. Bach never does so in his recitatives. Often the problem is solved by melismas on syllables or words - again, something Bach hardly ever does in his recitatives. In other cases the problem is the opposite: there is too much text for the music, and that is 'solved' by splitting a note into two.

The effect of the repetition of "bin ich's" by the various voices, representing the disciples (no 9) is strongly reduced in the translation: "Lord, is it me?" The power of the closing word "schlug" in the chorus "Weissage uns, Christe, wer ist's, der dich schlug" is taken away as in the translation the last note has to be split on the words "struck you" (no 36).

There are also a number of passages where images in the original text have disappeared. The accompanied recitative 'Du lieber Heiland du' (no 5) has been translated in such a way that the picture of the believer dropping a tear on Jesus' head has disappeared and with it the connection to the woman pouring ointment on Jesus' head.

Bach's text also contains connections which are not specified and left to the 'informed believer'. An example is the picture of the dove in the accompanied recitative 'Am Abend da es kühle war' (no 64), where Bach just suggests a connection to the dove returning to Noah after the Flood. The translators felt the need to spell it out: "At evening homeward turned the dove. Her olive-leaf showed floods receding". In the closing chorus 'Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder' the translation says: "At your grave, O Jesu blest, may we in our sad dejection find the hope of resurrection". But the St Matthew Passion doesn't refer to the resurrection, at least not in the free poetic texts. And that is not without a reason.

There is more, like the fact that some accompanied recitatives don't rhyme, that the translation is inconsistent in using "me" and "us" in these recitatives and that the translation of a number of chorales moves too far away from the original. I could go on, but I'll save that for my forthcoming review on Musicweb International and on musica Dei donum. I'll also explain there why the performance - apart from the issue of the language - is pretty dreadful.

Sure, in many ways the translators have done a fine job and there are several passages where they have translated the original quite well. But this translation is meant to be sung on Bach's music, and there it fails to convince.

As a matter of fact Bach's St Matthew Passion is every inch German, and the English translation violates the very character of Bach's music. The two languages are pretty much each other's opposites. This recording show once again: English is English and German is German and never the twain shall meet.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sweelinck and the Genevan Psalter

The Reformation of the 16th century wasn't only a theological, but also a liturgical revolution. As an Antwerp refugee in the 16th century wrote from Calvinist Strasbourg: "Here, everyone sings, all sing together, men as well as women, and everyone has a book in hand". Despite the differences between the German reformer Martin Luther and his French counterpart Jean Calvin they had two things in common in regard to liturgy. They wanted the whole congregation to sing rather than a selective number of professional musicians, and they wanted the congregation to sing in the vernacular.

This was a clean break with a tradition of many centuries in which chants in Latin were sung by professional singers - only men - and the congregation kept silent. The result was a large number of hymns and metrical psalms which were written and composed by poets and composers of fame. Strangely enough the German hymns are much better known than the metrical psalms which were collected in the Genevan Psalter, printed in 1562.

But music lovers know more melodies from the Genevan Psalter than they may realise. The French metrical psalms were translated into German by Ambrosius Lobwasser, and several melodies have become famous, largely due to the fact that they have been used by composers like Bach. Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele is the Genevan melody of Psalm 42. The probably most famous of them all is O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which is Psalm 68 in the Genevan Psalter. This collection also contains some hymns, one of which is a metrical version of the Ten Commandments. Its melody has been used for the German hymn Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, best known from Bach's organ chorale Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit.

In addition the melodies of various Psalms have been derived from gregorian chant. Psalm 141, for instance, is based on the early-medieval hymn Conditor alme siderum. And one of the best-known sequences of the old church, Victimae paschali laudes, returns in the Genevan melody of Psalm 80.

The close connection between the Genevan Psalter and the German hymns on the one hand and the gregorian chant on the other hand indicates that those who state that the melodies of the Genevan Psalter are easy stuff and of little musical value just don't know what they are talking about.

If it was, why would a composer of the class of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck make the effort to set all of them polyphonically? And he was just one who used the melodies of the Genevan Psalter for his compositions. French composers of fame of the late 16th century also wrote music on these melodies, among them Paschal de l'Estocart and Clément Janequin. There is really no reason why the repertoire which is based upon the Genevan Psalter, should be ignored. But that is the reality nevertheless. Very few recordings have been devoted to this repertoire. Even Sweelinck's settings are not very well represented on disc.

That is going to change. The Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp, is devoting itself to a project of recording the complete vocal works of Sweelinck, called the Sweelinck Monument. The secular music has been recorded and recently the first volume of the Psalms has been released. For the time being these recordings are only available on the Dutch market, but they will appear on the international market at a later time.

This project cannot be valued enough. The quality of the music is first-rate, and historically Sweelinck's Psalm settings are important as they are the last specimens of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated European sacred music for such a long time. The madrigalisms which Sweelinck uses to depict elements in the text, reflect the influence of the Italian music of around 1600. As one may expect from the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, the performances are of the highest standard, with observation of what we know about the performance practice in Sweelinck's days, for instance in regard to temperament. As we know who the first singers of these Psalms were there can be no doubt that they were performed with one voice per part, and that is how the ensemble performs them. In the interest of those who are not familiar with the Genevan Psalter every setting by Sweelinck is preceded by the original melody.

This project testifies that the Genevan Psalter is musically valuable and should be given more attention to. I have grown up with these Psalms and still sing them every week in church. But it is worrying, and - listening to the settings by Sweelinck and others - simply incomprehensible that more than a few people are willing to exchange them for that dreadful revivalist stuff. Maybe the Sweelinck project will give them food for thought.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Leiden Choirbooks

The Dutch city of Leiden has a unique treasure which is preserved in the medieval Pieterskerk (St Peter's Church). It is a set of books called the 'Leiden Choirbooks'. These contain music to be sung during the many daily liturgical events. Originally there were eight books, but two have been lost. The remaining six books are building Europe's largest collection of liturgical music linked together.

So far this collection has been ignored almost completely, even though some of the main composers of the renaissance are represented, like Jacobus Clemens non Papa, Thomas Crequillon and Josquin Desprez, and also a composer like Jean Richafort who today isn't very well known, but whose music was widely disseminated throughout the 16th century. The choirbooks also contain a number of pieces which are not known from any other source, by Gombert and Mouton but also by little-known masters.

The Leiden Choirbooks are the subject of a voluminous project of the Dutch Egidius Kwartet, a vocal quartet which sings repertoire from all periods in music history, but especially from the renaissance. This project includes the publication of a modern edition, a series of concerts and a recording of a large selection from the choirbooks. The quartet will be extended by additional singers for the concerts and recordings.

Over the next six years every year a series with concerts will take place with music from one of the six books. Simultaneously a larger selection from that book will be recorded on two discs, to be released on Et'cetera. So at the end of the project a large part of the choirbooks will be available on 12 discs in total.

In addition the ensemble makes itself available for presentations, workshops etc which should make this important source of liturgical music from the renaissance more widely known.

A special site is devoted to this important project. The index contains two videos, one with fragments from a rehearsal of the ensemble, and one in which its artistic director, Peter de Groot, tells about the choirbooks and the project (Dutch with English subtitles). If you click on 'The Leiden Choir Books The Project' at the top of the page you will be lead to more pages with information in English.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Graupner Renaissance

It seems we are in the middle of a real Graupner renaissance. For many years hardly any attention was paid to his music. It was in the 1980s that Helmut Müller-Brühl recorded some works by Graupner with his Capella Clementina. And over the years some more recordings have been released. But he never was a name which regularly appeared in the programmes of chamber music ensembles or baroque orchestras. In recent years his music is put on the map, though, in particular by the German musicologist and keyboard player Siegbert Rampe, who recorded some instrumental music with his ensemble Nova Stravaganza. His colleague Hermann Max has performed some sacred music. And the activities of the Canadian harpsichordist Geneviève Soly have to be mentioned with honour.

Last Tuesday I attended a concert of the Holland Baroque Society and the German recorder player Dorothee Oberlinger. On the programme was music by Telemann and Graupner. This combination makes sense as they were lifelong friends and many of Telemann's orchestral overtures are preserved thanks to copies made at the court in Darmstadt where Graupner was working the most part of his life. Telemann's music is part of the standard repertoire of baroque orchestras nowadays, but even in his oeuvre uncommon pieces can be discovered. But the focus was on Graupner, as he is the great unknown to most people. On my site you will find a review of that concert.

It isn't easy to get a grip on his music. Even after repeated listening to a piece from his pen it is hardly possible to whistle or sing some motifs as one so easy does with music by Telemann or Bach. This is due to the fact that Graupner has a particular musical language which isn't comparable to that of any other composer. And his music also has a kind of mosaic character, consisting of a sequence of short motifs in apparently random order.

One of the works by Graupner which was played during the concert was the Overture for recorder, strings and bc in F. This has also been recorded by Dorothee Oberlinger and her Ensemble 1700, conducted by Reinhard Goebel. A review of this disc will be published on my site in due course. There you will also find some other recent discs with music by Graupner, and if I am not mistaken this is only the beginning of what can be called a Graupner renaissance.

His music deserves it and there is every reason to look forward to more unknown treasures from his large oeuvre.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It is very likely everyone who loves early music has at least some discs in his collection with Italian madrigals. It is a quite popular genre among vocal ensembles which specialize in early music, and this kind of repertoire is also regularly performed on the concert platform. But only a small proportion of what has been written is performed and/or recorded.

The repertoire is huge. In the decades around 1600 large numbers of madrigals were written. I remember Anthony Rooley, about 20 years ago, saying that he could easily record one collection of first-rate Italian madrigals every week for the rest of his life. The fact that many composers of madrigals are forgotten is due to the fact that they have drowned in the sea of what was written in that time.

Recently a website has been launched which is completely devoted to the Italian madrigal, The author, Martin Morell, has announced his website in the Usenet newsgroup It seems first and foremost meant for (amateur) singers who would like to perform madrigals. There is a lot of information about the Italian madrigal, and if one registers it is possible to download scores, midi-files as well as texts and translations, free of charge.
But regular listeners to Italian madrigals could find this site also very useful. Apart from information about the genre there is some specific background information about Il Pastor Fido by Battista Guarini, which was used by so many composers as a source for madrigals. Also useful is a synopsis of the plot of this 'pastoral tragicomedy'.

I am not in the position to assess the reliability of the information which is given on this site, so I leave that to the experts. But from the personal information of the author one may gather that he has spent considerable time in Italy to study the sources.
I recommend anyone with a special interest in Italian madrigals to have a look at this site. I am sure the author will appreciate any useful and constructive comment.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Voice of Furio Zanasi

During more than 40 years of listening to early music it has often struck me how little influence the quality of the human voice has on the quality of a performance. I have heard voices which appealed to me because of their sheer beauty, but then the interpretation of the music left me completely cold or was even outright annoying. No, I'm not going to name names.

The opposite also happens. I have heard voices which I am not inclined to call "beautiful", but because the singer is using his material so intelligently and so much submits himself to what the composer requires from the interpreter I can only bow and admire what he is doing.

I just happened to meet such a singer - on disc, that is. The Italian baritone Furio Zanasi is a well-known singer who has worked with many conductors, not just from the early music scene, but also from the world of 19th-century music. But his main interest seems to be early music, and in particular Italian repertoire. Recently he has recorded a disc, called 'La voce di Orfeo', with the ensemble La Chimera, directed by Eduardo Egüez (Naïve). A comprehensive review is going to appear on MusicWeb International and later on my own site in due course, but I would like to point out how great that disc is.

The programme revolves around Francesco Rasi, one of the most celebrated singers from the the time of Monteverdi, who participated in almost every opera performance in the first decades of the 17th century, including Monteverdi's Orfeo. The main thing his contemporary Giulio Caccini asked from a singer was what he called recitar cantando, a speechlike way of singing. If one wants to know what exactly this is, listen to this disc. Zanasi just comes up with really brilliant performances of pieces by Monteverdi, Caccini, d'India and Rasi himself. It is so great to hear a singer who is able to apply the right ornaments, who can sing a trillo properly and who understands that the messa di voce was an important tool of early 17th-century singers.

This year is just one month old, but I know for sure that this disc is going to be one of my records of the year.