Saturday, October 28, 2017

Music of the Reformation

October 31 is Reformation Day - a tradition to commemorate the Reformation which was initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. In recent years a large number of discs have been released at the occasion of the Reformation Year 2017 - the 500th anniversary of this event which changed European history and has had a lasting influence on the development of music. One of the main features was the birth of the 'chorale', as it is generally known. Luther wanted the congregation to sing, and the best way to achieve that was the writing of sacred songs in rhymed metrical verse, either based on texts from the Bible or on free poetry. He himself set an example; some of his hymns have become world-famous. Others followed in his footsteps, and hymns in this tradition are written and set to music up until our time. In addition, many hymns from ancient times - thr 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - have found their way into hymnals across the world, mostly in translations. They have often gone through a process of transition, melodically and rhythmically. As a result they are sometimes hardly recognizable as dating from long ago.

On my site I have reviewed quite a number of discs which were released as part of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation. These mostly included music by composers from the renaissance and baroque periods, such as Michael Praetorius, Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. I have mostly neglected discs with hymns which include settings or arrangements from the 20th and 21st centuries. They don't fit into a site with reviews of early music recordings. However, some are interesting enough to bring them to the attention of music lovers, who are interested in this kind of repertoire. Therefore I decided to review a number of sich discs here.

The probably most remarkable disc is entitled "Praise the Lord - Luther's hymns on their way into the world" [1]. It documents the influence of Luther's chorales in a programme with hymns from Germany, England and the United States. It hardly matters that the commemoration of the Reformation was not the reason for this production. The recordings took place in 2012 and 2013 in connection to the commemoration of the birth of August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), the founder of the orphanage in Halle which was also a centre of music. The orphanage served as an international networking hub for songs and songbooks. Hymns were not only sung in church - in fact, in Germany it took a while before the hymns were sung by the congregation: the first hymnals were printed for school choirs. Hymns were also an important part of domestic music making, among family and friends. Especially among Pietists the singing of hymns was very popular. The Pietists in Halle were also responsible for the translation of hymns to English and their dissemination in England and later to the New World. The House of Hanover, which occupied the English throne in the early 18th century, was an important channel for the dissemination of German hymns as their court preachers were from Germany and took their hymns with them. The programme of this disc goes from Johann Walter (1496-1570) to American spirituals. It would have been better, if the pieces in English had been sung by singers whose native language is English, even though the German singers are doing a respectable job. This is a very interesting and compelling disc which approaches the hymn repertoire from a quite original angle.

The next three discs confine themselves to German music from the 16th century to our time. The Sächsische Kammerchor, directed by Fabian Enders, sing a programme with hymns in the order of the ecclesiastical year [2]. They start with Advent and Christmas, then focus on the Lord's Prayer, sing some hymns for Passiontide and Easter and for Pentecost. They close with some hymns which are specifically associated with Lutheranism: 'Verleih uns Frieden/Gib unsern Fürsten', the funeral hymn 'Mitten wir im Leben sind' and two of Luther's own hymns: 'Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort' and 'Ein feste Burg'. Among the composers we find some old masters - Schein, Hammerschmidt, Scheidt, Schütz, Bach - and some composers of the 20th century, such as Herbert Collum, Günther Raphael and Georg Christoph Biller. Unfortunately the performers take quite some liberties in the performance of the older pieces, especially those by Bach. His chorale settings are mostly taken from cantatas, but then sung a cappella. These are mostly sung in a rather slow tempo, sometimes almost caricatural. In some pieces there are exaggerated dynamic contrasts, which sound very unnatural. As far as I can tell, the modern pieces come off best.

Peter Kopp, the conductor of the Vocal Concert Dresden, made a personal choice of hymns [3]. That was not easy, as he admits: he could have easily filled three discs with 'favourite hymns'. Here we find perfect examples of how some hymns changed considerably over the centuries, sometimes in their melody, but more often rhythmically. Whereas most of the hymns were originally intended for congregational singing, the programme also includes hymns which were written for vocal ensembles or to be sung at home, such as Gott des Himmels und der Erden. Another example is Der Mond ist aufgegangen: the text is by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) and also was probably not intended as a church hymn. It was set by Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747-1800) as a song to be sung with keyboard accompaniment. It was only in the early 20th century that it was included in hymnals. It developed into a much-loved piece and has acquired the status of a folk song. The settings span some four centuries, and the performances also bear witness to the various periods in which these hymns were sung. In some cases a stanza is sung with a full-blooded organ accompaniment, as if a whole congregation is singing. That is the case with Großer Gott, wir loben dich, whereas Nun danket alle Gott (Now all we thank our God) is given in the style of the 19th century. The German chorales are part of a living tradition. That comes to the fore here through the differentiated choice of settings and various styles. Those who love such chorales should not hesitate: this is highly enjoyable recording, with first-class singing by the Dresden Vocal Concert. For those who are not familiar with this kind of repertoire it offers an excellent opportunity to broaden their horizon.

Carus has released a twofer, which includes various recordings from its archive [4]. On the second disc we find several pieces by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. They could hardly be omitted, as he was one of the relatively few composers of the 19th century, who paid much attention to the Lutheran chorale. These pieces are performed by the Kammerchor Stuttgart, directed by Frieder Bernius. Together these five pieces take 40 minutes. That is disappointing for those who have these recordings already in their collection. They are part of a complete recording of Mendelssohn's sacred choral music by Bernius. With the exception of two choral pieces all the other compositions on the second disc are chorale arrangements for organ, among them several which are very well known (Buxtehude, Bach) and are available in many recordings. They are played by Matthias Ank and are introduced by the original chorale, sung unaccompanied by Sophie Harmsen, unfortunately with a lot of vibrato. The first disc is much more interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned. It juxtaposes old settings by - among others - Scheidt, Schein, Walter, Eccard and Vulpius with modern versions from the pen of such composers as Sebastian N. Myrus (*1977), Christoph J. Drescher (*1982) and Volker Jaekel (*1965). It is quite interesting to hear how the various composers treat the material. Whether one likes the modern stuff is a matter of taste. It is not my cup of tea, but others may enjoy it. The performances by the Athesinus Consort, directed by Klaus-Martin Bresgott, are overall pretty good. This disc is definitely the most interesting of this set.

[1] "Praise the Lord: Luther's Hymns on their way through the world" Melanie Hirsch (soprano), Thomas Riede (alto), Henning Kaiser (tenor), Matthias Vieweg (bass), Stadtsingechor zu Halle, Lautten Compagney Berlin/Wolfgang Katschner Carus 83.339 details

[2] "Ein neues Lied wir heben an - Choral works on hymns by Martin Luther" Sächsischer Kammerchor/Fabian Enders Querstand VKJK 1605 details

[3] "Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott - The most beautiful German hymns" Vocal Concert Dresden/Peter Kopp Berlin Classics 0300553BC details; there you'll also find a more comprehensive review.

[4] "Luther's Hymns" Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Matthias Ank (organ), Athesinus Consort Berlin/Klaus-Martin Bresgott; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Frieder Bernius Carus 83.469 (2 CDs) details