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Music of the Reformation
Martin LUTHER (1483-1546)
Nun bitten wir [0:50]
Mitten wir im Leben sind [1:31]
Nun bitten wir [0:50]
Nun bitten wir [0:50]
Nun bitten wir [0:50]
Durch Adams Fall [0:54]
Mit Fried und Freud [0:43]
Caspar OTHMAYR (1515-1553)
Ein feste Burg a 4 [2:17]
Ein feste Burg Bicinium [1:00]
Ein feste Burg a 4 [2:24]
Verba Lutheri ultima [4:37]
Mitten wir im Leben sind Bicinium [1:55]
Epitaphium D Martin Lutheri [8:54]
Durch Adams Fall Bicinium [1:19]
Mit Fried und Freud [0:57]
Verleih uns Frieden [1:41]
Johann WALTER (1496-1570)
Nun bitten wir [1:46]
Nun bitten wir [1:43]
Nun bitten wir [1:46]
Der christliche Glaub [2:59]
Mitten wir im Leben sind [3:08]
Das Vater unser Vater [2:38]
Durch Adams Fall [2:20]
Mit Fried und Freud [1:03]
Verleih uns Frieden [1:54]
Himlische Cantorey: (Veronika Winter (soprano); Henning Voss (alto); Henning Kaiser (tenor); Jan Kobow (tenor); Ralf Grobe (bass)); Michel Freimuth (lute); Gregor Hollmann (organ)
rec. 28 August, 1-2 September 2003, Markt Nordheim, Schloß Seehaus, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 275-2 [49:12]

This could be a CD of greater historical than musical significance.  It can often be useful to see the state of affairs ‘before and after’ such a major change as the German Reformation: to be immersed for a rather ungenerous 50 minutes or so in the liturgical, poetic and devotional works at its centre contributes to our understanding of how and why the changes that one of the figures on this three-composer CD, Martin Luther, had such a huge impact.
So there is an element of historical explanation; some of the works admirably performed here by the Himlische Cantorey are present for comparative purposes… to hear how each of Luther, Othmayr and Walter treated the likes of Mitten wir im Leben sind, Durch Adams Fall and Mit Fried und Freud is instructive. But the works – and their inspired performances – are more than merely intriguing; they are enjoyable and uplifting in their own right. So, yes, there is a purely historical point to ‘Music of the Reformation’, but it’s also a musically very rewarding CD.
Of course there was a period of half a dozen years or so between the momentous events at Wittenberg in 1517 and the appearance of the first Protestant hymnal in 1523/24. Then there was a veritable flood of all kinds of sacred songs, psalmodies, cantica, cantiones, enchiridions and so on. It’s actually quite surprising that a purely protestant feel and sound was established so quickly – largely thanks to the way in which the German language was substituted for existing Latin texts (contrafactum).
Luther himself, probably familiar with the Flemish repertoire and with Josquin, paid – it seems - little attention to composition until after about 1523, although he was thoroughly educated in musical technique. A chief motivation of his musical work was surely to bring the theology to which he was so devoted straight to believers in the vernacular and in an idiom wholly accessible to them.
Johann Walter, younger than Luther, worked with him to establish a Mass in German form while he was court composer in Saxony; while Caspar Othmayr comes from the second generation being over 30 years Luther’s junior. He held a number of clerical and teaching positions throughout his short life; his collections of hymns show affinity both stylistically with Josquin and philosophically with the achievements of Luther. Some of Othmayr’s music on this disc is exceptionally beautiful and further exploration of his work would pay huge dividends; sadly no CD dedicated exclusively to him is current in the catalogue.
Works by each of these three gentle and intense composers are interleaved on the CD in such a way – generally – that we get up to three successive treatments and versions of the same work. They are low-key and restrained hymn settings; there is not the exuberance or extroversion of a Schütz or Scheidt in the works of Luther and Othmayr in particular. Much less polyphonic writing than was current in the Catholic south at this time. Rather a controlled and inward-looking, intimacy that the members of the Himlische Cantorey bring out very well. They achieve this mainly by an acute attention to tempi and just the right blend of unself-conscious solo virtuosity and ensemble work.
Most of the pieces on this disc consist of performances by between two or three and seven of the soloists accompanied softly and yet expressively by the lute, organ or both. The effect is somewhat magical – a quiet family gathering around the fireside in the twilight to make music to and for their God. That’s not to say that performance techniques are absent or relaxed: listen to the delivery of Jan Kobow (with Gregor Hollmann) when declaiming Othmayr’s Ein Feste Burg, for example; it’s clear, pure and direct with neither spurious understatement and nor undue Puritan reticence. The music’s joy and celebratory elements Himlische Cantorey convey by attention to detail and apt clarity of intonation. This lets what must have sounded like extraordinary piety at the start of the sixteenth century carry the weight of what is a consistently felicitous marriage of words and music.
The acoustic is a rich and reverberant one – the beautiful and isolated Schloß Seehaus in the small Upper Bavarian town of Petting – and adds to the listening experience. The notes and text are reproduced in German, English and French in a simple little booklet, making this a welcome, self-contained addition to a specialist repertoire that will serve several purposes – not least, it ought to send lovers of late German Renaissance choral music in search of more music by these three unpretentious and melodious composers, warmly and professionally presented by Himlische Cantorey.
Mark Sealey


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