is first and foremost known as a pupil of the most famous German
composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz. He wrote some
treatises, which found a wide circulation throughout Germany.
These are generally considered to reflect the views of his teacher.
There was a strong bond between Schütz and Bernhard. In 1670
the old master asked his pupil to compose a motet for his funeral,
and when he received it he was delighted: "My son, he has
done me a great favour by sending me the requested motet. I
don't know how to improve a single note in it."
This testimony of
the German 'musicus poeticus', as Schütz was called, is an indication
of the qualities of Christoph Bernhard as a composer. His career
started when he was singing as an alto at the court in Dresden,
where he was officially appointed in 1649. Shortly thereafter
the court chapel visited the Danish court in Copenhagen, where
he met the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Fontana, who was
in charge of the court chapel at the time, and Bernhard decided
to stay a year there to study with Fontana. At the instigation
of Schütz he was appointed vice-Kapellmeister at the court in
Dresden, and as Schütz was growing older he left more and more
of his duties to his former pupil.
During his years
in Dresden Bernhard had the opportunity to visit Italy twice,
and his contacts with Giacomo Carissimi in Rome were especially
important for his development as a composer. In 1663 he was
invited by Matthias Weckmann - who had been organist at the
court in Dresden and was now active in Hamburg - to apply for
the job of director of the church music there as a successor
of Johann Selle. He got the job and was warmly welcomed in the
city. The collection 'Geistliche Harmonien' which this disc
is partly devoted to, was dedicated to the Hamburg city authorities.
In 1674 he returned to Dresden, where he took up his old job
of vice-Kapellmeister. In 1681 he was appointed Kapellmeister,
a position he held until his death.
The title of this
disc suggests it contains only pieces from the collection 'Geistliche
Harmonien', but in fact just half of the twelve items are from
that collection. I assume the other pieces are from manuscripts,
as no other publication of compositions by Bernhard is known.
The longest work, 'Ich sahe an alles Thun' (track 3), is a funeral
motet he wrote while in Hamburg. The 'Geistliche Harmonien',
although published during Bernhard's time in Hamburg and dedicated
to the city authorities, reflect the musical practice at the
court in Dresden rather than his activities in Hamburg. The
scoring is for one to five voices with basso continuo, mostly
with two additional string parts. This were the kind of pieces
which were performed during dinner at the court in Dresden,
and were also used during religious services.
In some of these
motets the influence of Carissimi shines through in the alternation
of recitative and arioso-like passages. Even more Italianate
is the fourth item on this disc, 'Anima sterilis quid agis',
which is reminiscent of the lamentos in 17th century Italian
opera, and one of whose solo parts is very virtuosic. As one
may expect from compositions in the German rhetorical tradition
there is a lot of text illustration here. Melisma is applied
to words like "Wege" (paths) and "Leben"
(life) (track 1), "Flehen" (beseech) and "harret"
(waits) (track 11). The beginning of the motet 'Heute ist Christus
von den Toten auferstanden' is dominated by an ascending figure
to illustrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The
same happens in the setting of Psalm 130, 'Aus der Tiefe ruf'
ich, Herr, zu dir' (Out of the depths, Lord, I call to you).
A frequently used rhetorical figure at the time, the 'antitheton'
- the opposition of contrasting ideas -, is used in the second
item, a setting of verses from the 18th Psalm, at the text:
"wenn mir Angst ist - so rufe ich den Herren an" (when
I am afraid - I call to the Lord). This must be expected from
someone like Bernhard, whose treatises give much information
about the rhetorical principle of German musical thinking in
the 17th century.
This disc shows
Bernhard is unjustly neglected as a composer. Only very few
of his compositions have been recorded so far, and therefore
this recording is very welcome. In the booklet Bernd Heyder
writes that "the performance of the works by Bernhard recorded
here adheres to his ideas and offers an ensemble constellation
with artists singing in a manner similar to the opera and on
the foundation of an opulent continuo group consisting of plucked,
stringed and keyboard instruments". In his treatises Bernhard
advocates a mixture of the Italian (vocal) style and German
polyphony. Therefore the performance practice on this disc is
certainly in line with this principle. The singers are well
up to the job: all are experts in early music, and German music
in particular, and fully understand its specific features. They
all have very flexible voices, and excellent diction and articulation.
The playing of the instrumentalists is colourful and also based
on a good understanding of the lyrics. The variety in the scoring
of the basso continuo part definitely pays off.
The booklet contains
interesting programme notes and all the lyrics. In track 3 some
stanzas are swapped - I am not sure whether they are just printed
in the wrong order or whether they are performed in another
order than Bernhard has indicated; which would seem rather odd.
This is a very interesting
and musically satisfying recording of some of the best German
sacred music of the 17th century. As there is much more to discover
one can only hope Hermann Max, who is an expert in this kind
of repertoire and who turned 65 last year, is going to stay
healthy and is given the opportunity to delight us with more
of the same.
Johan van Veen