The German label CPO has a long tradition of producing recordings
devoted to largely forgotten repertoire from 17th-century Germany.
A couple of years ago it started a series under the title 'Musica
sacra Hamburgensis 1600-1800'. Hamburg
was a prosperous city, and that was reflected in the level of
music-making, both sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental.
So there is plenty to choose from to be recorded as part of this
series. The present disc with music by Johann Philipp Förtsch
was announced in an earlier volume as "Opera in the Church"
- an intriguing characterisation. But what exactly is the reason
Most music-lovers know that Hamburg was an important centre of opera.
In fact, the Hamburg Opera was the first public opera house
north of the Alps. It was founded in 1678. One of the remarkable
things about it is that one of its founding fathers was a
church musician: Johann Adam Reincken, organist of St Katharinen.
At the time of its founding Johann Philipp Förtsch was working
as a tenor in the chapel of the city under the director of
music, Joachim Gerstenbüttel. He was not from northern Germany
having been born in Wertheim in Franken. He probably received
his musical education from Johann Philipp Krieger in Bayreuth.
The first signs of his presence in Hamburg date from 1674.
In the 1680s he played an important role in the opera. First
writing several opera librettos he then composed no fewer
than twelve operas himself. It is a great shame that almost
all music written for the Hamburg Opera during the first ten
years of its existence has been lost; and that includes all
of Förtsch's operas. Fortunately about eighty of his sacred
compositions have been preserved, and they give some idea
of his talents as a composer of musical drama.
A considerable number of his sacred works are written in the form of
a dialogue. That in itself is nothing special: many composers
of church music made use of this form, as the Bible contains
numerous passages in which a dialogue takes place. In Germany
it was used, for instance, by Heinrich Schütz; examples are
the Easter dialogue between Jesus and Mary of Magdalene and
the dialogue between the 12-year old Jesus and his parents
in the temple. It is no surprise, though, that the dialogue
form was especially popular in Italy, the country of opera.
It comes as no surprise that those German composers who had
a special affinity with opera also liked to turn to this form.
If indeed Johann Philipp Krieger had been Förtsch's teacher
it is probably through him that Förtsch underwent the influence
of the Italian dramatic style.
In the case of Förtsch that means that passages which do not naturally
lend themselves to dialogue are extended with free texts in
order to enhance the drama. A good example is the stoning
of St Stephen. In the Acts of the Apostles we find a long
speech by St Stephen which ends with some sharp accusations
against the Jews. They react angrily and then stone him. It
is interesting to see how Förtsch treats this episode. The
piece begins with a free poetic text: "He who loves Jesus
must stand ready for all torments and bear his cross after
him; he must like Stephen shed his blood if he would enjoy
heaven's bliss." Then the first of the two accusations
of St Stephen is quoted: "You stiff-necked men, uncircumcised
in hearts and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit, like
your fathers, so you too." In the Bible the second accusation
follows immediately, but here it is followed by reactions
of the Jews. One person (alto) is saying: "This man does
not cease to speak blasphemy against this holy place and the
law". Two others (tenor and bass) add: "We have
heard him speaking blasphemy against Moses and against God".
Then together they scream: "Away with him, stone him".
These are not quotations from the Bible, because in this episode
it only recounts that the people react angrily to St Stephen's
accusations; neither are the people or any individual person
quoted. So these speaking parts are introduced for purely
dramatic reasons. Then St Stephen's second accusation is quoted:
"What prophets have your fathers not persecuted and slain,
the prophets who once proclaimed the coming od this Righteous
Man, whose betrayers and murderers you have become."
Then tenor and bass enter again, saying: "We have heard
him say: Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place that Moses
has given us". The three singers are repeating: "Away
with him, stone him." When St Stephen says that he sees
the heaven opened and Jesus sitting at God's right hand, they
again ask for him to be stoned. At this moment free poetry
is introduced again: the soprano sings: "O evil world,
(...) you do not cease to grieve the Most High, until his
wrath is thoroughly aroused". Then St Stephen's last
words before dying are extended to another stanza of free
poetry. Next follows a quotation from the Bible: "The
righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart."
The piece closes with a quotation from the apocryphal book
Wisdom of Solomon: "But the souls of the righteous are
in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them."
In the booklet Konrad Küster characterises Förtsch's treatment
of biblical text thus: "For his compositions the Bible
texts were redesigned so that they could assume the character
of opera libretti, with the early experiences of the Hamburg
Opera evidently serving as a source of inspiration here".
'Ihr Sünder, tretet bald herzu' is about Jesus' parable of the Pharisee
and the Publican. This is hardly material for a dialogue,
as in the parable there is no interaction between them. But
by intermingling their respective prayers - "I fast twice
a week, I give the tenth of all I have" and "God,
have mercy on me, a sinner" - the contrast between the
two persons is considerably enhanced. In between are the comments
of Jesus: "He who humbles himself shall be exalted".
Other subjects of dialogue are the Annunciation to Mary by the archangel
(Du Heiden Trost), the message to Jesus from St John the Baptist
(Die Wunder sind zu groß) and the parable of the rich man
and Lazarus (Mensch, was du tust). In addition to the dialogs
there are three Psalm settings: Herr, wie lange willst du
mein so gar vergessen (Psalm 13), Aus der Tiefe (Psalm 130),
Wohl dem, der nicht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen (Psalm 1).
The second item, 'Kommt, lasset uns gehen gen Bethlehem' is
a sacred concerto, a mixture of dictum (biblical quotation)
and free poetry about the shepherds going to Bethlehem to
see the new-born Jesus.
As one would expect, vocal and instrumental parts express the text
and its content in an eloquent way. Variety of pitch, repeating
of phrases, sudden pauses, coloraturas - every tool composers
had at their disposal is used to communicate the message of
The performances by the Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata have been recorded
live, but there are hardly any background noises, and technically
the level of the performances is impressive. As far as the
interpretation is concerned, Roland Wilson has brought together
an almost ideal team of singers. Everyone of them gives outstanding
performances of their respective parts. It should be noted,
by the way, that in the dialogues the various roles are not
given names - just the type of voice. Wilson has also done
a fine job in the distribution of the various roles among
the singers. The instrumentalists deliver strong contributions
to the drama as well. The overall approach of these compositions
is the key to their communicative power.
I have some critical comments to make, though. I noted several discrepancies
between the texts as they are sung and as they are printed
in the booklet. Partly this is most likely the result of a
'modernization' of the text. For instance, in Psalm 13 the
first line is printed as "wie lange wiltu mein so gar
vergessen", but it is sung as "willst du".
And in the same Psalm "für dir" is modernized as
"vor dir" - according to the modern rules of grammar.
I find this rather odd. I also don't understand it, because
I have never noticed anything like this in previous recordings
by these ensembles.
But I also noted some apparent slips of the tongue. For instance, in
Psalm 130: "Denn bei dir ist Vergebung, dass man dich
fürchte" - "For with you there is forgiveness that
one may fear you". But instead of "dich" we
In the dialogue about Lazarus and the rich man the line "Die allhier
mit Lust und Scherzen" (that here for mirth and pleasure)
has become "Lust und Schmerzen" (mirth and pains).
Even in the case of a live recording this should have been
corrected afterwards. Maybe a studio recording would have
been preferable after all.
There is a painful error in the programme notes in regard to the dialogue
about the Pharisee and the Publican. The descriptions of the
respective parts have been swapped: it is said that the latter
is "pious on the outside", but that is how the Bible
and Förtsch's dialogue describe the Pharisee! I would have
expected the booklet text to be proofed before printing but
perhaps the proofreader overlooked it.
These errors in no way diminish my appreciation and admiration for
this release. They are however serious blots on a historically
very interesting and musically enthralling disc. It is sad
that far too many CPO productions are damaged by sloppiness
in the production department.