Nearly eighty Christmas Cantatas are preserved in the Gdansk
library. They come from two specific churches in the city, the
vast majority from St John’s, and nine from St Catherine’s.
The composers were all either German or immersed in German musical
traditions, amongst whom Telemann takes a prominent place, contributing
nearly a third of the works. Other leading contributors invariably
include the Kapellmeisters who served the city, men such as
Johann Balthasar Christian Freislich, and Johann Gotthold Siewert.
Others are anonymous works.
Two of the composers in this disc lived and worked in the city
– Johann Jeremias du Grain and Johann Daniel Pucklitz – whilst
Johann Theodor Roemhildt probably never even visited Gdansk,
but his music was widely performed there. This last composer
came from Thuringia, studied under Johann Jacob Bach, and worked
in Meresburg where he became court Kapellmeister in 1731. He
was a prolific writer of cantatas, composing no fewer then 236.
Kommt, ihr Herzen, kommt ihr Lippen (1727) is a sprightly
compact work with a ‘bugle’ concertante role and confident writing
for a pair of horns in the fifth movement duet, which is the
best movement by some distance. Nun danket alle Gott
is an urgent, appealing work, half the size of its companion
cantata, and revealing again Roemhildt’s highly competent absorption
of prevailing stylistic conventions in such music. The performances
are rather uneven with technical uncertainties in the soloists’s
Pucklitz (1705-1774) left cantatas, oratorios and masses. His
cantata Freue dich Danzig was written for none other
than Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, of Variations fame. A city musician,
he was highly active in its musical life and we hear two of
his eight surviving Christmas cantatas. In Ist jemand in
Christo the male alto Jan Medrala displays a quite graphic
example of two-voiced singing, sounding like a counter-tenor
one minute and a mezzo the next. I had to check it was him all
the way through. He is not unappealing actually, but it’s certainly
not the kind of virtuosic, even florid sound to be found from
Americans in this kind of repertoire nor the imaginative but
sometimes hooty English sound either. Denen zu Zion wird
ein Erlöser kommen, despite its brevity, is an attractive
Du Grain (d.1756) was not a local musician, and studied in Hamburg
under the tutelage of Telemann. He became organist at St. Elizabeth’s
in Gdansk. Five religious pieces have survived the years, of
which Wilkommen, Erlöser der Erden seems to be a representative
example. It shows very clearly a Telemann influence and is one
of the most confident and attractive of all these works with
its ceremonial brass, and fine bass solo – here a bit touch-and-go
in performance terms. This is the only piece to have been recorded
before. Everything else is heard in apparently premiere recordings.
Finally there is Friedrich Christian Mohrheim (c.1719-1780)
whose Preise Jerusalem den Herrn is the longest of the
six cantatas in the disc. Mohrheim had taken lessons from J.S.
Bach in Leipzig and became one of the copyists of the older
man’s music. He was appointed Kapellmeister if Gdansk’s city
council ensemble in 1764. Thirteen cantatas have survived. This
one is written for five voice choir, soloists, and orchestra.
One can immediately sense a really confident handling of the
vocal writing. The Chorales have Bachian strength, the extensive
recitative – unusually so in the context of the other works
- is well sustained, and the whole work in fact makes a splendid
impression. The band plays pretty well, the arias once again
though less impressive.
This is the thing about this interesting disc. The ensemble
is decent, sometimes a lot more, but the solo singing is very
variable indeed. Its occasional fallibility doesn’t obscure
the cantatas’s strengths and points of interest, but it doesn’t
always help to enhance them either.