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Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott - The loveliest German hymns
Detailed track-list at end of review
Vocal Concert Dresden/Peter Kopp
Sebastian Knebel (organ)
rec. 27 April-1 May 2013, church of Polditz, near Leisnig, Saxonia, Germany. DDD
Texts and translations included
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300553BC [71:47]

Many readers will recognize a number of titles on this disc. Various hymns are included in the cantatas and Passions of Bach and in sacred works by other composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They also turn up in music of later centuries. If one doesn't recognize a title, several melodies will be familiar as they have found their way into hymn books in other countries. These include Ein feste Burg and Nun danket alle Gott.
Hymns like these are seldom performed on the concert stage, unless they are integrated in larger-scale works. They were not meant for that purpose but neither were Bach's cantatas. One reason could be that the performance of simple hymns is considered not very interesting, even boring. This disc proves the opposite. It may be that some singers think that such hymns are a piece of cake. They aren’t: I have heard many recordings of cantatas in which the performance of the chorales is unsatisfying or even completely misses the point.
Some time ago I reviewed a similar disc by the German ensemble Stimmwerck (review). This disc is different in that the hymns are sung by a choir rather than an ensemble of solo voices. The range of settings is also wider: Stimmwerck confined itself to settings of the 16th and early 17th centuries, whereas Peter Kopp includes settings of the 20th century and even contributed one of his own. This bears witness to the fact that these hymns are very much part of a living tradition.
The choice of hymns was not easy, as Kopp admits in his liner-notes. He could easily have filled three discs with 'favourite hymns'. In the end his choice was personal; he gives his reasons for the selection of these hymns in the booklet. The various settings show that some hymns changed considerably over the centuries, sometimes in their melody, but more often rhythmically. O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden is a striking example. The melody was written by Hans-Leo Hassler to an amorous secular text which explains the rhythm which seems at odds with the sacred text. Everyone knows Bach's setting in his St Matthew Passion where the rhythm is almost completely equalised.
Most of these hymns were meant to be sung by a congregation. There are also some which were written for use by vocal ensembles or to be sung at home, such as Gott des Himmels und der Erden and Wie lieblich ist der Maien. 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 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. Settings by composers of the 17th century are sung by the choir, sometimes with organ accompaniment. Now and then a stanza is performed by a soloist, supported by the organ. Der Mond ist aufgegangen receives a more romantic interpretation. O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf is sung in settings of the 20th century which are quite different from the older settings of other hymns. However, some settings of that time are close to the older pieces, especially those by Rudolf Mauersberger. In dir ist Freude is interesting; it was originally a dancing-song. Here the dance rhythm is retained but Kopp rightly wonders "how fast congregations sang the hymn at the time". 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: just like the recording by Stimmwerck this is highly enjoyable, 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.

Johan van Veen

Johann CRÜGER (1598-1662)
Nun lasst uns Gott, dem Herren [1:46]
Jacob PRAETORIUS (1586-1651)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme [3:40]
Bartholomäus GESIUS (1562-1613)/Fritz DIETRICH (1905-1945)
Befiehl du deine Wege [3:00]
Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611)/Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott [3:30]
Johann Georg EBELING (1647-1676)
Du meine Seele, singe [2:08]
Heinrich ALBERT (1604-1651)
Gott des Himmels und der Erden [2:04]
anon (1648)/Rudolf MAUERSBERGER (1889-1971)
O Gott, du frommer Gott [3:47]
Melchior VULPIUS (1570-1615)
O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß [3:03]
anon (c1150/1529)
Christ ist erstanden [1:41]
Michael PRAETORIUS/Gustav SCHOEDEL (1897-1965)
Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist [2:30]
Georg NEUMARK (1621-1681)/Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten [3:00]
anon (1668/1776/1819)
Großer Gott, wir loben dich [2:29]
Johann Sebastian BACH/Max REGER (1873-1916)/Rudolf MAUERSBERGER
Jesus, meine Zuversicht [4:07]

Schönster Herr Jesu [3:06]
Hans Leo HASSLER (1564-1612)/Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden [4:27]
Johann CRÜGER/Johann Georg EBELING
Auf, auf, mein Herz, mit Freuden [2:33]
Giovanni Giacomo GASTOLDI (c1556-1622)
In dir ist Freude [1:28]
Johannes WEYRAUCH (1879-1977)/Hans-Friedrich MICHEELSEN (1902-1973)/Günther RAPHAEL (1902-1960)/Franz BEYER (*1922)
O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf [2:26]
Martin LUTHER (1483-1546)/Hans Leo HASSLER/Johannes ECCARD

Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [2:13]
Johann WALTER (1496-1570)/Caspar OTHMAYR (1515-1553)/Hans Leo HASSLER

Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn [3:08]
Philipp NICOLAI (1556-1608)/Johann Hermann SCHEIN

Wie schön leuchte der Morgenstern [4:25]
Martin RINCKART (1586-1649)
Nun danket alle Gott [2:39]
Peter KOPP (*1967)
Wie lieblich ist der Maien [1:41]
August HARDER (1775-1813)/Gustav GUNSENHEIMER (*1934)
Geh aus, mein Herz, und suche Freud [2:46]
Adolf SEIFERT (1902-1945)
Der Mond ist aufgegangen [3:56]