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Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress is our God)
Chorales, Motets and Sacred Concertos based on Martin Luther's Songs
Instrumenta Musica
Chamber Choir of the Frauenkirche Dresden/Matthias Grünert
rec. 19-21 March 2013 (vocal), 23 November 2014 (organ), Frauenkirche, Dresden
RONDEAU ROP6074 [69.01]

This CD, as can be seen above, consists of a variety of pieces, most of them tiny, based on or around the seven choral melodies listed. The composers are in part contemporaries of Martin Luther (1483-1546) but several lived in the 16th, 17th or even the 18th centuries.

It can often be forgotten that Martin Luther was not only a reforming figure of the German Protestant Church pinning his famous articles to the church door at Wittenberg but that he was also a musician of no little experience and had also been a boy chorister at Mansfeld. He certainly wrote melodies like Ein Feste Burg but these others are, more than likely, also by him. Only a couple of months ago I was at an evening service at a church in Bavaria where I was thrilled to be lustily singing Ein Feste Burg with the enthusiastic congregation proving that these old hymns live on.

Luther’s contemporaries were men like Johann Walter (d.1570) who probably only helped with or harmonised the melodies in their original form. Dr. Thomas Rheindorf in one of the essays writes about Luther’s expertise also as a poet and in the writing of chorale texts. He romantically comments that some texts demonstrate that “passions and feelings seem to rise up in the poet’s soul”. However it was later composers who really put these tunes on the map: J. S. Bach for one and even an earlier, Michael Praetorius. Indeed it was the conductor Matthias Grünert’s special aim here to highlight Praetorius’ role in the dissemination of the chorales. In the other essay in the booklet Ruprecht Langer writes that “As the son of a preacher who in turn was a pupil of the great church song poet Johann Walter, Praetorius had a focused eye on the intimacy of the congregation and the significance of the textual content”. So what we have recorded here are several sacred concertos by Praetorius featuring, obviously a group of soloists. There are also motets featuring the choir alone and dances from Praetorius's well-known collection entitled ‘Terpsichore’.

Each of the seven sections incorporates six tracks and based on one of the chorales spans out as follows. First, an organ chorale generally by Scheidt, a friend and colleague of Praetorius, then a motet followed by a sacred concerto. After this comes a choral harmonisation and that is followed by another organ version. Each section ends with a brief dance by Praetorius.

The chorales used extend across the church year. Nun komm translates as ‘Now come Saviour of the gentiles recognised as the child of the virgin’. Vom Himmel Hoch is also a Christmas hymn; Gelobet seist is a hymn of praise also for Christmas. Christ lag in Todes Banden is for Holy Week or Lent. Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott is for Pentecost or Whitsunday. Vater unser Im Himmelreich is a prayer newly composed by Luther but based on the Lord’s Prayer “Confirm our faith and hope in thee”. Ein Feste Burg is a general hymn of faith in God’s strength and love.  The disc is therefore planned in a fascinating and unique way.

The choir sound typically of their area and nation. I love the clarity of their intonation and diction as well as their balance. Women sing the treble line throughout and they must be at least thirty strong. The instrumental group consists of nine players including organ, brass and strings and they accompany the concerti movements. It's good that they have an opportunity to show themselves off in the delightful performances of the dances. The soloists are adequate although often fail to bring the concerti quite to life. Whereas the church acoustic helps the choir this effect does not extend to the soloists singing against the instrumental background.

Inside the booklet is a photo of what is really an excellent parish choir peeking out from underneath blue umbrellas. There is also a worthwhile but curious double central page spread drawing attention to the ‘Endowment for the preservation of Church monuments in Germany’ - no less of a concern there than it is in the UK.

The two essays are mostly well translated and the texts are given in German and English in a sensible translation by Frederick Hedge. There are biographies and photos.

All in all a really intriguing and pleasurable collection of German early baroque pieces.

Gary Higginson

Track listing
Tracks 1-6 Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland
Tracks 7-12 Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her
Tracks 13-18 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
Tracks 19-24 Christ lag in Todesbanden
Tracks 25-30 Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott
Tracks 31-36 Vater under im Himmelreich
Tracks 37-42 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott


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