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Luthers Lieder
Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano)
Arno Schneider (continuo)
Matthias Ank (organ)
Athesinus Consort Berlin/Klaus-Martin Bresgott
Kammerchor Stuttgart
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Frieder Bernius
rec. July 2016, Christuskirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide;
June 2016, St. Lorenzkirche, Nuremberg; June 2008, Ev. Stadtkirche Schwaigern; 1996/1998, Ev. Kirche Peter und Paul Reutlingen-Gönningen
Full German texts
CARUS 83.469 [76:04 + 72:18]

Carus have got in early this year with the 500th anniversary celebrations of the start of the Reformation, by producing this double CD featuring a compendium of settings of Martin Luther’s chorales or hymns. Those German texts became a central part of Lutheran liturgy, but a quick glance down the list of this programme will reveal that many have become familiar within wider musical culture through the now universally admired output of that greatest of Lutheran musicians, J.S. Bach. But he takes a back seat here, allowing an array of elaborations of the basic chorale tunes to come to the fore to demonstrate how that rich body of hymnody has remained central to Lutheranism through a range of stylistic guises but retaining a distinctive identity underneath the shifts in musical fashion.

The earliest examples come from the pen of Johann Walter, a younger contemporary of Luther, whose two settings here are surprisingly polyphonic, and are sung by the Athesinus Consort Berlin with a refined tranquillity. Barely any musical difference from the post-Tridentine sacred music of Palestrina, for example, may be detected other than that these chorales are in the vernacular German, rather than Latin. Settings trail off between the end of the Baroque era and the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, and only a few, more expansive, works by Mendelssohn and Reger represent the period in between on the second disc.

A number of contemporary settings feature the influence of jazz in their rhythms, and blues in their harmonies, such as those by Christoph Drescher (all the more intriguing as his example is based on the familiar Pentecost plainsong ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’), Jonathan Brell, and Stefan Vanselow, the latter’s ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein’ marked with a repeated note in syncopated rhythm in the soprano register. Close harmony is also a feature of Volker Jaekel’s ‘Ein neues Lied wir heben an’, and again the Athesinus Consort remain unflappable and enthusiastic, not indulging the jazzy idioms too self-consciously but rather upholding a cooler, devotional dignity that still marks out these compositions as suitable for liturgical purposes.

The strophic settings of the chorales on the first disc, and their necessarily limited opportunity for dynamic and motivic variety, mean that it is better sampled in small doses, rather than at a single sitting. The second disc features more sophisticated, through-composed works which use the chorales as a starting point, either for chorus or in a handful of organ chorale preludes by Buxtehude, Bach, and Reger. The latter are relatively well-known, but it is a mark of the scholarly nature of this release that their performances are prefaced by a pristine-voiced rendition of the relevant chorale by Sophie Harmsen, before Matthias Ank plays the organ compositions themselves efficiently, even sometimes vivaciously, on the instrument of the St Lorenzkirche, Nuremberg. The pedal’s reed registration of the chorale as a cantus firmus in the prelude ‘Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam’ is particularly memorable.

The most interesting compositions on the second disc are the chorale cantatas and anthems by Mendelssohn. The two cantatas ‘Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein’ and ‘Wir glauben all an einen Gott’ clearly owe much to Bachian models and, although Mendelssohn uses a bigger orchestra than Bach would have done, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen remain agile and lucid in the often bustling accompaniment. The Kammerchor Stuttgart come into their own in the two largely a cappella motets ‘Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ and ‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ which they sing with diaphanous seamlessness. Bach’s motets are again, surely, the model, but the clarity and breadth of the choral textures of the latter anticipate those by Bruckner. These are works which are hardly ever heard in Britain, and yet ambitious cathedral and college choirs would undoubtedly enjoy the challenge they present, particularly with the high standard of these recordings before them. ‘Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich’ is occasionally encountered in this country with organ accompaniment alone in ecclesiastical contexts, but here it receives a serene performance in its full chamber orchestral version.

This release is professionally presented in book form with extensive notes and information about each chorale. But only the general introduction is also given in English: the rest is offered only in German. Nor is it comprehensive in any sense – the selection of music is not given in chronological order, and the near total omission of anything by Schütz, for example, is glaring. Its usefulness is significantly the greater for those with reasonably competent German, then, but even so the musical recordings alone in this compendium offer a fascinating glimpse into the role of the chorale in German musical culture.

Curtis Rogers
CD 1
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654)
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Sebastian MYRUS (b.1977)
Vom Himmel kam der Engel Char
Johann ECCARD (1553-1611)
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
Jesus Christus, under Heiland, der den Tod überwand
Christ lag in Todesbanden
Christoph DRESCHER (b.1982)
Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Gott
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herr Gott, BWV59/3
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist
Frank SCWEMMER (b.1961)
Sie ist mir lieb, die werte Magd
Gott, der Vater, wohn uns bei
Volker JAEKEL (b.1965)
Ein neues Lied wir heben an
Melchior VULPIUS (1570-1615)
Jesaja, dem Propheten, das geschah
Georg FORSTER (1510-1568)
Wohl dem, der in Gottes Furcht steht
Jonathan BRELL (b.1987)
Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeit
Johann WALTER (1496-1570)
Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort
Jonathan BRELL
Was fürchst du, Feind Herodes, sehr
Johann Sebastian BACH
Jesus Christus, under Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt, BWV363
Stefan VANESLOW (b.1980)
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein
Christum wir wollen loben schon
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
Johann Hermann SCHEIN, Michael PRAETORIUS
Der du bist drei in Einigkeit
Thomas JENNEFELT (b.1954)
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich

CD 2
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Vater unser im Himmelreich, Op. 67
Wir glauben all an einen Gott
Johann Sebastian BACH
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, BWV684
Michael PRAETORIUS, Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl, BuxWV187
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir
Mensch, willst du leben seliglich, BuxWV206
Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit
Johann Sebastian BACH
Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot, BWV678
Mitten wir im Leben sind
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Op. 67
Verleih uns Friden gnädiglich



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