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Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
Complete Sacred Works - Volume II
Lobe den Herren, meine Seele [11:11]
Christ lag in Todes Banden [8:47]
Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei [17:12]
Lobe den Herren, meine Seele [12:31]
Schmücket das Fest mit Maien [17:18]
Opelia Musica, camerata lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer
rec. 2013/2015, St. Georgen, Rötha, Germany
CPO 555 020-2 [67:24]

Kuhnau is mostly known as J. S. Bach’s predecessor for twenty-one years at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. Like Bach, he was a keyboard virtuoso, and there are several recordings of his Biblical Sonatas and his Fresh Fruits for the Clavier. Kuhnau probably wrote as much music as Bach, although his fate was to become an “unknown” composer. Kuhnau was also an author of satirical novels, so he might have appreciated the irony. His reputation was weakened by a feud with the young Telemann, who successfully (if inaccurately) branded Kuhnau as an enemy of musical progress. Nor was the case for Kuhnau helped by the fact that much of his choral music was lost, with only some thirty cantatas surviving. One of these was mistakenly attributed to Bach, the former Cantata No 142 Uns ist ein Kind geboren, which gives a clue that Kuhnau’s music might actually be of interest.

This recording is a welcome second volume in a series dedicated to reviving interest in Kuhnau from Gregor Meyer, the Opelia Musica, and the camerata lipsiensis (review of Volume I). The performances are small in scale, but not in spirit. Opelia Musica consists of 4 voices (SATB), and the camerata lipsiensis has fifteen instrumentalists. Their performances are clear and clean, with a strong rhythmic sense and interesting timbres. I wonder what sonorities a somewhat larger group might elicit from this music, but these versions are very satisfying.

Kuhnau worked in an era of considerable musical change, just before the consolidation of high baroque musical conventions. His works, most of which are undated, contain much stylistic variety, as German religious music moved from the Sacred Concertos of Heinrich Schütz to the type of cantata associated with Bach.

These differences are highlighted on this disc in two different cantatas called Lobe den Herren, meine Seele. The earlier work features brief contrasting sections, with accompanying instruments echoing the Venetian models, which were popularized by Schütz. The second setting is organized into the recitative and aria format of the early Eighteenth Century. Accompanying instruments are treated differently, as well, with an outstanding oboe d’amore joining alto and bass in a gentle duet on the Lord’s compassion and grace. The final movement is a stirring Alleluia for alto and bass, in contrast to the earlier version, which ends less imaginatively by repeating the opening chorus.

Schmücket das Fest mit Maien is largely a dialogue cantata between God the bridegroom and his bride, the congregation. Its highlight is the bride’s love song summoning gentle winds, accompanied by a pair of recorders. The concluding chorale is especially festive, making the most of organ and instruments. Christ lag in Todes Banden and Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei continue the light and crisp performances. There is nothing lugubrious or dense here, only inventive music in intelligent and spirited performances.

Richard Kraus



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