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Johann KUHNAU (1660 - 1722)
Complete Sacred Works - Volume III
Magnificat [25:04]
O heilige Zeit [8:20]
O heilige Zeit [14:36]
Frohlocket, ihr Völker, und jauchzet, ihr Heiden [26:01]
Opella Musica
Camerata Lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer
rec. 2016, St Georgen, Rötha, Germany
CPO 555 021-2 [74:17]

If Johann Kuhnau is known at all, it is probably more for the fact that he was J.S. Bach’s immediate predecessor as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, than for any of his own music. The CPO label is setting that right, however, with its ongoing project to record all of his surviving sacred music by 2022, the tercentenary of his death. As one of the musical strands that influenced Bach – as even a casual hearing will make plain – this music deserves investigation if only for that reason. Although less contrapuntally sophisticated than the compositions of his illustrious successor, the works featured here demonstrate an arguably greater cosmopolitanism through Kuhnau’s facility with, and experience of, the conventions of north German religious music as well as the more theatrical styles and forms (notably the da capo aria) of Italian opera seria, and so has something to offer on its own terms.

The two lengthier works here inevitably invite comparison with parallel composition in Bach’s catalogue: the Magnificat comes complete with four Christmas interpolations, like the earlier version of Bach’s, and otherwise follows a similar division of the main text; Frohlocket, ihr Völker, und jauchzet, ihr Heiden foreshadows the first cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, not only with its similar opening line and title, but also with the jubilant mood of its framing choruses. All pieces in this instalment, incidentally, are connected by the theme of Christmas.

As a one-to-a-part choir Opella Musica’s performances bring out the counterpoint of the choral sections of these works with crisp, translucent textures, and the singers cohere rather well in their unanimity of attack on the music. Their small number, however, means that they sound incongruous against the fuller, more celebratory force of the orchestra, with trumpets and timpani in more extrovert movements.

As an ensemble of five singers they suit better the more chamber-like dimensions of the two settings of O heilige Zeit, and more effective still are they when working together as a chorus, rather than when they step forward individually to take the solos in these works. The two sopranos generally produce a fresh and radiant sound, although in the concluding aria of the first setting of O heilige Zeit Heidi Maria Taubert’s tone becomes curdled, and her colleague Isabel Jantschek sounds rough in some of the phrases of her aria in the other version. Tenor Tobias Hunger sings gracefully enough, though his Et Misericordia eius in the Magnificat is a touch wobbly and lacks colour. Friedemann Klos is more assured, though he does not convincingly reach the bass range called for by the second O heilige Zeit’s aria Wüte nur, making it seem laboured as a result. David Erler combines greater confidence and musical allure in the alto solos. Overall the singers convey more readily a sense of private devotion than the Italianate theatricality often latent in this music.

Gregor Meyer directs Camerata Lipsiensis in readings of these works that are generally dignified, rather than ecstatic. The opening of the Magnificat chugs along at a comfortable if not vigorous pace, and likewise the choral exchanges of the first movement of Frohlocket exude more polite decorum than energetic zeal. The orchestra do sometimes spring into more vitality, though, making a contrast between the comparative sobriety of the Magnificat’s principal movements and the exultant character of the Christmas chorale interpolations, whilst scudding semiquavers of Wüte nur in the first O heilige Zeit are exhilarating. Meyer, also at the organ, enjoys the obbligato parts as they arise, not least in the glistening registers he provides for Kleines Kind und grosser Held in Frohlocket. The instrument played is one which Kuhnau himself inspected and certified, so to that extent these performances bear a direct link back to the composer.

Editing mishaps mar two tracks. Number 6 starts with the fade out of the final chord of another movement (and not even, seemingly, that of number 5) and more damagingly, the head of steam built up at the climax of the concluding chorus to the more extensive O heilige Zeit setting is interrupted with a misplaced snatch of a bass solo.

That aside, these performances may not be exemplary in all respects, then, and indeed there are more polished and big-scale renditions of the Magnificat by Masaaki Suzuki, and Ton Koopman, the latter captured on DVD in the Thomaskirche itself, and also including the Christmas additions. The second O heilige Zeit features in a more pliant and driven reading by the King’s Consort, with James Bowman and Charles Daniels among the soloists, on a recording of selected sacred works by Kuhnau on Hyperion. But CPO’s latest instalment is a welcome part of their enterprising project to bring this composer to attention again, and the musically curious will likely wish to expand their knowledge of Baroque repertoire as well as discover one of the antecedents to the timeless phenomenon that is Bach.
Curtis Rogers



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