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Friedrich Ernst FESCA (1789-1826)
Psalm 103, Op.26 [19:41]
Psalm 9, Op. 21 [14:39]
Franz DANZI (1763-1826)
Overtüre zum Trazuerspiel ‘Viola’ [6:12]
Psalm 128, Op. 65 [3:43]
Cantata: Preis Gottes [21:24]
Julia Sophie Wagner, Andrea Chudak (sopranos), Regina Grönegreß (alto), Lothar Odinius (tenor), Matthias Horn (baritone)
Bachkor Karlsruhe
Camerata 2000/Bernhard Gärtner
rec. Evangelische Stadtkirche Karlsruhe, 2016
Sung German texts and English translations included.
CPO 555 073-2 [65:56]

The two composers whose work is represented on this CD were both connected with Karlsruhe; indeed both finished their careers there. Karlsruhe began its rise to prominence in 1715. In that year, Margrave Charles III William (1679-1748; Margrave 1709-38) of the state of Baden-Durlach made it his capital after quarrelling with the citizens of his former capital, Durlach. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the architect Friedrich Weinbrenner (1766-1820), who had been born in Karlsruhe, was the dominant figure, from around 1810, in a movement to turn Karslruhe into a ‘neoclasssical’ city. He was responsible for some impressive buildings, such as the City Hall and the Court Theatre as well as for the general redesigning of the city’s layout. Many of Weinbrenner’s buildings were destroyed or badly damaged in the Second World War but, after largely sympatheic modern restoration they remain impressive.

Between its establishment in 1715 as a state capital and that state’s incorporation in the Prussian-led German Empire of 1871, Karlsruhe sought, like other state capitals, to establish itself as a cultural centre. In terms of music it was thus important to attract and appoint a musical director of some standing. This happened in 1812, with the appointment of Franz Danzi as Kappelmeister of the Court chapel. Danzi, having worked in Mannheim, Munich, and Stuttgart, as well as touring Europe as a cellist, was a much-respected composer, a significant figure in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism. Danzi was a cultured and literate man, a poet and librettist as well as a composer. However, Danzi’s work at Karlsruhe was not quite as successful as those who appointed him must have hoped. Danzi’s wife, the singer, and composer, Margarethe Marchand (who had been a pupil of Leopold Mozart) had died in 1800 and he seems never fully to have recovered from this loss; in Karlsruhe he himself was often ill. As a result, he was, as Joachim Draheim puts it in his booklet notes for this CD, “not able to significantly improve the level of the spotty orchestra”. One strength that that orchestra did have was the presence of the violin virtuoso and composer Friedrich Ernst Fesca as its concertmaster. Fesca had formerly been court violinist at Kassel, before being appointed, in 1813, first violinist in the Court Chapel in Karlsruhe. But like Danzi he, too, was affected by serious illness (tuberculosis), from around 1821. Both Danzi and Fesca, indeed, were to die in 1826.

This new CD remembers one important occasion in the musical life of Karlsruhe to which both Danzi and Fesca were able to contribute. In 1816 the 200th anniversary of the consecration of the city’s Evangelische Stadtkirche was celebrated musically by, we are told in the CD’s booklet, by “the performance of five, some very expansive, psalm settings for solo voices, mixed chorus and orchestra by Franz Danzi, Friedrich Ernst Fesca and Franz Liszt (The 13th Psalm)” (Draheim). I assumed that the five works concerned were, along with that by Liszt, the two psalm settings each by Danzi and Fesca in this CD. However, later in his notes, Draheim tells us that Fesca’s setting of Psalm 103 could not be performed in 1816 “due to the limited means and capacities of the church”. The two statements seem to be, at best confusing, and at worst irreconcilable. But what matters more is the music itself and the fact that Fesca’s Psalm 103 was performed in the Stadtkirche in 2016 – even if 200 years late.

Danzi is, in our own day, a bigger ‘name’ than Fesca, but I found myself admiring Fesca’s two works here more than the two by Danzi. I am not, though, the first to admire Fesca’s sacred music. In the entry on Fesca in the New Grove (online edition) by Markus Frei-Hauenscheld, the author informs us that Adolph Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) (writing in the Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, IV, 1827) “ranked Fesca alongside Beethoven as a composer of distinctly personal church music” and that Johann Friedrich Rochlitz (1769-1842) “noted [in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, XXVIII, 1826] that Fesca’s setting of Psalm 9 was such as a ‘contemporary Handel’ might have given to his Utrecht Jubilate”.

While I wouldn’t want to ‘rank’ Fesca alongside Beethoven and Handel, I have to say that if, indeed, it was the case that Fesca’s setting of Psalm 103 was left unperformed in 1816, then those who were in the Evangelische Stadtkirche of Karlsruhe on that occasion missed out on a finely conceived and executed work of sacred music, well-suited to a ceremonial/celebratory occasion. Written for five soloists (two sopranos, one alto, one tenor and one bass), mixed chorus and orchestra, and published in 1823, by the firm of Simrock in Bonn and Cologne, this is an accomplished and sensitive piece of work. Fesca uses his soloists, chorus and orchestra with intelligence and perceptive variety; at times (e.g. in the chorus ‘Der Herr schafft Gerichtigkeit allen, die Unrecht leiden’) his music has considerable declamatory power, while elsewhere (as in the brief section “Er handelt nicht mit uns nach unsern Sünden’, for two sopranos and alto) the writing is beautifully delicate. A particular highlight is the quartet for soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, (‘Wie sich ein Vater űber Kinder erbarmet’) in which the four voices produce some striking moments.

Although Fesca’s setting of Psalm 9 is not quite so special as the work just discussed, there is much to admire and enjoy in it. The alternation of choral sections with one aria for soprano and chorus and two quartets for the four soloists (only one of the listed sopranos, Julia Sophia Wagner sings in this work) makes for some engaging variety of texture and dynamics, and Fesca, as in his setting of Psalm 103, displays real intelligence and sensitivity in response to the words he is setting. The orchestral writing is impressive too, the use of the brass being particularly effective. My enjoyment of these two works led me to explore (via Spotify – other streaming services are, of course available!) more of his output. CPO turns out have been busier recording Fesca than I had realized, something I ought to have known from reviews on this website. I found myself listening with pleasure to his second and third symphonies (review) and, with considerable pleasure and respect to 3CDs described as Volume 1 of his Complete String Quartets (review).

I am rather more familiar with Danzi’s music – though not, it has to be said, with his sacred works; in addition to the two recorded here, they include five Masses, a Salve Regina and a Stabat Mater, a Te Deum and a number of Antiphons. Like, I suspect, most music lovers it is some of Danzi’s chamber music (notably for winds), his five concertos for bassoon and his four concertos for flute, along with his six symphonies, that I have heard and enjoyed and of which I possess recordings. It is with an orchestral work that Danzi is initially represented on this Disc. We are given (“as an instrumental intermezzo”, says Joachim Draheim) Danzi’s still unpublished overture for a romantic tragedy, Viola, by the now largely-forgotten dramatist Joseph von Auffenburg (it may be relevant to note that as Executive Director of the Karlsruhe Court Orchestra, Auffenburg was, as modern jargon might put it, Danzi’s line manager). The overture, in its essentially romantic nature – a hushed opening is followed by suggestions of melodramatic action to come – reminds us of the Danzi who had been both a mentor and close friend to the young Weber in Stuttgart, and who has sometimes been described as a “proto-romantic” (it seems likely that he learned things from Weber as well as teaching the younger man). Danzi’s brief setting of Psalm 128 has a gentle, sensitive romanticism about it, and is quietly moving; its affirmation that “Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways” (to quote from the Authorised Version) is undemonstrative but full of quiet faith. The work makes no use of vocal soloists, being written for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra. Incidentally, the German text sung here is the work of Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of Felix and Fanny) and was also used by Danzi’s friend Louis Spohr in his Three Psalms, Op. 85
Danzi’s much larger and more overtly ceremonial cantata Preis Gottes is, stylistically speaking, more old-fashioned. It is easy to agree with Joachim Draheim’s observation that it “is in the spirit of the 18th century with Mozartian, highly virtuosic arias for soprano and tenor. The choruses are reminiscent of Handel and Haydn oratorios”. The text is an assemblage of verses from a number of the psalms (including nos. 48, 106,107, 118 and 136); some are quite closely translated, others are freer paraphrases. The identity of the poet concerned is unknown. One wonders if it is possible that Danzi himself put the text together? He did, after all, set poems of his own in his Deutsche Lieder (Op.15) and, as mentioned earlier, seems to have written the libretto for his 1817 opera Turandot. The opening and closing choruses of Preis Gottes have real power (though one is left suspecting that an absolutely top class choir might make even more of them), while tenor Lothar Odonius, well known as a Bach singer, distinguishes himself both in his recitative ‘Diesen Tag gab uns der Herr!’ and in his interesting aria ‘Dich preist, o Gott, mit Lobgesang mein Herz’. Also impressive is soprano Julia Sophie Wagner, notably in the aria ‘Du siehst den Dank! Du horst die Bitten’, in which she sings with beautiful conviction and commitment.

As hinted above, all the soloists on this disc are very accomplished. The orchestral playing and the choral singing are never less than highly competent; conductor Bernhard Gärtner has a clear vision of what he wants to do with the music and successfully executes that vision. There are no significant problems with the recorded sound. It is a bonus that the CD’s booklet contains some photographs of both the exterior and the interior of the Evangelische Stadtkirche Karlsruhe. In short, if this repertoire interests you, this is a disc you can buy with confidence,

Glyn Pursglove

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