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Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c.1623-1680)
Serenata a cinque [6:56]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER (1644-1704)
O Dulcis Jesu [11:51]
Mensa Sonora (Pars Iii) [9:10]
Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694)
Ach, wie sehnlich wart ich der Zeit [5:47]
Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER
Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinandi III [7:04]
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)
Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte [7:30]
Johann Jakob FROBERGER (1616-1667)
Toccata II (libro secondo, 1649), Ricercar I (libro quarto, 1656) [8:10]
Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692)
Was betrübst du dich [5:01]
Heinrich Ignaz Franz BIBER
Passacaglia (Rosenkranzsonaten) [7:34]
Damien Guillon (countertenor)
Café Zimmermann
rec. 20-23 May 2019, Saint-Michel Abbey, Saint-Michel-en-Thiérache, France. DDD
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 (wav) press preview
ALPHA 626 [69:06]

Over the years, I have come to take it for granted that Café Zimmermann recordings, whether of familiar music or unfamiliar, will be well worth hearing. Their set of recordings of Bach Concertos is one of the best; the only annoyance is that works such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites are spread across separate CDs, but the six constituent discs can be obtained at an attractive price in a box set (Alpha 811, download only, around £33 in lossless quality) and the Brandenburgs are available together on a 2-for-1 offering (Alpha 300, download only, around £5 in lossless – DL News 2015/9). There’s even a 17-hour collection of their recordings on Alpha 434 (download only, around £57 in lossless sound).

On their new recording they offer a combination of the relatively familiar – we have not been short of complete recordings of the Biber Rosenkranzsonaten, or Rosary Sonatas, recently, and there have been several very fine recordings of the music of the Bach family before Johann Sebastian – and the more recherché. There are just a handful of recordings of Schmelzer’s Lament for Ferdinand III, all but two of them download only. As a reminder that the Outhere group as a whole is a prime source for out of the way baroque music, one of those CDs comes on the Zig-Zag Territoires label (Schmelzer Sacro-Profanus Concentus Musicus, Ensemble Masques/Olivier Fortin, ZZT334).

Schmelzer’s five-part Serenata opens the proceedings in a stylish performance which sets the generally grave tone; the notes tell us that it was written for Fasching, the mad carnival which precedes Lent, but this must have been a very serious Fasching.

It’s followed by the first of the three works by Biber to be included. With a different style from the Lutheran North German composers, Biber was Kapellmeister in Salzburg; his music is redolent of the Catholic counter-reformation and what the notes refer to as ‘Jesus-centred mysticism’. The attribution of O Dulcis Jesu is not secure, but the style is that of Biber, and the use of scordatura-turning was one of his hallmarks. Whoever the composer, it receives a fervent and sensitive performance. The many fans of Emma Kirkby will be interested in an album which she made for Berlin Classics with Bell’Arte Salzburg and Annegret Siedel (Salzburg Baroque, Music at the Court of Prince-Archbishops: 0300120BC). Kirkby and Siedel take the piece noticeably faster and the overall effect is more matter-of-fact, less heavily incense-laden. Though Kirkby can do no wrong for me, and her singing here has lost little of the beautiful purity of yore, for once I’m prepared to set her aside in favour of Guillon and Café Zimmermann.

The third suite from Biber’s instrumental Mensa Sonora reveals him in less flamboyant mood, though the closing Ciacona is rightly described in the notes as sublime. My copy of the augmented Purcell Quartet’s stylish recording of the complete Mensa Sonora has become corrupted, despite having been kept on two different hard drives, but I enjoyed listening via Naxos Music Library. (CHAN0748 – review DL News 2015/9).

I’ve mentioned recent recordings of the music of the Bach family; one such, labelled Lamento, like the new Alpha, features Magdalena Kožená with Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel and includes Johann Christoph Bach’s Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte. (DG Archiv 4741942). I sometimes feel that Kožená makes the music too much of a display piece, and Goebel frequently pushes the tempo too hard, but I have nothing but praise for their moving performance of this piece. Having investigated via Naxos Music Library, I have made a mental note to return to this album in the not too distant future.

Can Damien Guillon, whose countertenor voice is rather lighter than Kožená’s, match her in this work? The tempo set by Café Zimmermann is very fractionally broader than Goebel’s and, yes, Guillon manages to make the music just as moving as Kožená, a feat which both singers achieve without unduly leaning on the music and despite the fact that the words are an unlikely conceit on the idea that there cannot be enough water in the singer’s head to shed sufficient tears.

The music of Christoph Bernhard was almost unheard of until recently, but the labels of the Outhere group have been busy bringing it to our attention. His setting of the penitential psalm Aus der Tieffen, out of the deep, is included in a recent Ricercar collection which was awarded Recording of the Month (RIC415 – review). It’s beautifully sung there by Julie Roset (soprano), with Clematis, but I’m not altogether sure whether I would choose her singing there or Damien Guillon’s of Was betrübst du dich (why art thou troubled, my soul?), on the new Alpha. May I choose both, please?

Just to complicate matters, but in a good way, Vox Luminis include a very fine performance of the Kyrie and Gloria from Christoph Bernhard’s Mass Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam on another first-rate Ricercar recording: Ein feste Burg – Luther and the Music of the Reformation (RIC153, 2 CDs). I was convinced that I had reviewed that when it was released in 2017 – except that I didn’t, but Simon Thompson did, and made it a Recording of the Month. As the title implies, it’s an anthology of music by Lutheran composers, from the man himself onwards; Schütz (d.1672) and Bernhard, who died in 1692, are the last to be included. The two CDs are housed in a hard-back book, the works presented in the order of the church year, from Advent to Trinity (CD1), with music for various services on CD2. The names of Vox Luminis and their director Lionel Meunier on the cover would be enough to guarantee quality, and the result doesn’t disappoint.

The illustrated book – hardly a booklet – is packed with useful information about the Lutheran reformation and the composers who wrote music for it. Texts and translations are included. I can only apologise for not having reviewed this little treasure house before; my only excuse is that my preview came in mp3, only at 249kbs, and that I never obtained a better download. Actually, all considered, it sounds well enough to assure me of the quality of the CDs. An added incentive is that the recording is on sale from Presto for £15.45 until 5 October 2020.

I said that we had several good recordings of the Biber sonatas. John Holloway on super-budget Erato Veritas remains one of the best – at around £8.50 for the 2-CD set, you’d hardly notice the price, though, bizarrely, the lossless download costs more, and comes without a booklet (5620622). More recently, Rachel Podger and her team, on two SACDs, have challenged the hegemony of the Veritas (Channel CCSSA37315). For these and other recordings, see DL News 2015/9.

The performance of the Passacaglia from the Rosary Sonatas on the final track of the new Alpha recording – from first violin Pablo Valetti, I presume – is just as intense as Rachel Podger’s or John Holloway’s on Erato. It makes an excellent conclusion to a very fine recording.

The Outhere group have come a long way recently in improving the quality of their press previews. Not long ago they were in mp3 only, at less than the full bit-rate, and I had to hold off from reviewing them in that format. Congratulations are in order now, though; not only do the files come in lossless quality, this one came in 24/96 format, which makes it easier for me to say how very good the recording is.

Some of the recent reissues from Alpha and Ricercar have come with scrappy and inadequate booklets, but there has been real improvement there, too. Their full-price releases have always been accompanied with informative and helpful booklets, and this is no exception, though I do regret their decision to abandon the period art-work on their covers; I’m not sure what this one is meant to signify, except that someone’s windows badly need cleaning.

Don’t be put off by the Lamento title; this is music which speaks to the soul, in performances to match. I can’t keep slapping the ‘Recommended’ label on recordings from Alpha and the other labels in the Outhere family, but I seriously considered doing so for this.

Brian Wilson

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