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Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
Complete Sacred Works V
Gott sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte [11:26]
Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden [15:49]
Erschrick, mein Herz, vor dir [16:26]
Weicht, ihr Sorgen, aus dem Herzen [12:44]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied [10:41]
Opella Musica
camerata lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer
Rec. 2018, St Marien, Rötha, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 260-2 [67:33]

For a long time, Johann Kuhnau received only some attention because he was Johann Sebastian Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The purpose of the project regarding the recording of his complete sacred music is to show that he deserves to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. The volumes that have been released to date demonstrate his versatility and his historical importance as a link between the worlds of the 17th and 18th centuries. The present disc offers a mixture of these two worlds.

The programme is constructed in such a way that it opens and closes with pieces which are rooted in the 17th century, whereas in the three pieces in the centre, we see how Kuhnau adopted modern fashions, such as these were especially expressed in the libretti of Erdmann Neumeister.

The first piece is Gott sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte, a setting in C minor of verses 3 to 10 from Psalm 51, one of the seven penitential psalms (in Latin: Miserere mei Deus). The instrumental scoring, with split violas, is typical of the 17th century. The opening sonata is dominated by descending chromatic figures, and leads attacca to the chorus, which reflects the dark mood of the text. It is followed by two solos for alto; in the first the words "wash (me)" and "cleanse (me)" are singled out through melismas. The fourth section, for four voices, includes quite some harmonic tension: "Against thee, thee only I have sinned". The next section opens with a tenor recitative, followed by an arioso-like episode for bass, and closes with a fugal passage. The closing section also includes a fugal episode, and in the last line the word "zerschlagen" (broken) is set to marked dissonances.

Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden is attributed to different composers: Johann Kuhnau and Johann Philipp Krieger, but Michael Maul, the author of the liner-notes, believes the attribution to Kuhnau is most likely. It is intended for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and refers to the figure of Simeon, who faces baby Jesus in the temple. His wish to die is extrapolated to the wish of the faithful to be with Christ, even though he may be not Simeon: "I am no elderly Simeon, (...) I lack many of his years, but still I have already made a short pilgrimage, experienced much adversity and crosses". The cantata, which shows the traces of the Neumeister model, opens with a sinfonia, which leads to a chorus: "I have desire to depart and be with Christ". The word "Lust" (desire) is singled out through coloratura. The fourth section is a tenor recitative, the seventh a dacapo aria for alto. This is in triple time and has the character of a lullaby, with melismas on "wieget" (rock). The aria opens with the words "How sweet the funeral bells sound", and these are imitated by bassoon and cello. The cantata ends with the funeral chorale by Luther, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. The instrumental scoring, with one viola and parts for transverse flute and oboe, indicates that this work is of a later date than the previous one.

With Erschrick, mein Herz, vor dir Kuhnau moves even further in the direction of the Neumeister cantata. It is set for bass solo, and ends with a four-part chorale in the form of a dacapo aria. The entire cantata is a sequence of recitatives - partly secco and partly accompanied - and dacapo arias. It was written for the 14th Sunday after Whitsun, when the Gospel reading is taken from Luke 11, the story of the healing of the ten lepers. They are used as models of the sinner, as the first recitative - following the opening sinfonia - says: "Be afraid, my heart (...), so leprosy, guilt and sin make you an abomination before God". The text omits any biblical quotations; this is free poetry, as was the standard in Neumeister's librettos. The cantata's instrumental scoring is for two violins, viola, bassoon and basso continuo. It is again a work whose authenticity is doubtful: one source mentions Telemann as the composer, and Michael Maul believes that this attribution may be more likely than Kuhnau's authorship. Fortunately, it did not result in omitting this cantata from the project, as it is a nice work and an interesting addition to the German baroque repertoire for bass solo.

The next piece is a pure solo cantata, this time for soprano. For Weicht, ihr Sorgen, aus dem Herzen Kuhnau used a text by Neumeister himself, taken from the collection of cantatas, published in 1702 under the title Geistliche Cantaten statt einer Kirchen-Music. It is intended for the 15th Sunday after Whitsun; the reading was from Matthew 6, a part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus warns against collecting wealth and worry about means of sustaining life. Despite the fact that this is one of the most modern pieces in the programme, the instrumental scoring, again with split violas, reminds us of the 17th century. The cantata opens with a dacapo aria, and after a secco recitative, the A section is repeated. In the ensuing secco recitative, one phrase is singled out through long notes: "I have God and it suffices", which sums up the tenor of this cantata. After another dacapo aria, the cantata closes with a secco recitative, in which the phrase just mentioned is repeated. It leads attacca to the closing aria.

With the last piece in the programme we return to where we started, so to speak. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied is a setting of Psalm 98, "Sing unto the Lord a new song". The scoring is once again typical of the 17th century, with split violas, but now Kuhnau adds parts for two trumpets and timpani. These come into action in the opening chorus, which includes traces of the stile concitato in the setting of the last line: "his right hand and his holy arm hath gotten the victory". A short arioso-like solo for soprano leads to the closing section, in which solo episodes for tenor, bass and alto respectively are embraced by tutti passages in which the entire instrumental ensemble participates. The work closes with a joyful "Halleluja".

This disc is a worthy sequel to the previous ones, which gave much evidence of Kuhnau's skills in setting a text and of his openness to modern trends. If this project is finished, the whole traditional picture of Kuhnau as a conservative composer and a rather dull theorist will be turned upside down. One has to be thankful to Gregor Meyer and to CPO for their efforts to give Kuhnau his rightful place in music history. He is served very well by the performances. In some of the previous volumes I noted a bit too much restraint now and then, but there is no hint of that here. The singers are all perfectly equipped to realise Kuhnau's intentions. Their stylish singing and the attention they give to the text are enjoyable, and there is some excellent playing from the members of the camerata lipsiensis.

In short, this disc is of major importance, for historical and musical reasons.

Johan van Veen

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