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In Umbra Mortis
Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss
rec. October 2020, Pieterskerk, Utrecht, Netherlands
Latin texts and English & German translations included
PENTATONE PTC5186948 [57:32]

I’ve often found that judiciously selected contemporary music can complement very well the music of composers from the pre-Classical ages. However, I’m not sure that I can recall a juxtaposition on such a scale as is here proposed by Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss. In essence, what this disc contains is Wolfgang Rihm’s Sieben Passions-Texts (2001-2006) interspersed with vocal pieces by Giaches de Wert (1535-1596). The Rihm pieces set texts drawn from some of the Tenebrae responsories used in the liturgies of Holy Week. The de Wert texts come from a wider range of sources but essentially, they complement the texts chosen by Rihm. As Daniel Reuss comments in the booklet, the works of these composers “have a strong connection, especially in their frequent use of chromaticism”,

Though de Wert was Flemish-born he spent all his adult life in Italy. Reuss has included pieces by him which come from three separate collections of vocal works: Secondo libro de motteti a 5, published in 1581 (tracks 2 & 5); Modulationum cum 6 vocibus liber primus, also published in 1581 (tracks 8 & 12); and Motectorum 5 vocum liber primus of 1566 (track 10; this item was later added to the Modulationum cum 6 vocibus liber primus).

Rihm’s cycle of seven motets was composed for a vocal sextet, Singer Pur. I learned from the notes that he later added instrumental interludes to form an independent work entitled Vigilia. It’s interesting to see that Daniel Reuss uses different vocal resources for each composer’s works. For the Rihm he has a choir of 24 voices (6/6/6/6); for the de Wert exactly half that number are deployed; furthermore, two of the three altos are countertenors, whereas the altos who sing in the Rihm are all female. Reuss has chosen to weave Rihm’s and de Wert’s pieces together in the order shown on the track list. That makes for very stimulating listening.

In his fascinating booklet essay, Roman Hinke quotes a remark that Wolfgang Rihm made to the members of Singer Pur in advance of their premiere of the first two of the Sieben Passions-Texts: “Sing it like early music. That way people will hear that it isn’t”. I understand what he meant, but the juxtaposition of compositional styles, separated by over 400 years, is fascinating. The two styles are very different yet the music blends together in a way that I hadn’t expected and the two composers – at least in the items performed here – complement each other and illuminate each other’s music in a wonderful fashion. So, for example, there seems to be an almost seamless transition from Rihm’s Tristis est anima mea and de Wert’s Vox in Rama, even though the latter is not begun attacca.

The extremely chromatic opening to Tristis est anima mea emphasises the dolorous nature of the text; Rihm’s music is haunting. Vox in Rama is a deeply serious piece of polyphonic writing; De Wert is very eloquent here. Rihm’s Ecce vidimus is a really searching piece in which the chromatic harmonies are especially dense – though these skilled singers deliver the textures with clarity. A little later in the programme de Wert’s Amen, amen dico vobis somewhat relieves the deeply penitential tone that we’ve experienced so far. This is a text that promises that sorrow will turn to joy and, appropriately, the music is lively in places. The same is true of the last work on the programme, de Wert’s Quiescat vox tua. Again, the text speaks of sorrow turning to joy and the composer reflects this with a certain lightness of tone.

There’s no real lightness of tone in the Rihm pieces – though that’s as it should be, given the nature of the texts. Tenebrae factŠ sunt is a prime example of the intensity of his writing. In this piece the music is potent and vivid. Indeed, it becomes positively searing towards the end when Rihm reaches the words ‘Exclamans Jesus voce magna ait:…’ (Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying…) Though I’ve focused on the chromatic intensity of Rihm’s writing in these pieces, I should point out that these pieces are about much more than his harmonic style. The melodic writing is highly impressive too, as, for instance, in Caligaverunt oculi mei where his melodic lines are deeply expressive.

Faced with extremely challenging music – from both composers’ pens – the singers of Cappella Amsterdam respond superbly. Their prodigious accuracy in tuning the very demanding harmonies is evident right from the start in Tristis est anima mea. Another Rihm piece, Velum templi scissum est opens with a series of detached, complex chords. The precision of tuning and ensemble with which this sequence is delivered confirms that we are listening to a vocal ensemble of the highest quality. Under Daniel Reuss’s shrewd guidance, not only do they surmount every challenge in Rihm’s music but they also make perfect sense of Giaches de Wert’s complex harmonies and polyphony.

Flawlessly performed, this CD offers a compelling juxtaposition of old and new music. This is Cappella Amsterdam’s first album for Pentatone and they’ve been rewarded with exemplary recorded sound which marries the clarity that’s essential for music like this with just the right degree of pleasing resonance. Excellent documentation completes the attractions of this distinguished release.

John Quinn

Wolfgang RIHM (b 1952)
Tristis est anima mea [2:47]
Giaches De WERT (1535-1596)
Vox in Rama [3:48]
Wolfgang RIHM
Ecce vidimus [4:15]
Velum templi scissum est [3:50]
Giaches De WERT
Amen, amen dico vobis [5:53]
Wolfgang RIHM
Tenebrae factŠ sunt [5:17]
Caligaverunt oculi mei [4:55]
Giaches De WERT
Peccavi super numerum [7:44]
Wolfgang RIHM
Recessit pastor noster [3:00]
Giaches De WERT
Adesto dolori mei [3:36]
Wolfgang RIHM
Aestimatus sum [5:34]
Giaches De WERT
Quiescat vox tua [6:46]

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