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Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
Complete Sacred Works IV
Ich hebe meine Augen auf [11:43]
Missa brevis [5:23]
Ach Gott, wie lässt Du mich verstarren [5:04]
Muss nicht der Mensch auf dieser Erden in stetem Streite sein? [8:51]
In te, Domine, speravi [7:54]
Gott hat uns nicht gesetzt zum Zorn [4:24]
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan
Opella Musica, camerata lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer
Rec. 2017, St. Marien, Rötha, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 190-2 [54:51]

The post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig was one of the most important and most prestigious in Protestant Germany. No wonder, then, that the town council only wanted this position to be occupied by the best composer available. When in 1723 a successor to Johann Kuhnau, who had died the previous year, had to be appointed, it turned to Georg Philipp Telemann, then generally considered top of the bill. When he turned down the offer, Christoph Graupner was elected, at the time Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt. As his employer did not want him to go, the council had to satisfy itself with Johann Sebastian Bach.

The conflicts between the new Kantor and the town council are well documented. One of Bach's complaints was that he did not have enough capable singers at his disposal. That complaint was not new: his predecessor had to deal with the same problem. Michael Maul, in his liner-notes, writes: "Kuhnau vociferously complained that, unlike the days of the 'formerly well-staffed music director' (under the cantors Knüpfer and Schelle), he was now forced to 'arrange his own church compositions poorly enough to accommodate the inferior skills' of the musicians left at his disposal". In this case, there was a specific reason for his complaints. He experienced strong competition from musicians of a younger generation, in particular Telemann, who had founded an independent body of musicians at the Neue Kirche, and from the various Collegia Musica which had come into existence. Kuhnau felt that the position of Thomaskantor was under serious threat, and this inspired him to complain about the style favoured by representatives of the younger generation. These complaints, which Maul calls "inept", have led musicologists to believe that Kuhnau was an archconservative, who resisted the influence of the modern Italian style in church music. However, a thorough analysis of Kuhnau's oeuvre proves otherwise.

By all accounts Kuhnau was brilliant, intellectually and musically. He received an outstanding education and came into contact with some of the brightest minds of his time. He was a kind of uomo universale, who was active as a lawyer, but also as an author of various books. He spoke several languages and was also knowledgeable in theology and mathematics. He spent the main part of his life in Leipzig, where he was appointed as organist in the Thomaskirche in 1684. In 1701 he succeeded Johann Schelle as Thomaskantor. In this capacity he was the teacher of three of Germany's most renowned composers of the generation of Bach: Johann David Heinichen, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner.

The position of Thomaskantor may have been very important, but in modern performance practice Bach's predecessors have not received the attention they deserve. The exception is Johann Hermann Schein, who occupied the post from 1616 until his death in 1630. He was succeeded by Tobias Michael, whose oeuvre is very badly represented on disc. His successors Sebastian Knüpfer (1657 to 1676) and Johann Schelle (1676 to 1701) have fared a little better, but the largest part of their oeuvre also waits to be rediscovered. In comparison, Kuhnau has been largely neglected, and that could well be due to the rather negative assessment of his oeuvre by musicologists, as mentioned above. From that perspective, the initiative to record his complete sacred works is of great importance.

The first three volumes of this project have been reviewed here (Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2 ~ Vol. 3). The fourth offers a mixture of pieces from various stages in Kuhnau's career. Some of them are not of undoubted authenticity, but it was a good decision to include them, as we probably will never know for sure whether they are from the pen of Kuhnau and they are too good to be excluded.

The programme opens with Ich hebe meine Augen auf, which is a setting of Psalm 121 for alto, two violins and basso continuo. This scoring testifies to the influence of the Italian style in Kuhnau's oeuvre, as this was a standard scoring in Italian sacred concertos of the 17th century. The text is divided into four sections, and the work opens with a sinfonia. The first verse of the psalm - "I lift up my eyes to the mountains" - is depicted by rising figures. In the last section, words like "sleeps" and "slumbers" are illustrated by melismas. It is a technically demanding work, which David Erler sings with remarkable ease and much attention to the text.

Next follows a Missa brevis; this term is generally used for a mass comprising only Kyrie and Gloria. That is the case here as well, but 'brevis' has also a literal meaning, as it is indeed a very short work. The Kyrie takes just 1:35. The scoring is for bass, two violins, viola, bassoon and basso continuo. The mass has been preserved in the church music library of the small town of Mügeln in Saxony. A work like this can give us some idea of the repertoire in towns which did not have a high quality chapel or choir for the performance of liturgical music. Maul suggests that this piece may be a reduced version of a larger-scale mass. Notable is the frequent repetition of the word "pax" in the Gloria. Friedemann Klos sings this work with the right amount of simplicity.

Ach Gott, wie lässt Du mich verstarren is one of two funeral pieces in the programme. It is the earliest surviving piece by Kuhnau, and dates from 1680, when he was just twenty years of age and living in Zittau. He wrote this work for the burial of the local Kantor, Erhard Titius, seven years his senior, with whom he had worked closely together. The rector of the local grammar school, the poet Christian Weise, may have written the text, freely based on Isaiah 40, vs 31, which was the funeral text Titius had chosen himself. The piece is scored for five voices and basso continuo. The text comprises six stanzas; three are for the entire ensemble, and three for solo voice - two sopranos and tenor respectively.

Muss nicht der Mensch auf dieser Erden in stetem Streite sein is a virtuosic piece for tenor, trumpet, violin, bassoon and basso continuo. The free poetic text by an anonymous author takes the story of the Old Testament figure Job as the starting point of a consideration of the trials and tribulations of human life. It opens with an aria in three sections, each of which ends with the thought - and largely identical words - that on every side, there is struggle and discord, ending with the conclusion that "World and Satan, Sin and Death, soon stand in our way and force us on every side to struggle and to fight". This text invited Kuhnau to write music with a belligerent character and make use of battaglia figures. The penultimate section of this work has the character of a recitative. It closes with another reference to war: "The battle has been fought, the foes subdued, the race is run, for all has ended to our delight. Triumph!" Tobias Hunger delivers a masterful performance. His voice has the right edges to do full justice to the character of this piece.

In te, Domine, speravi is another piece for solo voice, this time for soprano. The instrumental scoring is typical for 17th-century German sacred concertos: two violins, two violas, bassoon and basso continuo. It is a setting of verses 2 to 6 from Psalm 31. A set of parts survived in the private library of Samuel Jacobi, Kantor in Grimma, and mentions the 23rd Sunday after Trinity in 1691 as the date of performance. It seems likely that this work was written in the 1680s. It opens with a sinfonia, which is followed by five vocal sections of different character. The way the voice is treated is one of the tokens of Italian influence. The instruments play a major part in this work. The booklet does not indicate which of the two sopranos in the ensemble takes care of the solo part, but I assume it is Isabel Schicketanz, who delivers an excellent performance and deals with the technical demands with impressive ease.

Gott hat uns nicht gesetzt zum Zorn is the second funeral piece, scored for five voices and basso continuo. It dates from Kuhnau's early years as Thomaskantor. It was written in 1707 at the occasion of the funeral of the merchant and town official Johann Georg Richter in October 1707. Kuhnau set the first verse of the text Richter had chosen as his maxim, which is followed by an arrangement of the first verse of the hymn Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele. The chorale melody is allocated to the two sopranos, who may represent the two angels the text refers to.

The programme ends with one of the few chorale cantatas in Kuhnau's oeuvre. Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan is a series of chorale variations per omnes versus, and shows strong similarity with Bach's Cantata BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden. The first and the sixth stanza are for the entire ensemble of four voices, whereas the inner stanzas are for solo voices (two for soprano, one for tenor); the second is a duet of alto and bass. The cantata opens with a sinfonia, in which the oboe has an obbligato part. In the ensemble it is joined by two violins, viola, bassoon and basso continuo. This cantata is one of the pieces, whose authenticity is not established. It is nice that it has been included, because it is quite a beautiful work, which brings this disc to a worthy close.

This volume comprises pieces of a diverse character, and impressively shows Kuhnau's versatility. As I have already indicated, we get very fine performances here. A nice bonus is the use of a large historical organ in the basso continuo, which has a substantial effect on the overall effect of these pieces. Now and then I could imagine a more extroverted interpretation and stronger dynamic shading, but overall I am very happy with the way Kuhnau's music is presented in this project. If it is finished, the traditional picture of Johann Kuhnau may well be turned upside down.

Johan van Veen

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