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Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
Complete Sacred Works VI
Ihr Himmel, jubilieret von oben [12:19]
Bone Jesu, care Jesu [08:41]
Ich freue mich im Herrn [12:52]
Laudate pueri Dominum [08:45]
Lobet, ihr Himmel, den Herrn [14:31]
Opella Musica, camerata lipsiensis/Gregor Mayer
Rec. 2019, Georgenkirche, Rötha, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 305-2 [57:35]

German music of the last decades of the 17th century and the first decades of the 18th - generally speaking, between the death of Heinrich Schütz and the first major works by Johann Sebastian Bach - has not received that much attention. The sacred works by especially three of the leading composers of that period - Buxtehude, Kuhnau and Johann Philipp Krieger - are important links between the sacred concerto of the 17th century and the cantata of the form we find in the oeuvre of Bach, Telemann, Fasch and Graupner. Since the commemoration of his death in 2007, Buxtehude's entire oeuvre is available on disc. The exploration of Krieger's oeuvre has not started yet. Kuhnau is the subject of an important project, concerning the recording of his complete sacred music, of which the present disc is the sixth volume

His position as a link between two eras is demonstrated in the programme, in which two pieces represent the old style, two large-scale cantatas the new era and one piece is something in between the two. Interestingly, and a feature of Kuhnau's oeuvre, is that in the latest pieces we still find some relics of the past.

Bone Jesu, care Jesu is an interesting specimen of the importance of medieval mysticism in Lutheran thinking. The best-known example of that is Buxtehude's Passion cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri. In this concerto by Kuhnau we also meet the Jesulatry which is one of the characteristics of German Lutheran pietism. The opening section is indicative of what is to come: "Good Jesus, dear Jesus, do not forsake me, O good Jesus, O sweet Jesus". In the next sections we hear the soprano singing "I long to die for you, my Jesus". It does not surprise that the text includes references to the Song of Solomon. The scoring also fits its content: soprano, two violins and basso continuo. Kuhnau uses musical figures and harmonic progressions to illustrate the text. Heidi Maria Taubert sings this piece with the intimacy it requires. The strings could have played with a little more dynamic contrast.

This piece dates from the 1680s, and so does the other work for a solo voice. Laudate pueri Dominum is a setting of Psalm 113 for tenor, trombone, two violins and basso continuo. The solo part is virtuosic, requires a wide tessitura and is full of coloratura. That also goes for the trombone part - for which the viola da gamba is indicated as an alternative - which is reminiscent of the virtuosic trombone parts in Italian music of the early 17th century. Both parts perfectly fit the text which is a celebration of God's glory. Tobias Hunger deals with his part with impressive ease, and Sebastian Krause deserves praise for his brilliant playing of the trombone part. One notable aspect of this piece is that the two violins have to play in scordatura.

The three remaining pieces date from between 1710 and 1720, but are quite different in several respects. Ich freue mich im Herrn is scored for four voices (solo and tutti), strings and basso continuo. Five tutti sections - settings of words from Isaiah 61 - are separated by four stanzas written by an unknown author, each of them scored for one of the solo voices. An important aspect of pietism was bridal mysticism: the idea of a marriage between the soul and Christ. That is what we find in the concerto Bone Jesu, care Jesu mentioned above, and also in this work, for instance in the first stanza: "I shall praise the Supreme Being, who has elevated me to Heaven as his bride, in whom he himself places his trust". The last stanza says: "Now I, full of courage, can go with my greatest treasure to the wedding table".

The programme opens and closes with two cantatas for Ascension Day. Ihr Himmel, jubiliert von oben is written in the modern form of recitatives and arias, but the five vocal parts (SSATB) and the five-part strings, with split violas, remind us of the 17th century. The opening chorus includes solo passages with coloratura. Next is a recitative for alto which is followed attacca by a duet of alto and bass, representing the faithful soul and the voice of Christ respectively. Next are another recitative and an aria for alto, which express the trust in God, not without clear reminiscences of mysticism: "At your side nothing shall matter to me until my spirit is eternally united with the angelic hosts." The joyful nature of this piece, reflecting the triumph of Jesus ascending to heaven, manifests itself in the scoring which includes parts for three trumpets and timpani, but the mystic elements in the text are emphasized by the participation of a pair of recorders.

Lobet, ihr Himmel, den Herren is scored for four voices, two trumpets, timpani, a pair of oboes, strings and basso continuo. This work is quite belligerent in character, as the text underlines the power of Jesus: "What mighty cry of delight is this from a hundred-thousand seraphim?" "Once Christ has gone up after his knightly victory, having subdued both Hell and Devil, the limbs of the Lord shall smite their foes through his strength." The sixth section includes battaglia figures: "Onward to the battle! Here the foes arrive to fight me". There are some short solos for soprano, tenor and bass, some in the form of a recitative, others as short arias. The first solo for bass includes an obbligato trumpet part. The soprano solo has an obbligato oboe part. Interestingly, the only surviving copy of this cantata has a precise scoring instruction appended to it, saying that this part has to be played on the oboe d'amore. Michael Maul, in his liner-notes, points out that if this reflects the original intentions of Kuhnau, this cantata is one of the earliest examples of the use of this instrument. Another interesting aspect is that this cantata ends with a chorale harmonisation: "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein". Maul suggests that Kuhnau "may even have served as Bach's principal model in this respect".

It brings to a worthy close a most interesting and musically compelling disc, including five superb examples of German Lutheran sacred music. It confirms the positive impressions of the previous volumes. That also goes for the performances. Gregor Mayer has the same singers at his disposal for the entire project, and that results in highly idiomatic interpretations. The singers are fully acquainted with Kuhnau's music, and that shows. The instrumental parts are also perfectly executed. Considering that there is not that much music for Ascension Day, the two cantatas on this disc are also important additions to the repertoire, especially as all the pieces recorded in this project, will be available in printed editions.

Johan van Veen

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