Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Paths to Bach" - Cantus Colln, Konrad Junghanel at 2009 Israel Festival

“For so many music-lovers, music begins with J.S.Bach. Till fifty years ago we knew very little about his predecessors” Konrad Junghanel claimed in his pre-concert talk. Cantus Colln’s concert, June 7th in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, was a highlight of the 2009 Israel Festival.

Cantus Colln is a small, very highly-acclaimed German vocal ensemble of soloists directed by its founder, lutenist Konrad Junghanel; the group’s repertoire focuses mostly on German- and Italian vocal literature of the Renaissance and Baroque. At the time the ensemble was formed in 1987, Junghanel felt much was known about Baroque German instrumental music but not enough about the choral music of the time. With the help of musicologists, his curiosity has led him to look at activity in mid- and northern Germany. “Paths to Bach”, a concert of sacred vocal works, represents musical creativity that led up to or influenced J.S.Bach’s composition. We know that Bach walked 250 miles to Luebeck to meet with and hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude; most of Bach’s great organ works were written in the following years. As to the other composers on the concert program, Bach knew their works only.

Joining the singers were a small ensemble of string players, with Torsten Johann at the organ. The evening began with two of the 12 surviving vocal works of Nikolaus Bruhns (1665-1697), a composer, organist , violinist and viol player who had been a pupil of Buxtehude. “Die Zeit meines Abschieds ist vorhanden” (The Time of my Departure is at Hand) (2 Timothy 4), a funeral cantata was followed by “Ich liege und schlafe” (I Lie Down and Sleep in Peace)(Psalm 4), the latter being the composer’s only concerto aria cantata. In the latter, soprano Mechthild Bach and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich sing solo arias, punctuated with tutti sections and string ritornellos.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is remembered as having been a very great organist, a composer of music for organ, harpsichord and of some chamber music. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that his choral music was rediscovered. Cantus Colln presented two of his( more than 120) cantatas. In them, Buxtehude shows a masterful command of the many styles characterizing the sacred cantata in Germany of the 17th century. Both began with an instrumental section, the sung text being interspersed with instrumental responses. In “Gott hilf mir” (Save me, o God), Friedrich is gripping and dramatic in the alarming description of the flood:
‘I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I am come into deep waters
Where the floods overflow me…’
In “Herzlich lieb hab ich Dich, o Herr” (Most dearly do I love Thee, O Lord), a work rich in color and forms, soprano Johanna Koslowsky is commanding in her performance. A florid, contrapuntal Amen ends the work.

Composer, trombonist and organist Johann Rosenmuller (c.1619-1684), educated in Leipzig, spent many years in Venice, where he composed sacred music for use in Catholic Vespers. Cantus Colln has reconstructed a complete cycle of his Venetian Vespers; the practice in these was to include sonatas of which Rosenmuller’s Sonata in D minor is one. Interesting string playing and well etched phrases made for a fine interpretation of this sonata, a piece constructed of small contrasting sections in the Italian manner.

The north German composer Matthias Weckmann (1619-1674) studied the organ and singing with Schutz and was influenced by Schutz’ knowledge of Italian styles. From the time he took up work at the St. Jacobi Church in Hamburg in 1655, he composed prolifically, among his oeuvre choral works such as “Wie liegt die Stadt so wueste;” (How desolate lies the city). Performed at this concert, it is one of a number of sacred concertos written in 1663 on the subject of the plague that had hit Hamburg. The text used in this work is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Weckmann, a composer of great dramatic skills, wrote that the soprano singer – witnessing the fall of the city – and the bass – the prophet – should be placed away from each other on the stage. With Koslowsky and Friedrich as soloists, the audience was drawn into the despair expressed in the text, into the tragic dialogue, the strands of which eventually were intertwined, the play of light- and dark timbres of the two voices set off by articulate and virtuosic singing. It was a moving performance.

Konrad Junghanel, musicologists and his musicians have thrown new light on certain aspects of the history and development of Baroque music in central- and northern Germany. Very excellent program notes were helpful in guiding the listener through the “Paths to Bach”; the ensemble’s musicianship is unrivalled.

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