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Thomaskantoren vor Johann Sebastian Bach
Sethus CALVISIUS (1556-1615)
Præter rerum seriem
[7:12]
Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist* [5:30]
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich
[3:18]
Gott sei mir gnädig* [13:21]
Tobias MICHAEL (1592-1657)
Aus der Tiefe
* [2:35]
Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist* [2:44]
Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701)
Komm, Jesu, komm, mein Leib ist müde
[3:55]
Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
Tristis est anima mea
[4:44]
Ach Gott, wie lässt du mich erstarren* [4:27]
Gott hat uns nicht gesetzt zum Zorn* [4:44]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wir glauben all an einen Gott
, BWV437 [6:32]
Mass in G, BWV236: Kyrie [3:03]
Sebastian KNÜPFER (1633-1676)
Mein Gott, betrübt ist meine Seele
* [4:53]
Hartmut Becker (cello), Daniel Beilschmidt (organ)
Kammerchor Josquin des Préz/Ludwig Böhme
rec. Lutherkirche, Leipzig, 29-30 May and 4-5 July, 2012. DDD.
* Premiere recordings.
Booklet with texts and translations included
CARUS 83.342 [66:58]

We have had some fine recordings of several of the individual composers represented here - including Bach himself - but this valuable new recording gives us at least one work by every one of JSB’s predecessors in the office of Cantor at St Thomas’, Leipzig, not for its whole 500-year pre-Bach history (founded in 1212), but from the time of Sethus Calvisius who became Thomaskantor in 1594. My only reservation is that it seems a mistake to include music by the great man himself; any of his predecessors is bound to sound less impressive in his company and those ten minutes could have housed more music from his predecessors - perhaps even some more world premiere recordings in addition to the seven included here. Some of the music of Calvisius’ earliest known predecessor, Georg Rhau, Cantor from 1518 to 1520, is extant, so the line could have been taken even further back.
 
The development in style from the earliest work to Bach’s own is fascinating. Sethus Calvisius’s attractive but conservative præter rerum seriem is a reworking of a motet by Josquin; not only does that make it appropriate for the music here to be sung by a choir named after that composer, it also shows how little the North German style had developed by the time of its publication in 1603. Calvisius also contributes the setting of the German paraphrase of Veni Creator Spiritus, a first recording, on the final track, dating from 1597 and taking us back as we began, to a more conservative style little removed from the plainsong setting of the Latin original which precedes and follows it.
 
Yet we need only move to the second track, by Johann Schein, to find ourselves listening to a minor masterpiece: along with his better-known contemporaries, Heinrich Schütz and Johann Demantius, Schein was responsible for significant developments in North German music. His setting of the chorale Verleih uns Frieden is prefaced by the kind of instrumental introduction and interspersed with organ passages that would develop into the organ chorale prelude and his setting of the words takes us far from their simple unison original. Schein also reappears on track 10 with a setting of the penitential Psalm no.51.
 
Tobia Michael’s Aus der Tiefe (tr.3), another penitential psalm, is one of the works receiving its first recording. It’s a simple enough setting but moving and, like his other work, the brief Unser Trübsal, die zeitlich und leichte ist (tr.12), also a premiere recording, it receives an idiomatic performance. I hope that someone will give us some more of Michael’s music in due course - Hyperion, perhaps, or another offering from Carus?
 
I’ve never quite managed to come to terms with Johann Kuhnau’s worthy (instrumental) biblical sonatas - the sole CD that I own of them has been played, I think, just once - but the three works by him here are of more than historical interest. Tristis est anima mea (tr.5) receives a slightly snappier performance than from the King’s consort on Hyperion (see below) but one in which the grief feels equally heartfelt without being overdone.
 
The choir may bear the name of Josquin des Préz and their only other recording to date has been of his music (Missa pange lingua, Carus 83.345) but they show themselves here to be fully equal to the performance of music dating from later, in some cases much later, than his time. Gavin Dixon thought their singing in Josquin beautiful but a little too uninvolved - review; I’ve got far fewer benchmarks here than in Josquin with which to compare them but I certainly can’t accuse their singing of the two pieces by JSB on tracks 6 and 7 of being in any way superficial. If I have a complaint it’s that they inevitably make his music sound so much better than any of his predecessors.
 
The recording is good, with a real sense of a fairly clean church acoustic - it was, in fact, recorded in the Lutheran Church in Leipzig, not St Thomas’s itself; this late-19th century building makes a good substitute as a recording venue, though lacking some of the reverberation of the real thing.
 
The booklet contains brief but useful and informative notes on each of the Cantors represented. The translation of præter rerum seriem leaves something to be desired in conveying the sense of the original - the first line means that the birth of Christ is ‘beyond the normal order of things’ rather than ‘there is no normal scheme of things’. Luther’s paraphrase of the Creed is given in Catherine Winkworth’s verse translation which is sometimes slightly at odds with the sense of the German original, but these are very small niggles.
 
I hope that the brief representation of the music of some of the Cantors here will lead purchasers on to investigate other music by them; for starters several of them are available at budget price on the Hyperion Helios label, very ably performed by the King’s Consort:

- Johann Schelle Sacred Music: CDH55373 - September 2011/1 Download Roundup
- Sebastian Knüpfer Sacred Music: CDH55393 - September 2011/1 Download Roundup
- Johann Kuhnau Sacred Music: CDH55394 - December 2011/2 Download Roundup: just one item overlapping the new Carus recording

Those Hyperion recordings are an adjunct to the new Carus rather than an alternative to it. With nothing comparable in the catalogue that I’m aware of, the new recording deserves a strong recommendation. There are downloads of this recording, from classicsonline.com and eclassical.com, the latter even available in lossless sound and costing less than the CD, but neither includes the booklet which, despite my reservations about its brevity and the translation of the Creed, is well worth having.
 
Brian Wilson 

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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