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Johann GRABBE (1585- 1655)
Madrigals and Instrumental Works
Felici amanti, udite [2.36]
Ardo, mia vita (2nd part) [5.41]
Intrada a 4 [1.58]
Lasso, perché mi fuggie [ 2.51]
Viva fiamma del seno [3.06]
Ch’io non t’ami [3.11]
O chiome errant [2.46]
Son vivo o morte Amore [3.11]
Amai non amo [2.26]
Canzon á 4 [4.06]
Cor mio, deh, non languire [3.36]
Come sei cieco Amore [2.22]
Ah, misera mia vita [3.41]
Alma afflita,che fai [3.04]
Paduana á 5 [4.58]
O Donna troppo crudo [2.58]
Dolci spirto d’Amore [2.10] Pavan á 5[4.42]
O Filli, se veder patessi il core [2.54]
Ah, dispietata Circe [2.46]
Vero non é, che l’anima mi parta [2.29]
Der Ritter Mascaharada oder Grabbe Schaw á 5 (instrum.) [1.12]
Weser-Renaissance/Manfred Cordes
rec. Schloss Brake Lemgo, West Germany, 14-16 January 2011
CPO 777 662-2 [77.34]

Most of us can trot out several English and indeed Italian madrigal composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries without too much difficulty but what about German composers? It’s true that many musicians have forgotten that Schütz, born the same year as Grabbe, brought out a book of Italian madrigals in 1611 as did Hans Leo Hassler but who else? Well, now you can discover for yourselves in this recording of secular vocal works and some instrumental ones by the little known Johann Grabbe.
The extensive booklet notes give us a great deal of background but say next to nothing about this collection nor is any analysis or musical description provided. It took me quite some time to read them and even more time to absorb them.
This is Volume 2 in a collection named ‘Renaissance im Norden’ which CPO is promulgating. Volume 1 was devoted to Michael Praetorius’s Oestermesse.
First, we have an essay ‘The Renaissance in the Weser Region’ by Heiner Borggrefe. If your sense of German Topography is as limited as mine then the map on page 7 will be useful. The rest of the booklet has been written by Veronika Greul and has three further sections ‘Princely Residences in Northern Germany’, ‘Count Simon VI and Johann Grabbe’ and ‘Johann Grabbe and the Schamberg Line’. The significance, musically, is that Grabbe was enabled, by his enlightened sponsors including the music-loving Count Simon, and later Ernst II, to study in Italy and to experiment with modernistic techniques on his return. Both Simon and Ernst also encouraged other composers, like Schütz and Pederson (who was Danish), to work at their courts and encouraged many other aspects of the Arts. In the end the family became practically bankrupt.
The vocal pieces here come from Grabbe’s 1609 collection, which was printed in Venice. Its frontispiece is illustrated but the booklet is not clear. I assume that the five dances are from elsewhere. The set, which was written as a graduation exercise whilst Grabbe was studying under Gabrieli has been recorded before by Anthony Rooley, on MDG but I have not heard any of it. Rooley only recorded the madrigals.
CPO name and picture a vocal group of six and an instrumental group of eight but the voices are very often most attractively accompanied by the harp. This acts as a simple continuo following a fashion which was already in use in Italy.
These pieces do not consistently grip the attention in the way that similar pieces by the ‘greats’ of the period do. However many of them have several attractive characteristics, with word-play and word-painting among them. Take, for example, Viva fiamma del seno with its flashing lines for ‘Living flames’. Also in O chiome errant listen out for ‘How you fly and play’ with much inventive emphasis on ‘scherzando’. In Ch’io non t’ami, cor mio’ an imaginative turn of surprising harmony is employed for the words ‘may Death not spare me’ - ‘morte non mi perdoni’.
The favoured poet is Guaraní, also set by Monteverdi and Lassus. Of subjects of ‘languishing’, ‘death’, ‘unrequited love’, ‘unattainable lovers’ and intense passion are, as ever, present by the bucketful. Setting ‘oime’ to a descending tritone is another regular finger-print. This sort of intensity of expression was characteristic of the day. It seems to have been encouraged by Giovanni Gabrieli who, although he did not publish any madrigals after 1597, seems to have taught their use. Yet Grabbe has his own voice and touch, especially harmonically. This can be unpredictable and often quite complex as in Come sei cieceo, Amore and in E tu parti, ben mio.
Perhaps we can blame the large acoustic of Schloss Brake in Lemgo in North-Rhine Westphalia for making the text rather cloudy at times. I got used to the effect; either that or it might be because the madrigals seem to grow in maturity. I’m not sure which, but I gradually found myself warming to this composer and indeed to the performances. At first I found Weser-Renaissance not much more than various shades of grey (not quite fifty!). In madrigals like Lasso, perché mi fuggi I missed several points of expression. However, slowly the subtleties and the increasingly impassioned nature of the renditions began to register and I became more involved in the whole project. This was coupled with the gradual realisation that this is music by a significant master of the period and worthy of the time spent on it. I warmed to the voices and to their approach.
I’m not sure, incidentally, why the booklet cover has a reproduction of a Virgin and child by an artist called Hans Rottenhammer. The music is, after all, clearly secular. This is an important, quite rare and attractive madrigal collection.
Gary Higginson