Andreas Hammerschmidt was one of the main composers
of religious music in Germany in the mid-17th century. Today he is overshadowed
by the towering figure of Heinrich Schütz, whom he greatly admired and
who once wrote a laudatory poem for one of Hammerschmidt's publications.
It is not known for sure when he was born: either in 1611 or 1612. As
a result commemorations of his birth took place in 2011 and 2012; these
included various recordings. Gli Scarlattisti have produced two discs.
This is the second; the first was reviewed here
Hammerschmidt was born in Brüx in Bohemia, where his family belonged to the Protestant community. During the Thirty Years War Bohemia became Catholic again, and Hammerschmidt's father decided to move to Freiberg in Saxony. Very little is known about his musical education. Some quite important musicians and composers were active in Freiberg during the time Hammerschmidt lived there, like Christoph Demantius and Stephan Otto, but there is no firm evidence that he was their pupil, even though he certainly knew them.
In 1635 Hammerschmidt was appointed organist at the Petrikirche, and in 1639 he moved to Zittau, where he became the organist of the Johanniskirche. It was his last position, and here he composed the largest part of his oeuvre. The position of organist was increasingly important, as he was responsible for composing and performing all church music and directing the soloists from the school choir and the instrumental ensemble of town musicians. In the early years in Zittau, though, Hammerschmidt – like so many of his colleagues in Germany – had to deal with the disastrous effects of the Thirty Years War. His activities as composer and performer not only made him a man of reputation, but also brought him considerable wealth. In the early 1670s he suffered from ill health. He died 1675. His tombstone calls him the Orpheus of Zittau.
The first disc was entirely devoted to music for the Christmas period.
The present recording spans the period in the ecclesiastical year from
Christmas to Pentecost. Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet
a piece for Christmastide. Schmücket das Fest mit Maien
the feast with green branches) is a concerto for Pentecost. In the centre
we find a piece for Passiontide: Vom Leiden Christi
, a setting
of a free poetic text. It is a short description of Jesus' Passion
at the cross, interrupted by a repeated phrase: "Turn, o God, to
our trouble; Christ, your blood makes all good". The contrasts
within the piece are created by juxtaposing passages in various scorings,
for two, three or five voices. This work is followed by a dialogue for
Easter, in which three sopranos represent the women who have come to
Jesus' sepulchre, and two tenors representing angels. The musical
figure on "wälzet" (roll away) is one example of many in Hammerschmidt's
music where he eloquently illustrates the text. After the dialogue between
the women and the angels we hear about the meeting of Jesus and Mary
Magdalene; the latter continuously sings "Rabboni" when Jesus
is urging her not to touch him and to go to his brethren to report his
resurrection. Notable is the chorus in the middle which is repeated
at the end, with a text in Latin: "Surrexit Christus hodie"
(Today Christ is arisen, a comforter of the whole world, alleluja).
The last piece by Hammerschmidt is a setting of Psalm 136, in which every statement is followed by the phrase "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever". It is set in a differentiated way, which creates nice contrasts between the verses of this Psalm. It is one of the more extraverted works by Hammerschmidt on this disc. The inclusion of a piece by Johann Rosenmüller underlines that they were quite different in their approach, although they were almost exact contemporaries.
Rosenmüller is well represented on disc, and in all his music the influence of the Italian style shines through. Even before he settled in Venice, where he mainly worked as a sackbut player, he was strongly attracted to the dramatic style which was in vogue in Italy. That comes clearly to the fore in his setting of Dixit Dominus
, scored for five solo voices, four-part tutti, two violins, three viole da gamba and bc. The text of this psalm includes some very dramatic passages, such as "The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies". Rosenmüller doesn't miss the opportunity to set this part in a quite theatrical way. If you know the setting which Handel would compose much later during his stay in Rome, you will notice strong similarities.
The line-up of the ensemble is a bit different in Rosenmüller from that in the rest of the programme; it was recorded at a much earlier date. His setting of Dixit Dominus
comes off best: the dramatic traits of this work are perfectly conveyed. The solo parts are well sung, for instance by Franz Vitzthum (alto) and Dominik Wörner (bass). The difference between the two composers is clearly demonstrated, although I believe that Hammerschmidt should have been performed with more intensity than is often the case here. There can be no doubt about the qualities of Gli Scarlattisti which consists of fine singers and players. The solo passages are all sung by members of the ensemble which guarantees a great amount of stylistic unity. That said, parts of the text could have been singled out more clearly, and the dynamic contrasts are too modest.
All in all, this disc gives a nice survey of Hammerschmidt's oeuvre, although the short playing time is disappointing. On this site you will find reviews of various other recordings of his oeuvre, and some include references to other discs as well. This composer certainly deserves serious investigation.
Johan van Veen