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Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629)
Magnificat [11.46]; Surge, propera, amica mea [6.49]; O quam pulcra es [3.48];
Tota pulcra es [6.24]; Vulnerasti cor meum [4.07]
Jacob PRAETORIUS (1586-1651)
Quam pulcra es [4.31]; Veni in hortum meum [3.37]; Indica mihi [4.11]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Magnificat per omnes versus super ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la [18.59]; Nigra sum sed Formosa [3.24]
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor and Ensemble/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, March 2014
ARCHIV PRODUCTION 4794522 [71.49]

By just using the heading ‘Praetorius’ this disc covers three composers of the same name: father and son Hieronymus and Jacob and the unrelated but much more famous Michael. They were all more or less contemporaries and wrote for similar choral and instrumental combinations. Composing mostly to Latin texts many of you will know pieces by Michael which are also in German.

On reading the booklet notes however I’m not sure who is meant to be the star. The publicity on behalf of Pablo Heras-Casado, hardly a well known name in the UK at least, is quite astonishing. He was ‘Musical America’s 2014 Conductor of the Year’ and is, apparently “the most wide-ranging maestro in the world today’. We are even told that he is music’s ‘Renaissance Man’. The notes go on to tell us how this Spanish conductor came to discover these pieces and this repertoire. He is apparently ‘fascinated by the melodic and harmonic directness of these choral works”. I think it also helps the promoters that he is young and handsome.

The Balthasar-Neumann-Chor with its ensemble consist of about thirty musicians and they are, quite rightly, given much credit. These fascinating pieces are discussed but, unlike the normal Archiv disc, not in much detail.

Opening with Hieronymus’s Magnificat, we realise that we are in for treat. This work comes from a collection ‘Canticum Beatae Maria Virginis’ published in Hamburg in 1622 where he and his son lived, breathed and had their being. The text is set ‘in alternatum’ with plainchant, quite a surprise for the period and includes a fascinating mix of vocal textures.

The quotes in my first paragraph are taken from the booklet essay entitled ‘On Love, Passion and Humanity’ and this seems apt for the motets recorded here are of texts mostly from that incredibly erotic book of the old Testament ‘The Song of Songs’ and from that the text of Hieronymus’ motet Surge, propera amica mea is taken. This is a suitably warm and expressive work (‘Arise my love and come for the winter is passed’) so beautifully realised by the ensemble and conductor.

Both of these texts discussed so far are written from a feminine angle but Hieronymus’s O Quam pulcra es is from the male angle ending with ‘so is my love among the maidens’. These first two pieces were published in 1599 and 1625 respectively but this motet comes from a collection of 1618 as does the next. The sensuality of the lines Tota pulcra es (‘All fair you are my beloved’) is brought out by Hieronymus by the use of a double choir, so brilliantly and clearly realised in this recording - whose elegant lines wind luxuriously around each other - and by some warm and sumptuous cornetto playing. Equally ravishing is his quite madrigalian setting of Vulnerasti cor meum (‘You have enraptured my heart’) performed here by solo voices. This was printed in 1625 in ‘Cantiones novae officiosae’.

One of Jacob’s settings published in 1606 is also of Quam pulcra es written therefore when he was probably still a teenager. It is not unlike his father’s setting published more than twenty years later and is equally expressive and sensitive. Although the meaning is similar the texts are not quite the same this one including the wonderful line ‘You are as stately as a palm tree’. Jacob is also represented by two other works from his later publications of 1607 and 1635. The former is a joyous setting Veni in hortum meum and is in the Venetian style, written probably when Jacob was a still a pupil of Sweelinck although probably more for the organ. Using a much less common text his blissful Indica mihi has the upper and lower voices divided across the stereo space that therefore brings out the imitative writing Jacob so skilfully employs, apt for the text in fact: ‘Show me you who my soul loves/where you feed your flock and rest’.

Michael Praetorius is represented by two works including a Magnificat of Monteverdian vastness, which seems to point towards the baroque and to Schütz. The plainsong is substituted for a rising scale, which often moves across various parts creating sequential patterns. Interest is also maintained through the combinations of soli and tutti and in various contrasting vocal textures, for example for the upper voices only in verse 5. Sometimes the voices are just used a capella. There are also changes of time signature and the Gloria is rich in invention in the final minutes. If you know only Michael’s Christmas settings this masterwork will come as an exciting surprise.

Another famous text from the Song of Songs can be found in Michael’s setting of Nigra sum published in 1607 (‘I am black but beautiful’) set in the renaissance polychoral style. Its interesting to compare it with Monteverdi’s from his Vespers published in 1610 which was written in the style we term the ‘seconda practica’ with solo voices.

The seven-pronged instrumental ensemble are mostly low profile being used almost exclusively to accompany the voices with few opportunities to play alone although cornetto and violins are sometimes allowed their heads. Throughout, their contribution is deliciously subtle. This all contributes to a very enjoyable programme indeed and Pablo Heras-Casado and his soloists and choir deserve the adulation Archiv have spent on them. All texts are supplied and well translated and there are several photographs and biographies.
Gary Higginson



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