Martin Luther and Music
Bach-Chor Siegen, Johann Rosenmüller-Ensemble/Ulrich Stötzel
rec. October 2011, Martinikirche, Siegen. CPO 555 098-2 [70:59]
2017 sees the five hundredth anniversary of the day when Martin Luther (allegedly) nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the event that sparked off the Protestant Reformation. This anniversary is being marked across the cultural world, and it’s hardly surprising that the major contributions from the world of music are coming from Germany.
This collection, celebrating Luther’s impact on music, is a very good idea, and it gives full sung texts and their English translations throughout. However, it’s holed below the water-line by the very thin historical note. We get something about Luther himself and those who came after him, but we are told barely anything about the music itself or its relation to Luther, and so one is left to guess, unless one already has a pretty good deal of (very specialised) knowledge. I confess myself to have been totally lost in the instrumental numbers, lovely as they sound. That’s a real shame, very remiss in a release that inevitably has a strong historicist flavour, and it leaves me to suspect that others will probably do the job better this year.
The performances themselves are actually very good. Fabricius’ motet that opens the disc is full of bounce and jubilation, as befits the tone of the Psalm setting. The texture and tone reminded me a bit of Monteverdi, the cries of “Jauchzet!” putting me in mind of the more jubilant elements of the 1610 Vespers. ‘Non moriar, sed vivam’ has Luther’s own setting of words from Psalm 118, and blending it with plainchant reminds you that Luther was a man steeped in the Catholic musical tradition of his time.
Johann Walther was not only a contemporary of Luther, but also supervised the publication of the first Lutheran songbook for choir. His six-voice polyphony in ‘Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist’ is simple but very effective, and exemplifies the Lutheran principle that the words should be clearly audible. Schütz chose Luther’s translation of the 11th century antiphon Veni sancte spiritus for his sprightly motet ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist’. Eccard gives us lovely harmonisation in ‘Von Himmel Hoch’, and his ‘Verleih uns Frieden’ is steady and serious with a lovely brass line.
Praetorius’ vision of Isaiah Chapter 6 is beautifully sung, with a lively sense of question-and-answer to it. Rosenmüller’s setting of Psalm 84, ‘How Lovely are thy Dwelling Places’, uses small vocal forces but a lively, open-hearted instrumental line. The dance-like strain in the Osiander reminds you that Ein Feste Burg was based on popular folk melodies.
The climax of the disc is a cracking performance of Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. It’s a prime candidate for inclusion because the text consists only of the words of Luther’s Easter hymn, and every movement uses, in some form or other, the chorale hymn that Luther wrote for it; not that you’d guess that from the booklet notes. Its performance is very good, brightly sung with impeccable diction, and with sparkling orchestral playing that brings to life all of Bach’s (dazzling) interpretations of Luther’s meanings.
However, for the reasons I’ve given above, I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this disc to anyone who doesn’t already have a solid knowledge of the culture of German Protestantism, and it bothers me to think that the thought and care that have been lavished on curating and performing the music will probably be sidelined by other more sensitively constructed collections this year. I wait with anticipation to see what might come next.
Werner Fabricius (1633-1679)
Jubilum Evangelorum Lutheranorum Jauchzet ihr Himmel Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Non moriar, sed vivam Hans Neusiedler (c.1508-1563)
Dein hübsch und schön Thomas Stoltzer (c.1480-1526)
Septimi toni Johann Walter (1496-1570)
Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Komm, Heiliger Geist, SWV 417 Thomas Stoltzer
Terzii toni Hans Neusiedler (c.1508-1563)
Der rechte Studententantz Johann Eccard (1553-1611)
Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her
Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
Jesaja dem Propheten das geschah Johann Rosenmüller (1617-1684)
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen Lukas Osiander (1534-1604)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott Le Maistre, Schütz, Bach
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4