19 Dec 2011

San Marco in Hamburg: Motets by Hieronymus Praetorius

In the first part of the seventeenth century, the north German city of Hamburg spawned an unusually rich organ culture, with Jacob Praetorius, the younger, and Heinrich Scheidemann both pupils of the famous Dutch organist, Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck, as leading figures.

A subsequent generation would be led by players such as Matthias Weckmann and Johann Adam Reinken, this latter a figure to whom J. S. Bach would bend the knee in his well-chronicled trip to Hamburg in 1720. At the earlier end of the spectrum stands the figure of Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-29), father of Jacob, the younger, and himself successor to his father, Jacob the elder, at the famed Jakobikirche.

This organ culture was bred by the prominence of the city’s churches, of which the Petrikirche, Jakobikirche, Catharinenkirche, and Nikolaikirche were especially significant. And in this environment some of the organists provided not only organ music, but also notable liturgical music in the form of motet and canticle. Such is the case with Hieronymus Praetorius, featured here in the CD anthology “San Marco in Hamburg.” The reference to “San Marco” acknowledges the strong influence of the Venetian school of Giovanni Gabrieli. The path from Germany to Venice was reasonably well worn, with the travels of composers like Heinrich Sch├╝tz and Hans Leo Hassler often cited examples, but the rich sonorities of Venice captivated other composers who had never heard the music of San Marco in situ. This was the case with Hieronymus Praetorius (and also with the better known Michael Praetorius—no family relation), but if learned from afar, it is a musical style they assimilated with fluency.

In “San Marco in Hamburg” the ensemble Weser-Renaissance Bremen under the direction of Manfred Cordes explores the Italian-influenced motets of Hieronymus, and does so with a recording of distinction. Though some of the pieces are large-scale, Cordes compellingly takes them on with only 15 musicians—six singers singing one-to-a-part and 9 instrumentalists combining winds, strings, and continuo. The result is that in the sumptuous 12-voice “Jubilate Deo” that opens the recording, the sonic richness is a subtler taste to savor rather than a full-belted blast of power that overwhelms. And this holds true for the large number of 8-voice works, as well. Performed in this way, the clarity of motive, the unflagging attention to purity of intonation—such wonderful final chords in the sections of the “Magnificat”!—and general buoyance of the sound can come to the fore with very satisfying results.

The decorative passage work is well served by the one-to-a-part configuration, and in motets like “Cantate Domino,” this ornamental style sparkles as foil to the suave lilt of triple-meter tutti passages. Two of the motets, “Ab oriente and Wie lang” are performed as solo motets, with accompanying polyphonic voices played instrumentally. In “Ab oriente,” this gives a welcome chance to relish the fine control of alto Peter de Groot’s sensitive singing, and the plaintive ethereal sounds of soprano Monika Mauch in “Wie lang” offer one of the highlights of the recording.

Steven Plank