It’s Christmas for Kuhnau

by
05 January 2018

Roderic Dunnett spots a run of interest in a neglected composer

THE annual Christmas festival mounted at St John’s, Smith Square, in London, invariably embraces, alongside more familiar seasonal repertoire, less well-known works.

One of the most inventive recitals featured the choir of King’s College, London, in a series of cantatas based on the celebrated Lutheran chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (“Sleepers, wake”). Telemann and Buxtehude supplied two of these pieces, but others reached back to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the once significant Hamburg-based composer and pupil of Schütz, Matthias Weckmann (c.1619-74), and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, the fifth son of Johann Sebastian, and himself a prolific composer of sacred and secular cantatas.

This year brought the first visit, and, I hope, not the last, by the Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis, who are rightly acclaimed; for their singing and playing seemed the most exciting and electrifying to me since the advent on to British concert platforms, some years ago, of the breathtakingly accomplished Akademie für alte Musik Berlin.

Vox Luminis, too, brought unusual fare; for they prefaced their riveting account of Bach’s Magnificat with a wholly unfamiliar work by Pachelbel (best known for his highly popular canon, in its various forms): Pachelbel’s setting of Psalm 100, the Jubilate Deo, or (as here), “Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt”. The mere quality of the group’s enunciation and the playing of the paired oboes (Marcel Ponseele, Rodrigo Gutierrez) lifted this bracing work on to a higher plane. But the joyous twin-soprano opening, the effective use of semichorus, several resplendent tenor solos (notably “Know that the Lord, he is God”), one alto and tenor duet, and a positive flood of top-notch solos latterly (not forgetting several dazzling interspersed sinfonias), bespoke the high quality of both the composition and the performers.

There was more. Vox Luminis set alongside the Bach a Magnificat by Bach’s predecessor at Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). One should have been prepared for this revelation by the stunning recording of Kuhnau’s sacred cantatas on Hyperion’s bargain Helios label by the King’s Consort (CDH 55394), whose soloists include James Bowman and Robin Blaze. All six works there suggested a master composer; and this St John’s performance only supported that view.

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Kuhnau was something of a polymath, and Bach certainly respected him both as man and as musician. Here was a level of sophistication on a par with, say, Purcell, whose approximate coeval Kuhnau was. The contrasts between sections of the Magnificat were, if anything, more varied than Bach’s, and just as well effected. A resplendent and then, at times, beautifully subdued use of a trio of period trumpets; the joyous soprano solo of “et exultavit” and even more staggering ensuing alto solo (“Quia respexit”); aching strings for “et misericordia” (with first tenor); juxtaposition of, in effect, antiphonal soprano and bass (“Deposuit”); an impassioned tenor solo at “Suscepit Israel” — all this was lulling and uplifting by turns.

The shifts of mood and subtle characterisations of the words seemed extraordinarily inspired. Kuhnau’s use of single-word repetition produced some of the most admirable, almost operatic effects (one thinks of Monteverdi); his written-out decorations of the vocal lines seemed different from almost any other composer’s. His finale was vital, almost explosive.

I never expected to refer to this setting quite in the same breath as Bach’s, but, with so glorious a performance, it was possible so to do.

 

REMARKABLY, a couple of days earlier, Kuhnau, so rarely recognised over here, was given an airing in South Warwickhire by the Stour Singers at St Edmund’s, Shipston-on-Stour, a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. The highlight of their concert’s first half was Kuhnau’s “Uns ist ein Kind geboren” (a nativity cantata not included on the Hyperion disc).

The expressive text of the arias offers a striking instance of the effect of the 17th/18th-century Pietist movement on music of the period, which perhaps comes across as a fusion of dedication and sentiment: “My duty is to you, my Jesus. . . What as a holy offering might be worthy, what might please you?”, sung by the bass-baritone Alistair Donaghue, Kuhnau having lightened the textures to support the soloists. “Nothing saddens my heart, since through your kindness rich comfort is brought” was an exquisite later solo with counterpointed twin flutes and cello solo, producing an almost pastoral effect. Even the recitative (”Emmanuel, it was your pleasure that my spirit and faith can comprehend you”) is unusually original, poised, and expressive.

The Stour Singers had their say in Kuhnau’s scattered choruses. The quasi-fugal lower voice leads of the opening (“Uns ist ein Kind”); the fourth section, “Ich will den Names des Gottes loben”, which aptly has the spring and freshness of a Bach motet; and even the decorated chorale of the vibrant close revealed the choir fully abreast of this, in its way, quite challenging “new” work, to which the conductor Richard Emms brought a wealth of well-judged pacings and thoughtfully calculated dynamics.

Most of Kuhnau’s unpublished sacred choral works have disappeared: a grievous loss. All the more reason then, to applaud these pioneering revivals of works that, thankfully, we do have.

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