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CD Review: Schmelzer Radiantly Performed

TENET Vocal Artists and ACRONYM performed Schmelzer’s ‘Le Memorie Dolorose’ in March 2018 in New York.


Johann Heinrich Schmelzer: Le Memorie dolorose
TENET Vocal Artists and ACRONYM
Olde Focus FCR914

By Karen Cook

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer died of plague in 1680, only a few months after being awarded the position of Kapellmeister at the imperial court of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Schmelzer had worked for many years at the Hapsburg court, first as a violinist and composer for Leopold’s father, Emperor Ferdinand III, and later director of instrumental music and vice-Kapellmeister for Leopold. He was widely known as one of the best violinists in Europe, and was an influential composer of instrumental music, especially the violin sonata.

Yet Schmelzer, as an employee of the emperor, wrote music for all occasions, as befitting the needs of the imperial court. The Viennese court tradition for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday included performances of sepolcri, an oratorio-like genre staged with characters, scenery, and dramatic action in front of a replication of the tomb of Jesus. This album is the first recording of one of Schmelzer’s three sepolcri, Le Memorie dolorose (The Dolorous Memories), first performed on Good Friday in 1678 and containing two recitative-aria sections composed by Leopold himself. Also receiving their first recordings are two of Schmelzer’s instrumental sonatas, inserted into the sepolcro as tracks 13 and 23.

Le Memorie dolorose tells the story of the Passion and burial of Jesus from the perspective of various characters, including the Virgin Mary, the three Marys who were believed to have visited the tomb of Jesus (the Marys Magdalene, Cleopas, and Salome), Joseph of Arimathea, several disciples, and a host of angels. The sepolcro’s libretto, written by court poet Nicolo Minato (lightly edited on this recording to remove anti-Semitic references), pairs ten happy memories of Jesus’ life with ten sad ones, each pair sharing a central theme; the last, for example, contrasts the raising of Lazarus from the dead with the burial of Jesus.

Portrait of Johann Heinrich Schmelzer c. 1697.

The recording is luminous. The singers of TENET Vocal Artists, both solo and tutti, exude a sense of refined pathos and rhetorical gesture apropos for the work’s original intimate courtly setting. The instrumentalists of ACRONYM more than match them in emotiveness; the continuo is warm, resonant, and supportive, the full ensemble beautifully unified. The enthusiasm and sense of attack in the plucked strings, counterbalanced by the sweet melodic lines of the upper voices, and the full ensemble’s commitment to the different moods of each section, show the first interpolated sonata to be a real hidden gem.

In the pop-music world, a supergroup is a musical ensemble made up of artists well known for their other solo or ensemble work. Although named separately here, both TENET and ACRONYM are stars in early music. Both ensembles have consistently received the highest praise for both their engaging live performances and recordings, which have included everything from warhorses such as the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 to premiere recordings of works by Biber, Valentini, and now, Schmelzer. This album is TENET’s sixth recording, ACRONYM’s ninth, but their first together, and the combination is nothing short of “super.” A highly recommended album, and may we hope that these two ensembles join forces again.

Karen Cook specializes in the music, theory, and notation of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. She is assistant professor of music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.

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CD Review: ACRONYM In Splendid Battle

ACRONYM Photo: Jeff Weeks


ACRONYM: The Battle the Bethel & the Ball
Music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704)
Olde Focus Recordings FRC913

By Daniel Hathaway

ACRONYM was founded in 2012 with the mission of “giving modern premieres of the wild instrumental music of the seventeenth century,” a vocation the baroque string band has pursued with zeal, issuing eight CDs since 2014 featuring works by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Rosenmüller, Samuel Capricornus, and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

The newest, The Battle, the Bethel, and the Ball, explores music composed by or attributed to Biber, including scores preserved in the Archdiocesan Museum in Kroměříž, the Moravian town in the Czech Republic where the composer worked briefly as a court valet and musician beginning in 1668, and to whose bishop Biber continued to send compositions after he moved to Salzburg in 1670.

The most certainly-by-Biber work is the last on the disc, his Battalia à 9, one of a number of pieces over the ages that have set out to represent armed conflict in music. This one includes a Charles Ivesian scene (a pileup of eight folk tunes in different keys suggesting the chaotic singing of drunken soldiers), the various sounds of battle (conjured with surprisingly modern extended string techniques), and a final lament by a wounded musketeer.

ACRONYM has fun with it, as they do with the first item on the recording, the anonymous Sonata Jucunda à5, which suggests another battle, perhaps Turkish because of its exotic melody. Some attribute it to Biber — the score is also in the library at Kroměříž — others to Schmelzer. Whoever wrote it had a vivid imagination. It features fancy fiddling (brilliantly tossed off by Edwin Huizinga), arresting drones, and a bizarre little organ cadenza toward the end.

Two vocal works might be by Biber because of their scordatura violin tuning. The lovely — and lengthy — O dulcis Jesu is ardently sung with crisp diction by soprano Molly Quinn, its violin line fervently supplied by Karina Schmitz, who later joins baritone Jesse Blumberg in a reverent performance of the short Eucharistic cantata Hic est Panis.

That covers the “Battle” and “Bethel” portions of the disc — if we take the latter to mean, as it does in Hebrew, ‘House of God.’ The rest of the recording is devoted to engaging examples of dance music.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Viola da gamba player Loren Ludwig is the splendid soloist in a Sonatina [con altre arie], a suite of five standard dance movements that also exists in a version for scordatura violin (Biber’s fingerprints, if not his name, pop up again). Harpsichord and theorbo provide colorful support to Ludwig’s masterful playing.

The longest track on the disc is devoted to a violin Ciacona, played by the indefatigable Adriane Post, who gets little respite — and no change of key — for more than 17 minutes. At the 14-minute point, just when you think every possibility of creating divisions over a four-bar bass line has been exhausted, Biber (or whoever) throws in a delightfully sleazy chromatic variation. This piece also exists in a shorter version, but its sheer length on this recording is its distinguishing feature.

The last dance work, a Ballettae ad duos choros, brings the whole ACRONYM band into action. Divided into two antiphonal ensembles, the strings make their way without pause through eight short and cheerful movements: Intrada, Aria, Treza, Courante, Sarabande, Gavotte, Gigue, and Ciacona. Adding to the Biber authorship puzzles, this piece was originally attributed to “Henrico Biber,” but his name was later crossed off in favor of a mysterious “Signore Hugi.”

ACRONYM (which amusingly stands for “Anachronistic Cooperative Realizing Obscure Nuanced Yesteryear’s Masterpieces”) has brought some interesting and previously neglected music into the light with this recording. It will be intriguing to see what dust recording No. 9 will blow off 17th-century repertoire still buried in libraries.

Daniel Hathaway founded after three decades as music director at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral. He studied historical musicology at Harvard College and Princeton University, and orchestral conducting at Tanglewood, and co-teaches Music Criticism at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

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