There is a freshness, a liveliness and a controlled but unrepressed vigor in the singing by Augsburger Domsingknaben on this delightful CD of choral works by the neglected sixteenth century German composer, Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). As soon as one learns (or is reminded) that Hassler may have been a pupil of Leonhard Lechner, who certainly was of the school of Lassus, the context of Hassler's beautiful, airy and yet touching musical style begins to be understood more deeply. When the fact that Hassler also traveled to Venice when still relatively young (he didn't live to be 50) and studied under Andrea Gabrieli (then maestro di capella at St. Mark's), one's appreciation of the younger composer's priorities, predilections – and indeed of his overall achievements – grows.
We also know that Hassler met and worked with Andrea's nephew, Giovanni, in Venice; indeed he became his friend. Not only was Giovanni Gabrieli, of course, the accomplished composer of splendid polychoral music himself, but he also apparently introduced Hassler to other such exponents in the same field as Claudio Merulo, Baldassare Donato, Orazio Vecchi and Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi. Despite spending barely a year and a quarter in Venice, he clearly absorbed (critical word) the idiom then current. On Gabrieli's recommendation he was called to Augsburg in 1585 for the wedding of members of the ruling Fugger family there; he worked in one capacity or another at Augsburg until 1601, when he moved back to the city of his birth, Nuremberg. Other of Hassler's appointments were in Ulm and Dresden.
Although we can easily perceive the grandeur and consequent openness of the Gabrielis and other Venetian composers in Hassler's spacious and generous scoring for voices, his is not derivative music. There is a grace and an absence of extroversion in the melody and textures that it all his own. Take the madrigal, Frisch auff, last uns ein gutes Glass [tr.11], for example: it's not only very Germanic but also seems directed at us as individual listeners in a way that the more "public" music of the Venetian school rarely was.
Indeed, it's to the credit of Reinhard Kammler, the director of the two dozen or so strong Augsburger Domsingknaben boys' choir, that this intimate yet "businesslike" essence of Hassler is aptly and consistently communicated to us. Through a highly subtle blend of individual and collective vocal nuances, the singers create a very approachable sound world, which allows us (urges us) to concentrate on the texts. Not only is every phrase in the dozen or so works presented here articulated clearly and with just the right measure of expression. But their awareness of the (always forward-flowing) direction of each piece is used to add to its impact. One never tires of the style. Nor does one's mind wander despite the fact that some of the madrigals – in particular the drinking songs – say, are in an idiom somewhat remote to us today. These performers draw us in without ever a hint at self-consciousness.
Hassler's treatment of the masses is equally approachable. Ecce quam bonum is a "parody mass", based on his motet of the same name; it's homophonic but simulates the polychorality, in which octo vocum is written. Each is declamatory in style. That could easily have tripped up a lesser choir and resulted in spurious rhetoric and misplaced emphases. That's far from the case here: tempi, lightness of touch and a momentum which is brisk, yet appropriate to the liturgical world for which they were intended ensure that. It's true that Italy not only represented an intense attraction to musicians in Germany in the decades during which Hassler was active. And also influenced the styles of many of them. Nevertheless, their ways of composing and arranging were well-absorbed, adapted and "repurposed" by Hassler. Although there's little or nothing startlingly original here, none of the music will disappoint as imitative or secondhand.
The CD was recorded in an appropriately "tidy" yet responsive acoustic… the hall of an elementary school in Biberach, in the Baden-Württemberg district of Germany. The booklet contains a pithy essay on the backgrounds of both Hassler and this music. Its texts are reproduced in German. For just under an hour's engaging and uplifting music (as well as a useful insight into the cross currents of late Renaissance German music) this CD can be recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.