This is a splendid record! Christoph Bernhard (1628-1693) was a composer and teacher at the Dresden court, where a key tenet of his approach to teaching was that "A singer, even when he [sic] has a good voice and hits the right notes, can stake his claim to being a genuine vocalist only when he has mastered the fine art, the 'niceties', of musical presentation, from the balanced increasing and decreasing of the tones to improvised ornamentations of the melody and the proper affective nuancings in vocal articulation in keeping with the text". It's more than fortunate, then, that by and large the five singers on this excellent CD are sufficiently at home with such niceties and sufficiently aware of the relationship of Italian to German early baroque ornamentation to add significantly to the relatively unknown music's appeal.
Earlier in his career, Bernhard was employed as an alto singer at the court of the Prince Elector of Saxony, a post which also required him to teach choral techniques. Performance manuals revealing much useful practice of style and convention between Schütz and Bach were another result of his time spent at these duties. The present – highly recommendable – recording consciously aims to adhere to the composer's ideas in terms of operatic ensemble singing (indeed the music is very redolent of Monteverdi at times) with an expert non-intrusive continuo group of plucked, stringed and keyboard instruments fewer than ten in strength, here Das Kleine Konzert. The whole is directed by Hermann Max.
Indeed, Bernhard served as deputy to Schütz at Dresden, was described by him as "wolqualificierten Jungenmensch aus Pommern" (Bernhard was born in Kolberg, Pomerania), and undertook much of the day to day music-making at court and at table as Schütz gradually withdrew from the court's business. As well as (secular) madrigals and psalm settings, Bernhard wrote and performed sacred poetic songs employing one or more voice parts with both continuo and multiple instruments. Following Schütz' style, he also added a suitably declamatory flavor to his obviously inborn vividness… one gets a real sense of what sort of person Bernhard must have been; his skills in these areas are all evident throughout the dozen admirably-performed pieces on this CD. They too really do have character.
Also like Schütz, Bernhard was commissioned by the Dresden court to travel twice to Italy: in 1650 to Venice and seven years later to Rome. On each occasion the court was the better off for the music editions and Italian musicians Bernhard brought back enriching its life. The Italian influence is evident here in a certain sweetness, great virtuosity and an arioso approach to melodic lines. One senses too that Bernhard adapted some of his writing to suit the forces at court available to him at any one time.
These experiences and the development of these skills eventually found fruition in the "Twenty German Concerti for 2, 3, 4, and 5 voices" as the "Geistliche Harmonien" published by Bernhard in 1665, when he had moved on to Hamburg. These are mostly psalm settings, which the forces on this record additionally bring to life by using a measured dramatic approach: singers "enter", sing in ensemble, and "retire" in effective complement to the gentle yet fervent direction of the music and text. This works particularly well as longer lines are elaborated and the profundity of Bernhard's composition is unselfconsciously experienced. The counterpoint and melodic simplicity of Herzlich Lieb Hab' Ich Dich, O Herr, for example, is soft; hence all the more affecting. Max knows just how to underline with a slight forte and understate with a change in tempo. The funeral music, "Ich sahe an alles Thun", the longest piece on this CD at almost 12 minutes, on the other hand, is known to have been composed (in 1669) while Bernhard was in Hamburg. By 1674 or 1675 he was back in Dresden – indeed he oversaw the musical side of Schütz's funeral.
There is, nevertheless, a happy blend of variety and unified musical invention in the just over and hour's worth of music offered on this disc. Lovers of Bernhard and the Dresden school should not hesitate to buy it: there's virtually nothing else of his music recorded and no other CD devoted exclusively to this underrated composer. Those factors alone would recommend it even if it weren't for the sprightly playing, which never lacks clarity and drive. Although perhaps the acoustic is a little dry (it might have benefited from just a touch more reverberation), this is a compelling set of performances. Never hurried yet never too drawn.
German Baroque specialist Hermann Max is obviously at home in this music; he feels the need neither to over-glamorize it nor to infuse the kind of spurious reticence that can come from an intimacy with the material when combined with the amount of painstaking research Max that carries out. His belief is that historically-authentic recreation is not an end in itself, rather a means to rejuvenating the beauty and liveliness of the music. He has succeeded.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey