Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722)
Complete Sacred Works Volume 8
Opella Musica, camerata lipsiensis/Gregor Meyer
rec. 2021, Georgenkirche, Rötha (Saxonia), Germany
Lyrics and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download
cpo 555 460-2 
With the present disc one of the most interesting recording projects of recent years is coming to an end. For a long time Johann Kuhnau was a famous name which did not fail to appear in many books on music history, and especially in books about Johann Sebastian Bach, but then mainly in his capacity as Bach’s predecessor in the office of Thomaskantor in Leipzig. His own music was hardly known; the main exceptions were his Biblical Sonatas for keyboard.
The fact that the recording of his complete sacred oeuvre comprises only eight discs indicates that his extant oeuvre is not that large. It must have been quite sizeable, though. His obituary in the local yearbook says: “The church pieces he then composed, especially from the year 1701, when he became cantor and music director, may well be difficult to count, considering that he never or very rarely turned to compositions by other composers in his many musical performances; to the contrary, he was often called upon to help out others with compositions of his own.” Michael Maul, in his liner-notes, concludes: “In sheer quantity this huge body of music probably outstrips that of his successor at the St Thomas’s, Johann Sebastian Bach.” Obviously, we will never know. Fact is that a substantial part of his oeuvre has been lost. Only a little more than 30 pieces have been preserved. I have been lucky to be able to listen to and review all previous discs, and I can only agree with David Erler, singer in the ensemble Opella Musica, and as editor responsible for the publication of Kuhnau’s oeuvre by Breitkopf & Härtel: “What’s actually special about it is that there
isn’t really one special thing about it – Kuhnau is a master of variety. There are little motets, very intimate solo cantatas, impressively through-composed vocal concertos, and even really magnificent festive compositions.”
The last volume confirms this judgement. It includes several pieces that one may not have expected from Kuhnau, and which are unlike anything that has been recorded so far. Von Jacobs doppelter Heyrath is a play about the biblical story of Jacob who serves his uncle Laban for seven years in return for the hand of his youngest daughter Rachel. On their wedding night, Laban switched Jacob’s betrothed for his eldest daughter Leah. Kuhnau took this story also as the subject of one of his Biblical Sonatas. The play was written by Kuhnau’s teacher and mentor Christian Weise, and although the printed edition mentions the composer with the initials J.K., it seems certain that Kuhnau is the composer, rather than Johann Krieger, to whom it has been attributed previously. One of the reasons is that it is an established fact that Kuhnau took part in the performance himself. The work is scored for five voices, and the instrumental ensemble includes three trombones and timpani as well as two instruments called biffaro, which is thought to refer to the shawm. The music is entirely strophic; the first four lines are sung by a solo voice, the lines 5 to 8 by the tutti. The piece is preceded by a short fragment from an aria with several stanzas which includes only two pages of music, which do not fit the text. That is the reason it is performed instrumentally. Kuhnau’s authorship cannot be established, but it is from Kuhnau’s environment and its character makes it a good introduction to the music for the play.
Whereas this is a stage work with a sacred content, with Spirate clementes, o Zephyri amici we leave the world of sacred music. This is a cantata on a Latin text, whose content is secular. It begins thus: “Blow, O you mild friends of Zephyr, and with breezes boding bliss calm my heart’s raging fires.” It is a cantata in Italian style, in which – as was very common at the time – natural phenomena, such as the wind, waves, floods and flames, are used metaphorically to depict the tribulations of love. It is scored for two sopranos, bass, two violins and basso continuo. It is a piece that is stylistically very unlike anything that Kuhnau has written, and therefore his authorship is questionable.
It is not the only piece whose authenticity is doubtful. Only a few works by Kuhnau are available in his own handwriting, and because of that a number of pieces can only be attributed to Kuhnau with some caution. That makes the discovery of the three arias which close this disc a really important addition to the composer’s oeuvre, as they have been preserved in autograph. They go back to performances in Grimma by the Kantor Samuel Jacobi, after having been performed in Leipzig. For these performances both text and instrumentation were slightly adapted. The occasion of their composition and performance may have been the Palatine War of Succession (1688-1697). In 1689 Saxony had become involved in the war when it joined the ‘Great Alliance’ against France. “It is quite possible that Kuhnau composed the arias for one of the documented meetings of the Saxon court with the allies during the Leipzig trade fairs”, Michael Maul writes. Their texts clearly refer to the war, and it does not come as a surprise that the instrumental ensemble includes two trumpets and timpani. The arias are strophic, and the third includes an ‘echo choir’.
In Ach Herr, wie sind meine Feinde so viel, the instrumental ensemble also includes two trumpets, this time with the addition of a trombone. The author of the libretto, the above-mentioned Christian Weise, set the text of Psalm 3 in Martin Luther’s translation, and added comments of his own between the verses. Whereas the verses from the Psalm have the traces of a recitative, the free texts are treated as arias, but without dacapos. In the opening sinfonia, the trombone has an obbligato part. In the first verse – “Ah Lord, how many are mine enemies” – Kuhnau makes use of the stile concitato; one is reminded of the many battaglias written in the 17th century. The vocal scoring is for soprano and bass.
Very different is Ende gut und alles gut, a cantata for the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year, the Sunday before Advent. As was common practice, it is about death and life everlasting: “What in time had its beginning must come to an end with time.” The concluding aria says: “My Jesus, my everything in life and death, you who enable me to inherit the heavenly spheres, and so, until life ends in death, Jesus remains my beginning, my middle and end.” The scoring for soprano, violin and basso continuo suggests that it may not have been intended for performance at St Thomas’s in Leipzig, but rather a smaller establishment. It has been preserved in parts in the hand of Johann Christoph Raubenius, Kantor at Luckau in Lower Lusatia. It may have been one of those pieces with which Kuhnau “had to help out others”, as the above-mentioned obituary says. The text is taken from a collection of cantatas written by Erdmann Neumeister and published in 1702. It is inspired by Italian opera and consists of recitatives and arias. A work like this contradicts the long-standing prejudice that Kuhnau was an opponent of the new fashion of cantata-writing which was becoming fashionable in his time.
As I wrote in the first paragraph, the Kuhnau project is one of the most interesting of recent years, and I would add: also one of the most important. That is not only because Kuhnau was a highly respected and much admired composer, and the quality of his oeuvre is beyond doubt, but also because his music sheds light on a little-known episode in German music history: the shift from the sacred concerto of the 17th century to the Italian-style cantata of the 18th century, which we know from the oeuvre of the likes of Bach, Telemann and Graupner. This development can be perfectly illustrated with the oeuvre of Kuhnau. Another composer waiting to be rediscovered and whose oeuvre documents the same development is Johann Krieger. It is not just that this project demonstrates the quality of Kuhnau’s music. It also received pretty much ideal performances. The consistency of the interpretation and the actual performances from the first to the last volume is impressive. One can only congratulate all participants and those who made this project possible. With this volume it comes to a glorious conclusion.
On a technical note: in my digital copy there was a slight technical disturbance in track 24. I was able to remove it with my software (Audacity), but if one decides to purchase this disc, one should be careful and check this track. As I don’t have the physical disc, I don’t know if it has the same problem.
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Music from the play ‘Von Jacobs doppelter Heyrath’
Music from the play ‘In einer Parodie eines neuen Peter Sequenzens von lautern Absurdis Comicis’
Ach Herr, wie sind meiner Feinde so viel
Ende gut und alles Gut
Was der Himmel selbsten liebt
Entferne sich, was Unruh macht
Sacra pellat taeda bella