JÖRG HERCHET: Das Geistliche Jahr: Four Cantatas [TrackList follows] – Meißner Kantorei 1961/ Ensemble vocal modern/ Christfried Brödel – querstand multichannel SACD KJK 1113 (2 disks), 74:57 + CD, 64:14 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Since liturgical music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been dominated by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox composers such as Penderecki, Pärt, and Kancheli, it’s refreshing to see that there is at least one serious postmodern composer writing sacred music in the Protestant tradition. These four cantatas, centering on holy days in the church calendar, are in the tradition of the North German Lutheran composers of Bach’s and Telemann’s day. I don’t know if Jörg Herchet (b. 1943) will someday complete a full cycle of cantatas for the liturgical year as Bach was commissioned to do, but the title Das Geisliche Jahr seems to imply this. So far, Herchet’s project, started as early as 1976, seems still not to be complete, though the notes to this recording tell us some twenty individual cantatas have been written to date. Whatever the case, the four cantatas on this disc constitute an important contribution to contemporary church music.
As it turns out, this music is not purely Lutheran or indeed Protestant but ecumenical in spirit. The cantata mariens templegang celebrates the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, observed on November 21 in the Orthodox Church. The holy day has its origin in the legend that Mary’s parents brought her as a youth to the Temple “to be raised by the priests and nourished by angels.” Kantate zum feste des leibes und blutes christi was commissioned by the Interdisciplinary Congress of Contemporary Music and Theology in Kassel. “The main topic of the Congress was the Agnus Dei of the Holy Mass.” Herchet’s cantata follows the tradition of music celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi, observed in the Catholic Church on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday and celebrating “the corporeal presence of Christ during the sacrament of Eucharist.” The other two cantatas hew more closely to the Protestant church calendar: the pfingstkantate celebrates the Feast of Pentecost, while the remaining cantata was written to mark the first Sunday in Advent.
Besides the very contemporary musical idiom, these cantatas, with the exception of kantate zum feste des leibes und blutes Christi (based on the traditional Catholic sequence for the Mass of Corpus Christi, Lauda Sion salvatorem, and Psalm 144), use texts that blend excerpts from the Bible and the Liturgy with contemporary interpolations designed to reflect the spiritual dislocation and political and social unrest of today. As Jörg Milbradt reflects in his brief introductory notes to the recording: “[Religious convictions], unfortunately, have become obscured as they are transmitted along the dimly lit pathway of sacred tradition. Today their relevance in illuminating the problems of our highly technocratic society is doubtful; furthermore, over the years they have fractured as Christian love and self-sacrifice have become smothered time and again by the exercise of naked power at an institutional and individual level. Thus today such beliefs are infused with doubt and treated with incomprehensibility.” A pretty dire assessment. No wonder American Christians, especially evangelicals, lament the virtual death of their religion in Europe, where churches are barren of parishioners and civilization and its discontents seem to be the twin unsteady pillars of society.
This grim reality is portrayed most eloquently in kantate zum 1. sonntag im advent, in which the mysterious gift of the Incarnation is juxtaposed to the “acclamation” Jesus received on his entry into Jerusalem during Passover. The music of Jesus’ birth is delivered by a solo tenor, chamber choir, and organ sounding from the organ loft, while a large choir at the altar, accompanied by brass and percussion, represents the Passover crowds. After the chamber choir sing hosannas to welcome the birth of Jesus, the large choir enters the fray, tossing about lines of text that subtly speak to the spiritual uncertainty that haunted Jesus’ world and, much more, our own: “demagogues,” “materialists,” “cynics,” and “Fascists” are all mentioned in passing by the crowd who come to reject “Jesus’ gift, instead demanding that he fulfill their own wishes; thus the birth of Christ as an eternal verity portrayed by the first ensemble is missing its counterpart: the birth in the heart of each individual.” This, of course, would have been the central message of an Advent cantata by Bach. The large choir continues to bandy about terms that plague our everyday life: “data protection,” “mid-term elections,” “ban on testing,” punctuated by a series of perfunctory, mechanical hosannas that make a mockery of the chamber choir’s praise.
The work ends with a chord played on the organ “which, containing all musical intervals, represents Christ himself. . . . Due to the politically explosive nature of the text, this work written in 1985/86 could not be performed in the GDR [Soviet East Germany] before 1989.” I’d think many Europeans would like to suppress it today since it speaks directly to the fear and loathing gripping much of modern Europe, where a showdown between modern skeptical materialism and medieval fundamentalism seems inevitable.
Herchet’s music—and its underlying spiritual, social, and political messages—is so complex that I will let this one analysis suffice for all four cantatas; I hope I’m not abdicating my critical duties too much by doing so. As for the music, I haven’t discussed it yet except in terms of performing forces and their dispositions, but then those issues are central to the music itself. The pfingstkantate, for example, employs soloists, orchestra, a large choir and children’s choir, a trio of trumpeters, sixteen choral soloists, plus additional instrumentalists, all placed at various locations around the performing venue. The large choir questions the meaning of the Trinity and of the Pentecostal mystery; the baritone delivers the traditional Pentecost message from the book of Acts, while the group of vocal soloists “present 36 appeals to the Holy Spirit. . . .” Meantime, “the so-called Trompeteria—placed at some distance from the main ensemble—structures the 49-minute work with seven interjections each lasting one minute.” Yes, it’s all just as dizzyingly complex and fascinating as it appears on paper.
What does the music sound like? Well, at times it recalls the weird otherworldly choral music of Ligeti that graced the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But that’s before Herchet really gets going. At other times he sounds like Penderecki in high gear, yet really there is so much individuality in Herchet’s work that these comparisons can only serve to suggest he’s a contemporary composer who shares some features with the best contemporary composers of choral music. Herchet uses all the late-twentieth-century musical tricks of the trade—microtonality, serialism, Sprechtstimme—but leavens or updates them with reference to popular contemporary idioms such as jazz, pop, and even disco. His orchestral and choral dissonances are sometimes irritating, sometime almost maddening, but then it is a mad, mad world that Herchet is trying to convey. This is religious music whose chief end is not consolation but challenge and confrontation.
The recordings were all made live and emanate from various German churches. While they cover quite a number of years (mariens tempelgang comes from 1982, while the latest, pfingstkantate, was set down in 2010), the chief differences derive from the SACD mastering, which is applied both to the earliest and latest recordings here. Why the other recordings weren’t similarly remastered, I can’t guess. [The CD does not duplicate the selections of the Blu-ray…Ed.] In pfingstkantate, some of the vocal soloists, percussion, and the “Trompeteria” sound from the rear speakers; this adds greatly to the effect. The large chorus and orchestra, placed at the front, provide a thrilling sense of depth and spaciousness. As with all live recordings, there are the usual audience noises and oddities of balance to put up with, but these are blessedly minimal.
The remaining recordings are less glamorous, a touch of hiss showing up in mariens tempelgang, but mostly they’re very acceptable, as are the performances—and then some. Much of this music is almost shocking in its intensity; singers and orchestra alike rising to the many challenges of the program.
As I say, these are important works, and every enthusiast of contemporary choral music—indeed every contemporary music enthusiast—should hear the recording.
SACD: pfingstkantate; kantate “mariens tempelgang”
CD: kantate zum 1.sontag im advent; kantate zum fest des fleisches und blutes christi
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