Balthasar Erben: Sacred Concertos from Danzig. © 2020 Coviello Classics

CD Spotlight

Unearthing Lost Cornerstones

JOHN DANTE PREVEDINI listens to music by seventeenth century composer Balthasar Erben

'... the disk itself becomes a curatorial introduction to the composer's entire life and work. The Coviello label evidently understands the weight of this responsibility very well ...'


Coviello Classics' recent release, Balthasar Erben: Sacred Concertos from Danzig, is the first ever album dedicated to the work of the long-forgotten composer Balthasar Erben (1626-1686). Hailing from Danzig (now Gdańsk), Erben's unusual creative voice was the product of the unlikely circumstances of his life, which brought him into close contact with several of the most influential musicians across seventeenth-century Europe. The Abendmusiken Basel, who perform on this disk under the direction of Jörg-Andreas Bötticher, have dedicated themselves to the mission of unearthing the legacies of seventeenth-century German composers long dismissed under the pervasive myth of the 'minor master'. In this way, the Abendmusiken Basel hope to resurrect the legacy of the musical culture that bridged the gap between Heinrich Schütz and J S Bach – in other words, a culture that laid essential cornerstones of common-practice repertoire still central to the classical music professions.

The challenge in a review like this is twofold. First is the central question inherent in approaching any performance of early music: exactly whose work are we evaluating? Early composers' manuscripts are often silent on many aspects of performance regularly specified by later composers, or the original scores survive solely in fragments or erroneous copies. What we hear in a recording of early music is thus frequently the product of decisions made less often by the composer and more often by musicologists, editors, ensemble directors and individual performers. The other half of the challenge is that Erben is a composer virtually unknown in modern times, as evidenced by the fact that all but one of his works on this disk are recording debuts. Not only does this signify the impossibility of comparison with alternate recordings of this repertoire, however. In the case of Erben, the disk itself becomes a curatorial introduction to the composer's entire life and work. The Coviello label evidently understands the weight of this responsibility very well, considering the extraordinary thought and care that went into selecting the repertoire, producing the recordings and preparing the extensive liner notes.

The liner notes provide a vast array of supporting content, including period illustrations of people and places in Erben's life, facsimile excerpts from Erben's manuscripts, original musical texts with English translations, brief analytical commentaries on the individual pieces and a composer biography. These collective materials present us with a compelling portrait of a man born and bred in a cosmopolitan Baltic coastal city which was a hub of trade and scientific innovation, somehow acquiring a strong musical education along the way. Showing promise in 1653 but seemingly needing more experience, the young Erben applied unsuccessfully for the position of local Kapellmeister, being instead awarded a large grant from the city council to fund a European tour benefitting his further compositional studies. The biographical notes explain that his journey began in the Holy Roman Empire and soon expanded to the Netherlands, England, France and the Papal States. The author specifically mentions Erben's studies with Froberger and Lully during his travels, additionally inferring his possible exposure to the work of Bertali and Carissimi. In 1658, he returned to Danzig and was finally awarded the Kapellmeister position, which he held until his death.

The repertoire chosen for this album, ostensibly composed after Erben's return to Danzig, covers a broad and well-balanced range of genres. This includes four vocal works in Latin, three in German, a one-movement trio sonata and three solo keyboard pieces by Erben. To add some contrast, the disk also includes a short keyboard toccata by Erben's Danzig contemporary Matthias Weckmann. The three Erben keyboard works – a passacaglia, a courante, and a sarabande – are presented together on one track as if in a suite, though the liner notes imply they were composed separately.

Listen — Balthasar Erben: Passacaglia. Courante. Sarabande
(track 3, 1:03-1:35) © 2020 Coviello Classics :

The stylistic influence of the various composers encountered in Erben's travels is audible in the recordings, namely the forms of Froberger's keyboard music, the vocal scoring of Carissimi's oratorios, the melodic contours of Lully's early ballet music and the episodic style of Bertali's instrumental writing. Similarities with other works are apparent on listening, however, including moments of Erben's Dixit Dominus and Magnificat that strikingly resemble the Symphoniae Sacrae of Schütz.

Listen — Balthasar Erben: Dixit Dominus
(track 1, 1:34-2:26) © 2020 Coviello Classics :

Erben not only fuses this immense range of stylistic lineages into one cohesive voice; he also imbues his writing with strong technical craft and a balanced sense of aesthetic judgment. This is especially evident in the brilliant Sonata sopra ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, Erben's take on a standard genre of the time requiring the composer to write polyphonic variations over a simple major scale (earlier examples by Byrd and Sweelinck are well known). The straightforwardness of the bass line in the trio allows the listener to easily follow and appreciate the structure of Erben's solution to the logical puzzle, revealing the full spectrum of his harmonic thinking at a time when Western music was in a prolonged flux between the old modal counterpoint system and an emerging practice of functional tonality.

Listen — Balthasar Erben: Sonata sopra ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la
(track 6, 1:50-2:39) © 2020 Coviello Classics :

Abendmusiken Basel's curation of Balthasar Erben for the modern era reveals a man struggling to make sense of many worlds simultaneously, a composer whose music grapples with questions on multiple planes and seeks new organizational parameters transcending culture and tradition. In one sense this may render him an anomaly, a historical curiosity whose value is more musicological than repertorial. Yet Erben appears to be in good company, as much of the best known seventeenth-century repertoire still remains obscure in the public consciousness for various reasons – for example, consider how much music from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries has reached 'pop status' compared with the seventeenth. Even in influential academic circles, seventeenth-century harmony tends to get left out of the pedagogical canon, as it conforms smoothly neither to 'Fuxian counterpoint' analysis like earlier music nor to Roman numeral analysis like later music. Thus, it is often not dealt with at all in the shaping of students' awareness of historical musical landscapes. These problematic and decidedly 'messy' features nonetheless reveal themselves to be the very properties that make the music so transformative in light of what was to come.

Listen — Balthasar Erben: Ach, dass ich doch in meinem Augen hätte
(track 2, 2:00-2:46) © 2020 Coviello Classics :

While there seems to be no conclusive evidence that Balthasar Erben had any direct stylistic successors, it is clear from this disk that he represents one of a precious handful of surviving voices from the first generations that dared to bring together such diverse stylistic lineages as the French suite, the German chorale, and the Italian aria into a common palette. If you are a working classical musician, you may well recognize that kind of palette as eventually responsible for most of the later Baroque 'masterworks' that help keep the lights on at night.

Copyright © 4 March 2021 John Dante Prevedini,
Connecticut, USA






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