WECKMANN Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902034
Every so often a disc comes along that brings one’s attention to a composer who has previously been overlooked. To discover an hour’s worth of superb music from quarters in which you wouldn’t normally expect to find it is a wonderful experience, particularly when it is well performed. This latest disc from Harmonia Mundi (who, by the way, make a habit of this: its Richafort Requiem from 2002 is still a listening highlight for me) gets it half right – three-quarters right if we’re being generous. The compositional skills of Hamburg-based Matthias Weckmann are plain to hear, and there is plenty of superb, edgy playing from the instrumentalists, but the quartet of singers falls disappointingly short.
This is doubly disappointing because much of the music is so original in texture, melody and harmony, and the rest of the instrumentalists are so good. Chief culprits are alto Alexander Schneider and tenor Hans Jörg Mammel; a tendency by both to close the throat at the top of a line results at times in a rather stifled climax to the phrase and a somewhat mannered sound. In addition, when singing together, the vocal lines can tend towards the rather chewy, instead of matching the open sound of the strings.
But I don’t want to put you off, because there are some grippingly dramatic moments on this disc. Junghänel’s instrumentalists are on top form, alternatively heart wrenchingly pining and coruscatingly brilliant. They are joined for two canzons by an excellent cornettist (Bruce Dickey) and trombonist (Simen van Mechelen), and an arrestingly funky (and uncredited) bassoonist.
And there is much scope for all the players to venture deep into the emotions of the music. The later works show Weckmann as a composer unafraid to push the boundaries: crunchy chromatic lines abound, harmonies veer off in decidedly unexpected directions, and he experiments in a number of pieces with wave-like figures that lap persistently underneath – or occasionally with – the texts. It’s fascinating listening. Much of the music was probably written for his own collegium musicum, which he founded at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg shortly after his appointment as organist there in 1655. This well-respected ensemble would have been able to cope with some of the more virtuosic moments in his writing.
Three of the more substantial sacred concertos are likely to have been composed in 1663, a year when the plague came to Hamburg. If, as seems plausible, this had an impact on Weckmann’s compositions, he channelled his anguish (he lost his wife to the plague), sorrow and anger into the music with admirable drama, passion and elegance.