THE DEW GATHERERS
Amanda Cole, Janet Brewer. Neil Heymink
Move Records MCD 565
It’s not every day that you come across music by Johann Philipp Krieger; his younger brother Johann, yes – familiar to most organists and harpsichordists as a name to reckon with when entering the early Baroque. But J.P. is an historical enigma and this CD deals with a significant part of his oeuvre about which details are sketchy and, even after enjoying the disc several times over, I’m uncertain whether or not I have a grip of its content.
The performers are mezzo Amanda Cole, bassoon Neil Heymink and harpsichord Janet Brewer. Alongside the 20 arias and songs that the players work through, Brewer concludes the album with Krieger’s Aria con variazioni in B, one of the three remaining keyboard works of the composer that I can find. As for the vocal numbers, not all of them employ Cole’s voice. For instance, the first track, An den wilden Aeolus from the opera Flora, Ceres und Pomona, sees the vocal line entrusted to the bassoon. Much the same happens further along with Jagerlust from Cephalus und Procris, and finally the two instruments take on the challenges of Die beue Bauernstube, also from the Procris work.
According to these musicologically informed musicians, you will only find 24 arias still extant from Krieger’s 34 (or thereabouts) operas and singspiels. So this compendium forms the greater part of his stage work to survive, although it hasn’t done so very well. The allocation of particular arias to specific characters presents problems – necessarily so when all you have to work with are fragments. And the trio has engaged in further forensic work by stripping back the detail inserted by editor Hans Joachim Moser for his 1930 Nagels Verlag publication of German songs. Throughout, the dominant orchestral input – the top string line, I suppose – is mainly entrusted to the bassoon: a process that leaves Amanda Cole very exposed.
This represents admirable, scouring treatment of the composer’s work, taking it back to a bare-bones stage. My problem is a simple one: the arias often lack any context. For example, the single extract from Der wiederkehrende Phoebus, a song about agility not just being witchcraft, is a spirited construct but without any trace of the opera’s libretto or cast of characters, it presents as an enigmatic operatic orphan.
Further, quite a few of the tracks are brief; three come in under a minute and the average length is a touch over two minutes. In fact, the most substantial offering – Liebespein from Cecrops mit seinen drei Tochtern – lasts 6 minutes and yet what you learn through its duration amounts to very little in terms of insight into Krieger’s compositional technique. Still, these musicians do good service for the Flora work with nine arias; the Cecrops and Procris works are represented by five numbers each.
Of course, the actual sound of these arias is circumscribed with few signs of inserted fanciful flights from any of the performing trio. But the general effect is – almost necessarily – reminiscent of Bach, mainly in the melodic movement, not in the underpinning craft where Krieger is less concerned with inventiveness but more with felicity of utterance, as in An die Sonnengott from the Flora opera: an address to Titan/Apollo which is fluent and engaging but straight out of the salon. Then, by contrast, Verliebtes Weinen und Lachen holds a few moments that remind you of Monteverdi’s operatic declamations.
More often, the composer’s bent turns to simple lyrics that don’t make many chromatic waves, like the assertively plaintive Der Heissverliebte where, as in several other arias, the bassoon takes over the vocal line for a verse or two; although you can’t rely on this textural relief as in Coridon in Geldnoten where Cole sings the same rather uninspired material four times. The first opportunity in these Flora extracts where you’d hope to get a hold on the composer in slightly extended format is the concluding Sommerfreuden, a 6/8 pastorale of some charm; but this is simply an aria with more verses than its predecessors.
The Cecrops group begins with that long Liebespein. Again, this is an amiable plaint but its melodic shape is predictable and, while the players’ efforts to deck it with some ornamentation are welcome, they’re not enough to compensate for its pedestrian inspiration. Ach! Pandrose, more concise, is brisk, almost a march and, without decrying Cole’s interpretation, might have benefited from being sung by a sturdy baritone. The lack of harmonic variety emerges pretty plainly in Die holde Nacht where the tonal centre – D minor? – hardly moves throughout the aria. Similarly, in Schmilz, hartes Herz!, a feint to the dominant is the only variety offered in a deft but unadventurous little lyric.
By the time you reach the Cephalus und Procris bracket, you have settled into the Krieger ethos: there will be no surprises and the melodies will be well-crafted but unexceptional. An die Einsamkeit opens interestingly enough with a set of two phrases beginning with a sustained vocal note, but moves into near-orthodoxy although the later unexpectedly high-ranging stages put a strain on Cole’s production and pitching. Du ungluckseliger Morgenstern is more interesting for its steady pace and its momentary forays into the relative major and melodic minor territories, even if the vocal range seems more constricted than usual.
Brewer deals efficiently with the B flat Variations. They offer few interpretative challenges and the harpsichordist observes all repeats. Early on, Krieger indulges us in a touch of chromaticism, but not enough to lead us too far away from the home key at any stage. The usual suspects turn up: triplets, running semiquavers in the left hand, pseudo-canons between the hands, registral statement and response, melodic mock-angularity, two-part inventions, paring-back to a bare outline, time-signature changes, widely-spaced parallel motion: the whole box of tricks more familiar to us from Handel’s harpsichord suites.
Finally, where do the dew gatherers come into it? It has to do with Cecrops’ daughters. One of them, Pandrose, was goddess of the dew; one of her other sisters is named Herse, which is Greek for ‘dew’. Interesting to know but most of this CD’s content is more earth-bound in nature than this ephemeral title suggests.