ECCARD Sacred & Secular Works
Johannes Eccard’s might not be a household name but he did leave a tune that is justly famous, setting Luther’s famous ‘Ein feste Burg’. His career unfolded in Bavaria, where he worked under Lassus and, like fellow Augsburg composer Hans Leo Hassler, wrote music that continues his mentor’s style very agreeably. The portrait that accompanied the posthumous publication of his output belies his music’s geniality, but even so, German ensembles have understandably taken him to their collective bosom.
Though they both mix voices and instruments, these two recordings are very different in style. Opella Musica is a mixed vocal ensemble of soloists and Ensemble NOEMA a mixed instrumental one. For the short secular pieces they join forces but in the sacred pieces the vocalists tend to go it alone. The former are most impressive (more on which later) but the centrepiece is Eccard’s five-voice Mass based on ‘Mon coeur se recommande à vous’, which recognisably emulates not only Lassus’s song but also his way of using borrowed materials within a Mass. The song itself is given a sensitive reading, and that of the Mass is not that different in tone. Purists may object to such a lack of contrast but the approach sounds fresh, intelligent and unaffected. The devotional German works suggest that Eccard’s famous chorale was no flash in the pan: in their directness, elegance and feel for contrapuntal sonority the Christmas pieces Übers Gebirg Maria geht and O Freude über Freud stand in a direct line between Senfl and Schütz. As an introduction to a very fine composer this is hard to beat, one of this year’s discoveries so far. There is little duplication between the offering from CPO and its counterpart on Carus, which focuses on German repertoire exclusively. Here again a vocal and an instrumental ensemble join forces, though this time both are much larger, the Staats- und Domchor Berlin numbering several dozen (including boy trebles). Their recital begins, appropriately, with Ein feste Burg but soon introduces secular tunes whose subject matter is very mixed and, in one case at least, sufficiently laced with double entendres to come as a surprise from the mouths of choirboys (if only, again, to purists).
Subtexts are entertainingly brought to light thanks to a number of departures from the score and, for all that these may pall on repeated listening, the zest with which the young singers respond is obvious. As a recital it is less tightly constructed than its counterpart and the interpretations (as I have hinted) have less depth. But the lighter tone makes for an accessible first approach to what remains music of remarkable quality.