Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: Luther and the Music of the Reformation
This year has seen several fine recordings celebrating the quincentenary of the founding act of the Reformation but this is comfortably the most searching and artistically rewarding that I’ve listened to. The easy option is to confine oneself to Schütz, Praetorius, even Bach or Telemann in some cases – never mind that the earliest of these was born well after Martin Luther’s death in 1546. While Schütz and Praetorius do feature here, there is also much earlier music, stretching right back to Johann Walter, one of Luther’s earliest musical collaborators. The music is of consistently high quality, the selections by ‘minor’ figures frequently as telling as those by acknowledged masters. Breadth of chronological coverage is matched by breadth of genre: there’s everything from Latin motets (of which Luther was very fond) to organ chorale variations and a short German Mass. Vox Luminis (here with organist Bart Jacobs) give themselves plenty a scope with the double-CD format, and fill both discs generously.
Programmatic flair is backed up by performances and a sound recording to match. Vox Luminis have received their fair share of accollades (their Schütz Musikaliches Exequien was Gramophone Record of the Year across all categories in 2012) but in ambition certainly, perhaps even in execution, this may be finer still. Among the vocal selections, Scheidt’s polychoral Ascendo ad Patrem meum is exquisite. The Veni Sancte Spiritus by Thomas Selle that follows probably looks slight on paper but some memorably stratospheric sopranos impart a hair-raising intensity. The selections for organ include some gems, too: the Thomas organ of St Vincent Church, Ciboure, has some extraordinary registrations for the chorale line of Lass mich dein sein und bleiben and Praetorius’s monumental variations on Ein feste Burg (arguably the quintessential chorale) stand comparison with Sweelinck. And that’s just the first disc. The acoustic variety is such that I was surprised to find on second hearing that Vox Luminis achieve all this with just voices and organ.
The accompanying long-format booklet is splendidly produced, the plentiful colour illustrations reinforcing the immediacy of the acoustic experience. The accompanying notes place the music usefully and legibly in its historical context. This must be a contender for my pick of the year come December.