This is not the first disc of 17th-century German chamber motets and laments for alto voice and strings, but with the countertenors we have around at the moment there is little danger of getting too much of a good thing. Daniel Taylor’s contribution with his own newly-founded group keeps good company with similar recent releases by Robin Blaze and the Parley of Instruments and Michael Chance and the Purcell Quartet, but has no difficulty withstanding the competition.
While the only novelties are instrumental ones – a robust lament for Ferdinand III by Schmelzer, and a Frenchified trio sonata for violin, gamba and continuo by Erlebach – and the choice of vocal pieces is not all that dissimilar to Chance’s with its heavy slant towards Buxtehude, there is quality enough here to make this a welcome arrival.
Common to all three releases are Buxtehude’s extrovert Jubilate Domine, with its virtuosic role for viola da gamba, and two of the most remarkable works of the time in Schütz’s Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott and Johann Christoph Bach’s ‘lamento’ Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte – anguished pieces both, and perfect demonstrations of the combination of intense expression, profound dignity and solid craftsmanship which makes German music of this period so haunting. These same qualities distinguish the Klage-Lied, Buxtehude’s moving lament for his dead father, though a rather more kitsch view of death is taken in Melchior Hoffmann’s Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, a minuet with bells once thought to have been by JS Bach.
Taylor has neither the distinctive and incisive vocal colour of Blaze, nor the knowingly detailed approach to text that distinguishes Chance, but he does possess one of the most purely beautiful among current countertenor voices, and uses it with skill and poise in predominantly slow music in which reliable intonation and breath control are so important. He also enjoys the best instrumental backing overall, with the mixed violins and viols of the Theatre of Early Music offering lush, consolatory warmth and lithe rhetorical springiness as required. Differences in programme apart, there is little to choose between Taylor and his two excellent rivals; perhaps ultimately his performances are the ones which make the strongest all-round appeal to the senses.