Dresden Vespers: Johann David Heinichen

Dresden Vespers: Johann David Heinichen

One of the delights of exploring the byways of repertoire is discoveries such as this. On the Belgian label Accent, Jaroslav Thiel along with the Ensemble Polyharmonique and the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra peresent a simply glorious selection of church works by Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) that grouped together form the Vespers and Litany for the Feast of St Francis Xavier.

Music was an important force in Dresden in the 18th century - its nickname was "Florence on the Elbe". Church music is on display here, and it came at an interesting time. There were some implicit contradictions around: Dresden court life was Protestant in character, despite the politically motivated conversion of Elector August "the Strong" and his son, Elector Prince Friedrich August II, to the Catholic faith. This changed with the marriage of the Elector Prince to the strictly Catholic daughter of Emperor Joseph I, Maria Josepha. A new court had to be established and Catholic church music had to be built up along the lines of the Viennese imperial court. From then on, the Protestant court conductor Johann David Heinichen had to write splendid church music.

The "Vespers for the Feast of St. Xavier" honored the favorite saint of the new Electress, who appointed him special patron saint for Dresden. Heinichen's magnificent setting, available here as a premiere recording, once again demonstrates the importance of Dresden court music in this period.

Heinichen was a noted theorist as well as composer: his Der Generalbass in der Composition, a treatise on advanced continuo practice, descrbed by Grout as "inexhaustible,"  is much indebted to Gasparini's L'Armonico Pratico al Cimbalo. His Dresden Vespers begins with a Dixit Dominus, progressing to a Laudate pueri via a Confetibor and a Beatus vir before a Laudate Dominum and an Iste confessor lead the listener/worshipper to a beautiful Magnificat. The Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater and a final Litaniæ de Sancto Xaverio round off this most heautiful hour-plus of music.

Here's the trailer for this release:

The full title for this sequence of liturgical works is Vespers and Litany for the feast of St Francis Xavier. This is St Francis Xavier also known as Francisco de Gassu y. Javier, 1505-52, one of the founding members of the Jesuit Order. The current recording chooses from Heinichen's music of the 1720's to recreate the sequence of music required for this feast day: starting with a Dixit Dominus, it moved to a Confetibor and a Beatus viw; thence to Laudate pueri, Laudate Dominum and Iste confessor before a Magnificat, itself followed by the Marian antphon Alma Redemptoris Mater and, finally, Litanie de Sancto Xaverio.

The music is consistently inspired. there is a sort of J. C. Bach-like cleanliness about the Beatus Vir, for example, while there are many significant solo contributions - bass Cornelius Uhle excels in the "Suscitans" movement of the Laudate pueri, for example or the basso profondo of Matthias Lutze in the "Deposuit potentes" of the Magnificat. (and for choral excellence, listen to the lightness ofthe imitative entries in the work's closing "Gloria Patri").

Perhaps most toucing is Alma Redemptoris Mater, the gently pulsating strings like a heartbeat against which the solo an choral contributions. The final Litaniæ is an extended piece, just shy of a quarter of an hour. Cast in C minor, it has an almost Mozartian-lachrympose demeanour; the solo contributions are beauty itself, particularly some wonderful duet moments between tenor and bass.

This disc is a breath of fresh air; amazing to think that this is a premiere recording. Please note that Amazon has changed its mode of displaying purchase links (see below), but he process remains the same.

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