Music at the Table: Household Music at the Home of Martin Luther, reads the title of this German release, whose booklet texts are translated into English either woefully badly or not at all. You might expect a collection of secular music from that title, but Luther constantly had his mind on breaking on through to the other side, and in fact all of it is sacred; even the included instrumental canons by Martin Agricola were intended for liturgical use. The vocal pieces, all motets, are taken from a pair of publications by the Wittenberg printer and early Lutheran supporter Georg Rhau (or Rhaw, since the booklet can't make up its mind on this point). They were intended for home use, and it's very likely that Luther himself used them that way; he wrote the preface to one of the books. Possibly as a result, Josquin's In te, Domine, speravi was included by Rhau as the first piece. Luther's admiration for Josquin is well known, but hearing this piece in this context makes it more concrete. The album as a whole can be heard two ways: as a perfectly pleasant collection of German Renaissance polyphony and instrumental music, or as a snapshot of the musical environment that surrounded the founder of Protestant Christianity. From the latter perspective it's quite interesting indeed, for it seems to contain the next few centuries of German religious music as if in chrysalis form, and the listener can ruminate a bit on the musical components of a social revolution. Briefly, it had radical and conservative aspects. Luther liked Latin motets (the first four pieces, including a lovely anonymous setting of Inviolata, integra et cast est, yes, a Marian motet) that communicated clearly and were on the cutting edge of Renaissance style. But he also liked music in German, in the vernacular. These pieces, however, coming from "the musical backwoods" (in the booklet's words), were necessarily conservative; the motets by the likes of Benedictus Ducis and Balthasar Resinarius, none of them familiar pieces, are conservative in style, with chorale tunes (referred to in the booklet as "Lutheran plainsong") taking the role of the old-fashioned cantus firmus. The focus on contrapuntal expertise that ran straight down to Bach is present in the set of canons by Agricola, which have also been very sparsely recorded. The performances by Germany's Peñalosa Ensemble (in the unaccompanied vocal works) and Divertimento Musicale Nürnberg-Basel (in the canons) are simple, straightforward, and exactly appropriate. An intriguing disc that ought to find listeners outside the circles of German Renaissance fans, for it sheds some light on the cultural milieu of early Lutheranism.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim