Musica Freybergensis / Roland Wilson

Wenn Engel musizieren (When Angels Make Music)

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This double CD from Germany's audiophile Raumklang label is the result of a unique confluence of research and musicianship. The music-making angels of the title are actual gilded angels from the burial vault of the cathedral of Freiberg, Germany -- in Saxony, not to be confused (as even some German writers have done) with Freiburg, in Baden-Württemberg. Freiberg was (and is) in Dresden's orbit, and much of the music performed here was connected with the court of Prince-Elector Augustus Moritz of the Holy Roman Empire (the electors were the princes who chose the emperor). On CD 2 (track 24) is a remarkable example of full-scale solemn polyphony that is not sacred; it is a secular piece in the elector's honor (although of course there is a whiff of the divine right of kings). The angels, dating from the late sixteenth century, are holding musical instruments that, much to the surprise of researchers from Leipzig University, turned out to be real. They were carefully measured, and then reproduced by contemporary instrument builders, giving a remarkable sonic portrait of the instruments in use at a given time and place during the German Renaissance. The instruments fit in with a general trend toward cutting, somewhat harsh sounds in the instrumental music of the late Renaissance as players get away from the artificially homogenous ideal of the brass groups who first took up this music. The upside of this trend is that textural variety, which listeners usually don't expect in Renaissance music, vividly emerges. Sharp contrasts in instrumental colors are present both in the secular pieces on disc two, which are mostly dances, and in the sacred pieces of disc one, featuring a mass by Dresden court composer Antonio Scandello. This is performed with the accompaniment of two curved cornetts (or zinks), four tenor trombones, a metal-stringed lute, and an organ -- still out of the mainstream for a Renaissance mass, but justifiable by a growing body of research. The annotators of the booklet here even liken the addition of instruments to Renaissance masses to the art-restoration projects undertaken lately in Europe's cathedrals -- when five centuries of dirt are scraped off, what were thought to be sober works turn out to be intensely colorful. A complaint here is that the forces used in each piece are rendered in a shorthand of German abbreviations that requires some concentration from the reader -- who will have to decode strings of characters like "GZ (W), KZ, 3 P, KDG, DG, TG, BG (G), BG (F), Org" (and the characters given in parentheses here are actually tiny superscripts in the booklet). This one means Gerades Zink, or straight cornett (by Wilson), Krummes Zink (curved cornett), three trombones, Diskantgeige (or treble violin), Tenorgeige (tenor violin), and so on. The instrument names are translated into English and French, but the situation is less than ideal for a release whose purpose is partly explanatory -- yes, this kind of a listing saves space, but there was plenty of space for a pointless illustration showing the players enclosed in an angel-bedecked Macintosh computer screen. The good news is that the sound, from the opening ringing of the cathedral bells, is spacious and extremely evocative of the time and place the recording is intended to capture. The performances, by an ad hoc group called Musica Freybergensis, are fine, with the zippy, gutsy dances on the second disc worthy of special note. This set will be essential for libraries of any size, or for anyone who follows new developments in the performance of Renaissance instrumental music.

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1
1:40
2
2:09
3
3:40
4
2:01
5
1:22
6
2:14
7
0:46
8
1:26
9
1:39
10
1:40
11
1:49
12
3:02
13
1:06
14
2:07
15
5:20
16
1:47
17
1:12
18
1:12
19
1:03
20
1:14
21
0:59
22
1:02
23
1:13
24
6:27
25
1:44
26
3:05
27
1:59
28
4:37
29
5:29
30
1:51
31
1:01
32
2:49
33
1:31
34
1:13
blue highlight denotes track pick