Le Banquet Céleste & Damien Guillon - P.H. Erlebach: Lieder - MusicWeb International [JV]
It must have been around 40 years ago that I heard on the radio the recording of a concert with Mieke van der Sluis, at the time one of the leading voices of the early music movement. Part of the programme were two arias from the collection Harmonische Freude musicalischer Freunde by the German composer Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. At the time I hardly knew him, but I was impressed by the quality of these arias, and I hoped to hear more of them. Unfortunately, since then I have heard pieces from this collection only sporadically. It is quite surprising that it has received so little attention to date, and therefore I was happy, when in 2019 Damien Guillon, with his ensemble Le Banquet Céleste, was to give a concert in my hometown Utrecht, entirely devoted to Erlebach and his arias. I was hoping that the programme would be released in a commercial recording, and that is the one to be reviewed here.
Johann Heinrich Erlebach shares the fate of many composers of his time; a large part of his oeuvre has been lost. In this particular case it was the fire which hit the castle of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt in 1735 which destroyed many of his works. Ironically it was the great appreciation of the court for its former Kapellmeister which caused this tragedy: after Erlebach's death it purchased all his music from his widow. At the same time Erlebach's reputation among his colleagues is the reason a respectable number of his compositions have come down to us as they collected and exchanged them to be performed where they were working. Still, we only have a relatively small number of the about 750 works Erlebach seems to have composed. He wrote music in all genres, both vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular. Also evidence of Erlebach's reputation is a contemporary poet. In one of his works the title character says: "From there I came to Rudolstadt, where Mr. Erlebach is music director to Count von Schwarzburg and among German composers gives the most satisfaction and outstandingly distinguishes himself".
The most substantial recording of his oeuvre is a twofer with cantatas, performed by soloists and the ensemble Les Amis de Philippe, directed by the late Ludger Rémy. Today the best-known part of his oeuvre is the set of VI Sonate à Violino & Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo, printed in Nuremberg in 1694; two of these are included here. Only a few arias from the above-mentioned collection have made it to disc. Three of them are included in a recording by Miriam Feuersinger, Franz Vitzthum and the Capricornus Consort Basel. Two of these are also part of this disc, which in a way is disappointing, considering the lack of recordings of these arias.
Harmonische Freude musicalischer Freunde is a collection of 50 "moral and political arias" which was printed in 1697 for solo voice(s), two violins and basso continuo. It was reprinted in 1710 and that same year a second collection was published with another 25 arias. The arias are all strophic, but most stanzas have a dacapo. They are not unlike the opera arias composed at that time, as these often had a strophic texture as well. At the same time they can be seen as a stage in the development of the solo song. The word "political" should not be misunderstood. As the author of the English translation of the liner-notes states: "'Politisch' [political] often means 'secular' in seventeenth-century German, without any connotation of politics in the modern sense". The titles of the arias suggest that they are the first lines, but that is not the case. They rather sum up their content. The aria Die Zeit verkehret, was uns beschweret, for instance, opens with the line "Ihr Gedanken, quält mich nicht".
When I first heard some of these songs, I was struck by Erlebach's melodic gifts as well as his skills in writing for the human voice, and that was confirmed when I heard the discs mentioned above and Damien Guillon's performances on this recording. Erlebach shows a great sensitivity for the text and its emotional meaning. The stanzas are set to the same music, which restricts the possibility to illustrate single words or phrases. Even so, Erlebach is able to translate textual elements into his music, not only in the vocal parts, but also through the contributions of the instruments. Des Tadlers Stich verlache ich opens with fast figures, first in the strings and then in the voice, to illustrate the first phrase: "You enviers, you merely hurl your darts at the target you have fixed in me". The descending figures in the opening of Liebe in Abwesenheit grünet durch Beständigkeit are a perfect illustration of the first halves of the first and second stanzas, which refer to the pain and the grief the protagonist feels in his heart. One of the most expressive pieces in the programme was one also sung by Mieke van der Sluis many years ago: Die Zeit verkehret, was uns beschweret. Erlebach effectively explores the contrast in the text between the two halves of the first stanza.
Considering the size of the two collections of arias by Erlebach, we only get here a very small selection. It is to be hoped that the release of this disc will inspire other performers and ensembles to have a look at these collections of songs. It would be great if more of them would be performed and recorded. Damien Guillon proves himself here to be the ideal advocate of this repertoire. His experience with German music, for instance the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach, explains why he feels at home in this repertoire. His command of the German language and his feeling for the character of German music results in a compelling performance of Erlebach's arias. Diction, pronunciation and ornamentation leave nothing to be desired.
One issue I need to mention; not every piece is performed complete. The first (Seine Not recht überlegen), for instance, comprises four stanzas. Here we get only two, and the booklet has printed the wrong one as the second: Guillon does not sing the first and the fourth, as suggested, but the first and the second.
I already mentioned the set of sonatas by Erlebach. Two of them are included here. I understand that the performers wished to create some variety, but I would have preferred more arias instead. The sonatas here are played well, just as the instrumentalists do a fine job in the arias, but these sonatas are available complete in several recordings. The best of them is that of L'Achéron.
Anyway, this disc is a treasure, because of the music and the performances. Let's hope for a Erlebach renaissance.