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Early Music Media Review Print

Sharla Nafziger: Loveliest Immanuel

May 11, 2010 - Williamsburg, MA:

Loveliest Immanuel: Moravian Sacred Solos — Sharla Nafziger, soprano, Bach Festival Chamber Orchestra. of Winter Park, FL, John V. Sinclair, conductor. MMF 0901, ©2009, 45:56, $16.00. Moravian Music Foundation.

The Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum = United Brethren) perhaps took music learning and making in the Classical tradition by all members of its congregations more seriously than many other Protestant denominations, much in the tradition of the early Lutherans up to the time of J.S. Bach. The first Moravians to come to the US settled in Bethlehem, PA, in 1743, and from there some went south to settle in North Carolina in what is now known as Old Salem, in 1753. With a single exception, the 18 works on this CD are all found in collections of the collegia musica of one or both of these congregations, although most of the nine composers represented did not come to the US. All works but one are in German; that exception, the one which lends its title to the CD, was written by the sole composer represented, John Antes (1740-1811), who was born and raised in the US, but he traveled to Europe, and then to Egypt as a missionary, where he was tortured, and ended his days in England. He was an acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin with whom he corresponded. Some composers are represented by a single work, others by three, and one, Johann Friedrich Peter (1746-1813), by five. Peter was in Salem 1780-90 and is considered the most gifted of the Moravian composers in America, although he was born in Holland and came here with his brother Simon (1743-1819) in 1770.

Most of the works are quite short, all but four being under three minutes, many under two. The four longer ones, the longest of which is nearly six-and-a-half minutes, are perhaps the most satisfying simply because they are more fully developed. All have lovely melodies which are varied and well suited to their texts, mostly Biblical verses or hymns: Moravian composers believed that the music needed first of all to support the text that was the primary focus. But their brevity often disappoints: one would like them to be perhaps twice as long to be truly effective, tiny gems though they be. Most of the composers belong to the first and second post-J.S. Bach generations: some of them lived into the second and third decades of the 19th century; but their style, as is often the case with church music, looks back to the earlier time of Bach and Handel. Johann Daniel Grimm (1719-60), author of the longest and of another nearly four-minute work, was a near contemporary of J.S. Bach.

Canadian-born soprano Nafziger's voice is particularly well suited to the repertoire and her diction is impeccable. The chamber orchestra — composed of six violins (three firsts and three seconds), two violas, two celli, and a bass, two flutes and a bassoon — makes a lovely blend that never overpowers her. The performance can only be described as suitably lovely.

The booklet contains brief bios of the composers and texts and translations of all the works with indications of their sources and the names of their editors (many by Dr. Nola Reed Knouse, the director of the MMF) and translators. It is organized strictly alphabetically by composer and work title (first line) respectively rather than by CD track playing order; this makes for a bit of searching and jumping around to follow along, which also requires having both booklet and case in hand, since the tracks are listed only on the outside of the tray card. There are also brief bios of the soprano and the conductor as well as lists of the musicians and of other recordings of Moravian music available from the MMF or on other commercial labels. Its back gives a description of the MMF. The recorded sound is also appropriate to the works: while it is performed in a concert hall, there is a resonance that evokes a church or cathedral  It is all in all a well-conceived and executed production, necessary juggling act to follow along notwithstanding.

On the other hand, the total playing time is a bit skimpy for this price in today's world and is nowhere printed in the booklet, on the tray card, or online, where, curiously, no details about the contents of the CD are available either. The MMF might want to consider further developing this aspect of its otherwise fine web site at www.MoravianMusic.org.