"A real discovery," proclaims the blurb on the back of the box. For once this is not record-company hype but an unadorned truth. Caspar Kittel (1603-39) spent his short working life entirely in the service of the Dresden Hofkapelle, where he was both a pupil and colleague of Heinrich Schütz. He seems to have performed various functions at court, including those of singing teacher and theorbist, but otherwise few biographical details appear to have survived. It is known, however, that in 1624 he was sent to Italy, where he apparently remained for something like five years, being joined there by Schütz and traveling back to Dresden in the company of the older master in 1629.
Italy is the key to Kittel's major publication; his op. 1, entitled Arien und Kantaten, was published in 1638. Drawing on the style of secular song introduced in Italy by Peri and Caccini, this collection of 30 works consists of either through-composed pieces (Nos. 1, 3, 4, 6, 11, and 12 on the present disc) or strophic variations, a form often termed "cantata" by Italian composers of this period. Kittel was the first German composer to use the word, but in fact all these works can equally well be called arias, the option followed by Harmonia Mundi in its title listing. Scored for between one and four voices, the arias are of value not only on musical but also on literary grounds. With few exceptions (only one in the present selection), the texts are by the outstanding contemporary poet Martin Opitz, also the librettist of Schütz's sole opera, the lost Dafne. In his headings, Opitz acknowledges the model of both Flemish sources and Ronsard, thus adding a further equation to this fascinating amalgam of European literary and musical traditions. The high quality of the poetry inspired Kittel to settings that without exception draw the listener inexorably into a world that explores the nature of love philosophically (Nos. 8 and 14), romantically (No. 12), erotically (Nos. 1 and 4), humorously (No. 17), by metaphor (No. 6), and so on.
Kittel left no opening sinfonias or ritornellos for his op. 1, although one would certainly expect such divisions between verses in works of this type. The present performances have solved the problem by using instrumental pieces drawn almost exclusively from the works of the Nuremberg composer Johann Erasmus Kindermann (1616-55). Many of them are of great beauty in themselves, perhaps at times even too much so in comparison with Kittel's direct, strong rhetoric. But in general they work well, being of high enough quality to inspire interest in hearing some of Kindermann's own vocal works. While, as already noted, Kittel took his point of departure from Italian models, his works are no slavish imitations. The need to marry German texts closely to music brought with it different demands, the solution of which manifestly owes much to his master and exemplar, Heinrich Schütz.
At the heart of the disc lie two masterpieces, Arias Nos. 6 and 12. The first is one of several that bind through-composed arias with one of the standard 17th-century bass patterns, in this instance the Romanesca. The text, one of Opitz's loveliest, takes the life span of the virginal lily as a metaphor for that of the deceased beloved. From the bees that cluster around the flower at the height of summer (a passage that produces a burst of dynamic energy from Kittel) through the ecstatic "caressing with sweet winds of love" to the "sharp north wind . . . breaking her lovely body" the metaphor is pursued until the final anguished climax, "You are, though dead, alive, while I alive am dead." The two voices, often working in close imitation of brief phrases, create a web of sound running a gamut from fervent intensity to utter pathos, at last drawing together in the tragic utterance of the final word, "tod." The cumulative effect of the aria is quite overwhelming, particularly since it is given a magnificently committed and strongly projected performance by Stojkovic and Fink. No. 12, "Geht, meine Seufzer, hin" (Go, sighs ofmine, go forth), for two tenors, is also through-composed, and it too spans a wide emotional spectrum. Setting out from a point of great beauty and restraint, the aria develops into passionate anger as the protagonist demands of his sighs that they move the piteous lover "who cares not a whit about me." The rising figure that opens the final verse might have come straight from Monteverdi, while the "flames of love" in the last line burn with a passion that brings the aria to a powerful conclusion. Again all this is vividly communicated by Türk and Ovenden, although for some reason the male contributions appear less forwardly balanced than those of the ladies.
Monteverdi, the Monteverdi of the Scherzi musicali, is also evoked in "Als ich nechst" (Recently I went out walking), a delightful narrative scored for two tenors and bass in which Cupid turns the tables on his music master to teach the latter to love. Finally, mention must also be made of two Opitz paraphrases from the Song of Songs (Nos. 1 and 4), solo monodies in which the erotic imagery of the texts is complemented by ornately sumptuous ornamentation. Virtuosity is indeed a prime characteristic of this music, making it extraordinary to learn that Kittel conceived these arias as practice for the choir of the Dresden court. As I've already suggested, the five singers here prove more than capable of meeting such demands, their performances throughout being informed by the highest standards of both technical and interpretive expertise. They are given fine support by the two violins and continuo group. The notes are not without one or two oddities of translation, nor is the text in No. 12, where failure to translate the German word lust (happiness) leads to an amusing line in the English.
"A real discovery"? Yes, indeed, and not just because this marvelous disc introduces us to some outstanding music and music-making. The disc also announces the emergence from the shadows of a genuine German seconda prattica, an important historical landmark.--Brian Robins, Fanfare