Album Review: “Eccard: Fröhlich will ich singen”

I’m always on the lookout for additional recordings of Lutheran chorales, and last week I found a real gem: Johannes Eccard: Fröhlich will ich singen, available on both iTunes and AmazonMP3. The sheer energy and beauty of this recording has kept me listening to this music non-stop for the past seven days.

Aside from tracks 4–14, which are secular pieces, and 15–16, which come from the “Preussische Festlieder,” the real stars here are recordings of chorale settings taken from Johannes Eccard’s Geistliche Lieder auf den Choral, Königsberg, 1597. These are five-part arrangements of some of the greatest Lutheran chorales. The polyphony of Eccard’s arrangements is often intricate, but never ceases to serve the melody, which is placed firmly in the soprano. With such good material as a starting point, it would be difficult to perform these arrangements poorly, but the recordings on this album positively soar.

The album opens with “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (iTunesAmazonMP3). While I have a mild appreciation for recordings of Johann Walter’s arrangement of Luther’s classic, this one blows them out of the water, only partly due to Eccard’s brilliance. The inclusion of percussion emphasizes the natural pulse of the music, and the performers clearly delight in what they are doing, particularly as the syncopation is emphasized in the penultimate line of each stanza (st. 1, “Sein grausam Rüstung ist,” st. 3, “Das Macht, er ist gericht’t“). One can only imagine the splendor had they elected to include stanza 2, with its soaring paean to Christ.

Track 2 is an achingly beautiful performance of Luther’s “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (iTunesAmazonMP3), stanzas 1 and 3, set to its 1525 Strassburg tune, later to be known as “Herr, wie du willst.” Those familiar with the Lutheran Service Book, Concordia Publishing House, 2006, may recognize the tune as that for No. 625, “Lord Jesus Christ, Life-Giving Bread.” This is truly the music of heaven. I would be content to go the rest of my days with this track playing on a continuous loop.

Track 3 is a lovely performance of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (iTunesAmazonMP3), with Johann Walter’s 1524 tune. The hymn is based on Psalm 51, and its penitential character is reflected in both the composition and its performance.

Track 17 is Luther’s “Vater unser im Himmelreich” (iTunesAmazonMP3), the Reformer’s hymnic version of the Lord’s Prayer. The performance includes stanzas 1, 5, and 9. Stanza 5 is beautifully sung by a soloist, which serves as an effective foil to the stirringly powerful entry of the full choir for the triumphant “Amen” stanza.

The album closes as strongly as it began, with a percussive rendition of Luther’s “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” (iTunesAmazonMP3). In Luther’s day, this hymn was sung at the conclusion of his “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort.” Here it concludes what I believe to be the finest recording of Lutheran chorales ever assembled.

I confess a degree of disinterest in the secular pieces included here, which are well done but not my cup of tea. Each of the chorale recordings, however, is pure gold. To find five of them on one album is a treat not to be passed up.

Here’s hoping and praying for many more such recordings in years to come!

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