Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor reigning from 1658 to 1705, seems to have been a rather sad figure. Like Britain's King George VI, he was a reluctant monarch who had not expected, and probably had not wanted, to be emperor. In fact, despite regarding himself as an absolute monarch, as emperors go his career was not a great success - in part because he spent much of his energy pursuing increasingly unsuccessful wars. Like his great rival, Louis XIV, he was a committed patron of the arts, supporting many fine musicians – in Leopold's case the likes of Fux, Kerll, Bertali, Schmelzer and Bononcini. But in addition, unlike Louis, he was no mean composer in his own right – as the present enterprising recording demonstrates.
Most of the music chosen here reflects the sadness of his personal life. The programme consists of a 'Stabat Mater' setting, a 'Motetto de Septem Doloribus Beatae Mariae Virginis', a Missa pro Defunctis, and Three Lessons for the First Nocturne of the Office for the Dead. They are performed by the vocal ensemble Capella Murensis and the instruments of Les Cornets Noirs, under the direction of Johannes Strobl. This is part of an ongoing series of fine baroque recordings created in the exceptional acoustic of the Abbey Church of Muri, Switzerland.
The Stabat Mater brings a succession of verses for solo voices, duets and choir, with a rich and beautifully-textured instrumental accompaniment and some fine contrapuntal choral passages. The following five-part motet follows a similar musical pattern, enhanced by especially fine singing from the soloists; in fact the five soloists are all distinguished baroque performers, namely sopranos Ulrike Hofbauer and Monika Mauch, countertenor Alex Potter, tenor Hans Jörg Mammel and bass Lisandro Abadie.
Leopold wrote his Missa pro Defunctis on the death of his first wife, the Infanta Margarita Teresa. Married at the age of 15, she died at 21 after giving birth to four children, only one of whom survived. By all accounts Leopold loved her very much and was heartbroken when she died. Three Requiems were performed at her funeral – by Bertali, Schmelzer and the present one by the emperor himself. Only some sections were set, namely Introit, Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Lux aeterna. The work is solemn, dignified and graceful, enhanced by its rich scoring for soloists and choir with winds (cornetti and trombones), strings and continuo. The instrumental Sonatas sound especially fine, superbly delivered by the players of Les Cornets Noirs.
The final, and most extensive, piece here is another work of mourning, in this case composed on the death of Leopold's second wife Claudia Felicitas of Habsburg, who also died after only three-and-a-half years of marriage. The work continued to be performed on the death of Leopold, and for many years after that. The first part of its lengthy title reads 'Tres Lectiones I. Nocturni pro Defunctis Piae Claudiae Felici …..'. Again, it has similar scoring with accompanied solos and choral passages. For me, this set of three Lessons is the most intimate and heartfelt of the works on the disc, and this is reflected in these extremely sensitive performances. The passage beginning 'Et in carne mea videbo Deum' is especially lovely, and there is much fine solo work including a couple of very good passages for bass soloist. The final Lesson draws to a beautifully hushed close.
Altogether this recording is a very enterprising undertaking which pays off handsomely. You would probably have to say that most of this is very good, rather than great, music - although in my view the Three Lessons might just qualify for that accolade. But it's certainly not half bad for a monarch and, what's more, it is raised to a further level by the sincerity and devotion of these performances under Johannes Strobl's excellent direction. Booklet notes are excellent and informative on both history and music, and all Latin texts are given but with only German translations.
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