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Michael PRAETORIUS (1571 - 1621): "Christmas Vespers"

Abigail Clark, Madeline Apple Healy, Peter Simon, treble; Jolle Greenleaf, Nell Snaidas, Sandra Simon, soprano; Kirsten Sollek, mezzo-soprano; Ryan Turner, Scott Mello, tenor; Paul Shipper, bass; Michael Sponseller, organ (soloa)
The Oberlin Choristers, The Children's Choirs of St Paul's Church, Apollo's Musettes, Apollo's Singers, Apollo's Fire
Dir: Jeannette Sorrell

rec: Dec 9 - 13, 2005, Cleveland Heights, OH, St Paul's Episcopal Church
AVIE - AV2306 (© 2013) (74'40")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
[Awaiting the Messiah: A Lutheran Advent Service] Martin LUTHER (1483-1546), arr Jeannette Sorrell: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland; Michael PRAETORIUS: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland [3]; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme; Puer natus in Bethlehem [3]; Ach, mein Herre [3]; Wir glauben all an einen Gott; Bransle de Poitou - Gaillarde - Bransle gay - Bransle simple - Bransle double [2]; Glory sei Gott in der Höhe [3]
[A Vespers Service for Christmas Day] Michael PRAETORIUS: Quem pastores laudavere [4]; Martin LUTHER: Christum wir sollen loben schon; Michael PRAETORIUS: Magnificat (pt I & II) [3]; [O Morning Star] (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern) [3]; Magnificat (pt III & IV) [3]; [Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming] (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen); Vater unser im Himmelreich; Benedicamus aeterno Regi; Nun lob mein Seel den Herrena; In dulci jubilo [3]

Sources: [1] Eulogodia Sionia, 1611; [2] Terpsichore, musarum aoniarum quinta, 1612; [3] Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, 1619; [4] Puericinium ... darinnen 14 teutsche Kirchenlieder und andere Concert-Gesänge, 1621

In 1994 Archiv released a disc with a 'Christmas Mass' including music by Michael Praetorius and some of his contemporaries. It was meant as a kind of reconstruction of a Lutheran service as it might have been celebrated on a Christmas morning in a larger town in Central Germany around 1620. Jeanette Sorrell refers to this as she writes that "[unlike] some early music conductors before me, I am not striving to recreate a complete and authentic 17th century Vespers service, exactly as it would have been done in Wolfenbüttel on Christmas Day 1618". Wolfenbüttel is where Praetorius worked from 1592/93 until the end of his life, a fact she surprisingly fails to mention in her liner-notes. "Rather, my primary goal was to create a vivid and compelling concert experience. With that in mind, I set out to shape a program that presents highlights from typical 17th-century Lutheran Advent and Christmas Vespers services".

Michael Praetorius was one of many composers who wrote music under the influence of the liturgical ideas of Martin Luther. The Reformation of the church had far-reaching effects on the liturgy. One of the main elements of Luther's liturgical ideals was the participation of the congregation. To that end poets had to write texts in the vernacular which were either set to pre-existing melodies - some of which were part of the Catholic liturgy - or to new music. He himself set examples: the text of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, for instance, is his adaptation of the medieval hymn Veni redemptor gentium; the melody is also based on an old liturgical chant. Composers wrote melodies but also harmonizations - Johann Walter is one of the best-known examples - or arrangements of various kinds, for organ or for vocal ensemble. The latter kind is well represented in the many collections of sacred music which Praetorius published between 1605 and 1621, the year of his death. For every part of the ecclesiastical year the appropriate repertoire can be found.

Praetorius' collections also reflect the various levels of performance in his time. Some include rather simple harmonizations of chorales, others comprise large-scale sacred concertos for two or more choirs. The Lutheran hymns play a major role in his oeuvre. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, In dulci jubilo, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern are among the best-known hymns for Christmastide. Ms Sorrell also included Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and calls it "[perhaps] the most famous Lutheran Advent hymn". However, this hymn was not written for Advent. Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance, used it only once, in his cantata 140 for the 26th Sunday after Trinity. That makes it one of the less convincing elements of this recording. Wir glauben all an einen Gott is the German versification of the Credo from the Mass; here we hear Praetorius' harmonization from one of the nine volumes which he published from 1605 to 1612 under the title of Musae Sioniae.

This disc also offers two other elements from Praetorius's oeuvre. The Magnificat is one of the large-scale compositions on original music in Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, collection of sacred music for one to 21 voices which appeared in 1619. The same collection includes Ach, mein Herre, a sacred concerto in the modern monodic style as it had been developed in Italy. It is for three sopranos, viole da gamba and basso continuo; Praetorius also makes use of the echo technique which was such a popular device in Italian sacred and secular music as well as in organ music of the north German organ school, the latter under the influence of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.

It is remarkable that several pieces in the programme were also included by McCreesh in his reconstruction. That is the case with Quem pastores laudavere, a piece from a collection of music for children's voices, Puer natus in Bethlehem and the setting of In dulci jubilo which concludes this disc. The latter is definitely one of the most exciting pieces for Christmastide from Praetorius' pen.

Some issues need to be mentioned. Firstly, several items are sung in English, either entirely (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern - O Morning Star) or partly: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland which opens the programm begins with the first stanza being sung in German, which is then repeated in English and followed by the next stanzas also in English. That is understandable in the light of Ms Sorrell's concept. "Praetorius set these hymns in the common tongue of his congregation - German - and thus we perform them in the common tongue of our home audience". As a result this disc is less interesting for a non-English audience. Moreover, there is a close connection between the hymn melodies and the German language which makes them less suitable for a translation while keeping the original music.

The second issue is the fact that one of the 'carols' (O Morning Star) is sung between the two sections of the Magnificat. Jeannette Sorrell states that this was common practice in 17th-century German, but I am not sure about this. We know this practice from later on, at least in Bach's time. I am curious to know when it came into existence. The inclusion of dances from Terpsichore is also a little odd. There were certainly not meant for performances in a sacred setting.

All things being said and done this is a fine disc which I have enjoyed a lot. Yes, there are some aspects which I am less than happy about, in particular the use of English. However, I have much admiration for the way the music is performed here, especially considering that none of the singers are German speakers. The pronunciation is not perfect; I heard some strange vowels here and there. The main thing is that the performers under Jeannette Sorrell's direction have grabbed the spirit of this music quite well. Ach, mein Herre was new to me, and it is given here a very good performance.

McCreesh's recording is still unsurpassed as it is probably the best disc with music by Praetorius ever made. However, Jeannette Sorrell has succeeded in creating "a vivid and compelling concert experience" and that makes this disc a nice addition to the catalogue of Christmas discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Apollo's Fire

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