musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Per il Santissimo Natale"

Deborah York, sopranoa
rec: July 25 - 29, 2009, Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Berlin Classics - 0016602BC (© 2009) (66'43")

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Gloria in excelsis Deo (HWV deest)a; Melchior HOFFMANN (1698-1715): Meine Seele erhebt den Herrna; Christian August JACOBI (1685-1725): Der Himmel steht uns wieder offen!a; Francesco Onofrio MANFREDINI (1684-1762): Sinfonia pastorale per il Santissimo Natale [1]; Alessandro MELANI (1639-1703): Sonata a 5 in C; Giuseppe TORELLI (1658-1709): Concerto a 4 in forma di Pastorale per il Santissimo Natale, op. 8,6 [2]

(Sources: [1] Francesco Onofrio Manfredini, Sinfonie da chiesa, op. 2, 1709; [2] Giuseppe Torelli, Concerti grossi con una pastorale per il SS Natale, op. 8, 1709)

Marion Hofmockel, transverse flute; Susan Williams, Geerten Rooze, trumpet; Jürgen Groß, Albrecht Kühner, violin; Florian Schulte, viola; Inka Döring, cello; Alf Brauer, double bass; Ophira Zakai, theorbo; Jörg Jacobi, harpsichord, organ

The title of this disc has to be taken with a grain of salt. Although the text of the Magnificat is often associated with Christmas, historically speaking this isn't justified. Since early times it has been part of the Vespers, and even in Lutheran Germany the Magnificat could be sung at any occasion. When Bach composed his Magnificat, he originally intended it to be performed on Christmas Day 1723. To that end he included four Christmas hymns in German. These were removed when he reworked it in order to be used on other occasions.

The disc opens with the Sonata a 5 in C by Melani, which is also not specifically connected to Christmas. And lastly Handel's Gloria has nothing to do with Christmas at all. This, of course, doesn't mean it can't be sung during Christmas time and it certainly isn't out of place on a disc with Christmas music.

Alessandro Melani was born in Pistoia, but worked the largest part of his life as maestro di cappella in Rome. He was an important composer of sacred music, and the Sonata in C recorded here is one of only two extant instrumental compositions. This piece, scored for two trumpets (or two oboes), 2 violins and bc, has been recorded previously, for instance by L'Arte del Mondo, directed by Werner Ehrhardt, also as part of a disc with music for Christmas. Its festive character certainly makes it suitable to be part of a Christmas programme.

The other two Italians on the programme are better known but both don't belong to the most frequently performed composers. Many Italian composers wrote concertos to be played during Christmas night, and Manfredini and Torelli are among them. In the case of the former we don't hear his 'Christmas concerto' for once, but rather his Sinfonia pastorale which in character is pretty close to the typical style of Christmas concertos because of the use of a siciliano rhythm and bourdon bass.

The three Italian pieces are interspersing the vocal items, all written by German composers. Of these Handel's Gloria in excelsis Deo is most Italian in character. It was written in 1707 when Handel was in Rome, and was probably performed by a castrato or a primadonna. Its vocal part is highly virtuosic, and gives the soloist every opportunity to show his or her skills, not the least the closing section, with its long and endless-looking chains of coloraturas. But other sections are no less demanding, for instance 'Et in terra' with its large leaps. That doesn't mean it is without text expression, as the descending figures on "miserere nobis" and "suscipe deprecationem nostram" (Qui tollis peccata mundi) prove. Deborah York gives a magnificent performance which really leaves nothing to be desired and seems hard to surpass. There is no sign of any technical problem here, and she sings with great feeling and expression. It is the best performance of this piece - which was only discovered in 2000 - that I know.

The first vocal work is a setting of the Magnificat on a German text by Melchior Hoffmann. There have been speculations of this being written by Johann Sebastian Bach, and it was included in the appendix of Schmieder's catalogue of Bach's works. But just listening to this work it is hard to imagine that it could be from Bach's pen. Hoffmann received his first musical training in the Dresden Hofkapelle and went to Leipzig in 1702 where he became a member of the Collegium Musicum, which was directed by Telemann. When Telemann left Leipzig in 1705 Hoffmann took over his duties as director of the Collegium Musicum and also as organist of the Neukirche. He was generally considered a very fine composer and his early death was received with great sadness. Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn is scored for soprano, transverse flute, strings and bc, and consists of a sequence of arias and ariosos. The first phrase is not set in an extraverted manner, as is so often the case with Magnificat compositions, but rather intimate, underlined by the participation of a transverse flute (which only returns at the end). The text of the Magnificat offers many opportunities for text expression, and Hoffmann doesn't miss any of them. So we find extensive coloraturas on words like "erhebt" (magnifies), "freuet" (enjoys) and "mächtig" (mighty). The verses about God scattering the proud and arrogant and deposing the mighty from their seats are depicted in a highly dramatic manner. Deborah York fully explores the way Hoffmann has depicted the text in his music. The ensemble gives excellent support, and in particular the basso continuo section also contributes to the illustration of the text.

In her programme notes Babette Hesse states that this work is recorded here for the first time. That is incorrect: I know at least two previous recordings, directed by Joshua Rifkin (Pro Arte) and Wolfgang Helbich (CPO) respectively. But here we definitely get the best performance so far.

The last work is the cantata Der Himmel steht uns wieder offen by Christian August Jacobi. It has also been recorded before, under the direction of Ludwig Güttler. Apart from the fact that this was a performance on modern instruments the tenor was also a little disappointing, and the real quality of this cantata hardly came to the fore. That is more than compensated here. Jacobi is another composer who studied at Leipzig University. A number of years he acted as organist in Wittenberg. Ten of his cantatas have survived, and they are considered quite original works. The cantata recorded here is scored for solo voice, two trumpets, transverse flute, strings and bc. It begins with a pretty long dacapo aria (almost 6 minutes) in which the trumpets play an important role. Much attention is given to the word "Gloria" which is provided with brilliant coloraturas. The B section contains a strong contrast when the spirits of hell are urged to be horrified because "a little child will be your master". This phrase is set in a very intimate way, strongly contrasting to the previous phrase about the spirits of hell. The third section is a chorale arrangement played by the strings with the soprano singing the stanzas 5 and 7 from Martin Luther's hymn 'Vom Himmel hoch'. The closing aria is about opening the heart to let Jesus in, which is again set in a very intimate way. The arias are alternated by highly expressive and dramatic recitatives which Deborah York sings with great understanding and in truly declamatory fashion. In the arias she isn't less impressive, although the hymn could do with some dynamic accents and a little less legato. The ensemble also delivers excellent contributions.

There is very little to criticise about this disc. The only thing is that it seems to me that the ensemble's performance of Torelli's concerto is a bit too aggressive. The strong dynamic accents seem to me in conflict with the pastoral character of the piece.

Lastly, the booklet isn't easily to read because of the colour of the letters and the background. Babette Hesse has written good programme notes, but has problems separating fact from fiction. She refers to the "three wise men" whereas the Bible doesn't give any numbers. "But who would have thought that our Christmas tree is actually a 'scion' of the apple tree frm which Adam and Eve picked the forbidden fruit of knowledge?", she writes. But the book Genesis doesn't refer to an "apple tree" at all, just the "tree in the midst of the garden".

To sum it up: this is just an outstanding disc which I have listened to with great pleasure and which I shall return to regularly. It is going to be one of my favourite Christmas discs, because of the repertoire and the performances of Deborah York and Elbipolis.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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