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"Himlische Weyhnacht - Festive Christmas songs from Luther to Bach"

Marie Luise Werneburg, sopranoa; Klaus Mertens, bass-baritoneb
Bell'Arte Salzburg
Dir: Annegret Siedel

rec: Sept 6 - 10, 2015, Hamburg-Ochsenwerder, St. Pankratius
Berlin Classics - 0300687BC (© 2015) (79'12")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D/E
Cover & track-list

anon: Sonata über den Choral 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern'; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier (BWV 469)a; Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Fürchtet euch nichta; Heinrich Ignaz Franz VON BIBER (1644-1704): Nisi Dominus (C10)b; Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Mein Herz ist bereitb; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611); Georg FORSTER (v1510-1568); Adam GUMPELZHAIMER (1559-1625); Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706); Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich herab; Hans-Leo HASSLER (1564-1612): Dixit Maria an angelumab; Johann Valentin MEDER (1649-1719): Jubilate Deob; David SCHEIDEMANN (?-c1629): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgensterna; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (SWV 344)a; Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgensterna; Dirk Janszoon SWEELINCK (1591-1652): Hoe schoon lichtet de morghen stera; Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1670-1745): Alma redemptoris mater in A (ZWV 123)a

Patrick Henrichs, trumpet; Annegret Siedel, violin, violetta; Micaela Storch, violin, viola; Stefan Sieben, viola, tenor viola; Hermann Hickethier, viola da gamba; Thomas Boysen, theorbo; Margit Schultheiß, harp, organ

Christmas was and still is an important feast in Germany. It is not difficult to put together a programme of music by German composers from the 17th and early 18th centuries. This explains that there are quite a number of such discs on the market. This disc claims to include several first recordings, but unfortunately that is not specified. I assume that the Sonata über den Choral 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' is one of them. It is a typical product of the German-Austrian violin school as it is very rhetorical in character - a kind of speech without words - and also technically demanding, with a frequent use of double stopping.

It is also typical for the important role of the chorale or hymn in German sacred music of the baroque era. This is the fruit of Martin Luther's ideas in regard to the liturgy in which hymns in the vernacular to be sung by the congregation were an important tool to disseminate the thoughts of the Reformation. Singing together also created a sense of community among the faithful and offered them the opportunity to express their faith in their own language. From that angle it was a good idea to use hymns as the backbone of the programme. It opens and closes with stanzas from one of the most famous Christmas hymns, Vom Himmel hoch. It was conceived in 1535 as a children's song and Luther used an existing melody which was sung to a secular text. This melody is incorporated in the setting of Georg Forster. But most of the harmonizations or arrangements are based on the much better-known melody which was probably written by Luther himself and was printed in 1539. Two arrangements also close the programme.

It is one example of a hymn undergoing drastic changes in the course of history. In this case the first melody was only in use for a very short time. That is different with Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier. The text was written by Paul Gerhardt and included in the hymn book Praxis Pietatis Melica by Johann Crüger in 1656. It was set to a melody by Martin Luther from 1529 which was originally used for the hymn Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit. Johann Sebastian Bach used this melody in his Christmas Oratorio. But when Georg Christian Schemelli in 1736 published his Musicalisches Gesang-Buch - generally known as Schemelli's Gesangbuch - it included a new setting by Bach which soon became so popular that it gradually replaced the original melody in hymn books. In this programme we hear three stanzas from Bach's setting. A hymn could also receive a new role and that is the case with Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. Today it is part of the repertoire for Christmastide, but it was not written for this time of the year. Philipp Nicolai wrote the text and the melody and included them in a book of meditations of 1599. He called it a 'spiritual bridal song'. The Morgenstern (morning star) is how Jesus calls himself in the book of Revelation, and this image refers to the prophecy of Isaiah (ch 60) rather than the star of Bethlehem which led the wise men to the place where Jesus was born. However, as the Evangelists considered that prophecy as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus it not hard to understand that this hymn developed into one of the most popular Christmas chorales.

I wrote that it is not difficult to put together a programme of German baroque music for Christmastide. In the light of this it is remarkable that, strictly speaking, a large part of the programme is not connected to this part of the ecclesiastical year. The two first original compositions certainly are: Hans-Leo Hassler's motet Dixit Maria ad angelum is a setting of Mary's reply to the angel who has told her that she is to become the mother of Jesus: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word". The words of the angel were set by Christoph Bernhard - a pupil of Heinrich Schütz - in the form of a sacred concerto: Fürchtet euch nicht. His 'glad tidings' are reflected by the coloratura on the word "Freude" (joy) and the closing "Alleluja".

Mein Herz ist bereit is a sacred concerto by Nicolaus Bruhns. It is a setting of Psalm 57, vs 7-11: "My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed: I will sing and give praise". This is a song of praise and fits well into the programme, but has no specific connection to Christmas. The same goes for Psalm 100, Jubilate Deo, in a setting by Johann Valentin Meder. He worked for most of his life in Riga and Danzig; he was influenced by Buxtehude but also by the Italian music of his time. In this sacred concerto for bass he gives virtuosic parts to the violin and the trumpet. Even less connected to Christmas is Psalm 127, Nisi Dominus, set by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber as a sacred concerto for bass, violin and basso continuo. The violin has a virtuosic part and opens the piece with a sonata.

We come a little closer to Christmas again with the pieces by Schütz and Zelenka, even though neither next is specifically connected to Christmas. The Magnificat is part of every Vesper service and was sung throughout the ecclesiastical year. In concerts in our time Magnificat settings are often part of programmes with Christmas music. The setting on the German text Meine Seele erhebt den Herren by Schütz is an example of his skills in translating a text to music, for instance in the use of two echos on the word "leer" (empty - "the rich he hath sent empty away"). Alma redemptoris mater is one of the four liturgical Marian antiphons sung at the end of the office of Compline. To the standard text additional lines can be added, according to the period in the ecclesiastical year. However, in this particular setting by Zelenka only the fixed text is used.

If we look at this programme from a 'seasonal' perspective there is every reason to be critical. A large part of what is presented as Christmas music has little if any direct connection to Christmas. That said, this is a very fine disc to be played during Christmastide. The programme is a mixture of various features of German 17th-century music: the important role of chorales, text expression in the style of Schütz and the Italian seconda prattica as well as virtuosic writing for the violin which is a hallmark of the German-Austrian violin school. Most of the sacred concertos are sung by Klaus Mertens, a seasoned interpreter of German sacred music whose ability to bring out the meaning of a text and underline the connection between text and music is second to none. Most of the chorales are sung by Marie Luise Werneburg. Singing chorales may seem easy; however, it is anything but. One need to give utmost attention to every single word and give it the right treatment. She does so quite well most of the time, although there were some moments when the text was not clearly audible. It doesn't help that sometimes the text as printed in the booklet seems to be wrong. The fourth stanza of Vom Himmel hoch as printed under track 4 is even completely different from what is sung. It is a shame that the chorale arrangements are not allocated to different tracks and not well documented. I am also not happy with the decision to interrupt the Sonata über den Choral 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern' with various settings by other composers. This damages the coherence and the dramatic flow of the piece; I would have preferred to hear these settings before and after the sonata. The programme closes with an organ arrangement of Vom Himmel hoch by Pachelbel; the chorale melody is sung by Mertens, the counterpoint is performed by strings. Knowing the original this performance doesn't quite work.

All in all, there is much to enjoy here, and the critical remarks should stop nobody from purchasing this disc which offers some of the best performances of German sacred concertos and hymn settings available.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Klaus Mertens
Marie Luise Werneburg
Bell'Arte Salzburg

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