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CD reviews

"Herrnhuter Weihnacht - Moravian Christmas"

Vocal Concert Dresden; Philharmonischer Kinderchor Dresdena; Choir of Friends of Vocal Concert Dresdena; Dresdner Instrumental-Concert; Sebastian Knebel, organ
Dir: Peter Kopp

rec: July 15 - 18, 2021, Geising, Evangelische Stadtkirche
Berlin Classics - 0302307BC (© 2021) (69'22")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

John ANTES (1740-1811): Loveliest Immanuel; Christian Ludwig BRAU (1746-1777): O verehrungswürd'ge Nacht; Johann Ludwig FREYDT (1748-1807): Den aller Welt Kreis nie beschloss; John GAMBOLD JR (1760-1795): Macht hoch die Tür; Christian GREGOR (1723-1801): Christ-Nachts-Music am 24sten December 1765a; David Moritz MICHAEL (1751-1827): Hail Infant newborn; Peter MORTIMER (1750-1828): Den Hirten dort auf Bethle'ms Feld; Johannes Renatus VERBEEK (1748-1820): Uns ist ein Kind geboren; Johann Gottfried WEBER (1739-1797): Mein Herz dichtet ein feines Lied

[soli] Christiane Wiese, soprano; Marie Bieber, contralto; Stephan Keucher, Richard Drechsler, tenor; Clemens Heidrich, bass

At several occasions I have argued that a large part of the music that was sung and/or played in the past is hardly ever performed in public concerts or recorded on disc, either because it was never written down - that is the case with so-called 'popular' or 'traditional' music - or because it was meant for performance among Christian believers, either in domestic surroundings, amid family and friends, or in church. The disc under review here is a perfect example of the latter.

Only sporadically music performed among Moravian communities has been given attention by professional performers. One important production was a disc on the Telarc label by Boston Baroque, directed by Martin Pearlman ("Lost Music of Early America - Music of the Moravians"). That disc includes two pieces that are also part of the programme recorded by Peter Kopp. It also contains pieces by composers who are represented here with different compositions. Whereas Pearlman focused on music performed among Moravian communities in America, Kopp rather turns his attention to what was written and performed in Germany. Only two items have an English text; the others are in German.

The roots of the Moravians go back as far as the 15th century, as in Bohemia Jan Hus sought reforms of the church of his day, well before Martin Luther about a century later. He and his followers were severely persecuted and Hus himself was burnt in 1415. Later that century his followers founded a new church, 'The Unity of Brethren'. In the 17th century this church was heavily persecuted during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and for years afterwards. In the early 18th century survivors of the persecutions found sanctuary at the estate of the Saxon nobleman Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Here they organised the church again and from the 1730s started extensive missionary activities in the New World. The Moravian communities which were the result of this were based in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Music always played an important role in these communities: not just religious music, but also instrumental music and large-scale vocal works. Some of Haydn's symphonies and his oratorio Die Schöpfung were given their first American performances in the Moravian communities.

That was not any different in Europe. On the one hand, there was scepticism towards established musical practices. This was expressed by Zinzendorf, who "rejected the artificial music of his time as 'stiff and unnatural' and believed that simplicity and naturalness would arise of their own accord as long as a feeling for the emotional situation was at the basis of all music-making" (booklet). This view is in accordance with the longing for 'naturalness' among professional composers of the time, such as Benedetto Marcello, Giuseppe Tartini and Christoph Willbald von Gluck. On the other hand, music played an important part in Moravian services, and that included Lutheran music, as especially Christian Gregor's Christ-Nachts-Music am 24sten Dcember 1765 shows, which includes several hymns - mostly arranged - from the Lutheran tradition, and even a fragment from Luther's own hymn Ein feste Burg. Music-making was frequent and took place at a considerable level. The organ played a key role, but with time brass instruments also took an increasingly important part. Although spiritually there was an unmistakable resemblance between Pietism and the Moravian communities, their attitude to music was quite different. The Pietists wanted to confine themselves to simple hymn-singing with organ accompaniment, but in the services of the Moravian communities not only hymns were sung, but also cantatas and odes. The present disc attests to that.

A substantial part of the repertoire sung by Moravian communities was from the pen of non-professional composers. It does not surprise that most of the composers included in the present recording are not mentioned in New Grove. The exceptions are John Antes, David Moritz Michael and Christian Gregor. The latter was educated in a Pietist environment, and later joined the Moravians, which confirms their spiritual affinity. He developed into one of the main composers among the Moravians. He contributed 308 hymns - either original or reworked - to the 1778 hymnal. He is represented here by the largest piece in the programme, written for performance during Christmas Eve. It is written for solo voices, choir and orchestra, but also includes sections to be sung by the community or by children. The largest part of the text consists of verses from the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament. In the second half a bass sings a part of the Christmas narrative from the Gospel according to Luke, which is to be sung on the tune of the (German) Magnificat. These biblical verses are alternated with hymns, which are mostly sung by the choir or the community. Notable is that the organ plays short interludes between the phrases. That was a quite common practice in churches in the 18th (and 19th) centuries, not only in Moravian communities, but also, for instance, in Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. It was already menioned that several hymns are arrangements of generally known hymns, such as Ein feste Burg and Vom Himmel hoch. Another notable arrangement is 'Tröstet, tröstet mein Volk' for soli and choir, which is based on the accompagnato 'Comfort ye' from Handel's Messiah. The piece ends with a short chorus of the community.

The two pieces by Antes and Michael are also part of Pearlman's recording. Antes was from Pennsylvania and was educated in the Moravian boys' school at Bethlehem. He later moved to Germany, and spent the last years of his life in England. He may have built the first violin constructed in America, and his trios Op. 3 may be the first chamber music written there. Whereas Antes moved from America to Germany, Michael did the opposite. Born near Erfurt he joined the military as a musician, and in 1781 he joined the Moravians. He started to work in clerical and teaching posts, and was sent to America in 1795 to teach at the Moravian boys' school in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. In 1815 he retired and returned to Germany. Michael played the violin and the clarinet and has become particularly known for his Parthien for woodwind instruments. He also wrote around twenty anthems and a setting of Psalm 103. He was probably also responsible for the first performance of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung in America.

John Gamboldt is included in Pearlman's recording with a keyboard piece. He wrote a number of keyboard sonatas. He was born in London as the son of a bishop of the Moravian church. He worked in several positions in Germany. Johannes Renatus Verbeek was from Amsterdam and studied in Zeist, a centre of the Moravian brothers in the Netherlands. He spent most of his life as a minister and administrator in the West-Indies and later in America. Peter Mortimer was from England; his parents were members of the Moravian church. He worked in Germany, where he published a book on chorale singing during the Reformation. He was active as a teacher, organist and composer, and had a strong influence on the musical development of the Moravian communities. He also collected works by Moravian composers. Johann Gottfried Weber first worked as a linen and cloth merchant and later became organist in Herrnhut. Johann Ludwig Freydt was from Aschersleben and taught himself the violin and the flute. At first he played the bassoon in a military band, but after his joining the Moravian church he became a teacher. Lastly, Christian Ludwig Brau was from Norway and was educated in various Moravian communities in Germany. He suffered from ill health, and worked in several Moravian communities in the Netherlands and Germany.

This disc is a most fascinating survey of what was written and performed in the Moravian communities in Germany and America. Although most music is from Germany, the inclusion of some pieces in English reflects their international character, which we have already noted in the biographies of some composers. Obviously, the pieces performed here are not technically demanding, but that does not compromise their value. They testify to the way the Moravians expressed their faith. Even relatively simple pieces can make a lasting impression. Stylistically they show similarity with what was fashionable at the time they were written. Moravians did not live on an island. For professional performers it is not an easy task to do justice to music of a kind they normally don't perform in concert and on disc. Peter Kopp and the soloists and ensembles under his direction have done an admirable job here. The singing of the soloists is straightforward, without sophisticated ornamentation or other means singers use to communicate. This is music of and for communities of believers, and that comes off very well here. The singing and playing is excellent throughout. The 'community singing' by friends of the choir and the contributions of the children's choir fit perfectly into the general picture of this recording.

This production is not only interesting from a musical viewpoint, but also adds to our knowledge of social and religious history of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Philharmonischer Kinderchor Dresden
Vocal Concert Dresden

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