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"Historia Nativitatis - Christmas Oratorio after Heinrich Schütz"

Ensemble Polyharmonique
Dir: Alexander Schneider

rec: Nov 18 - 20, 2020, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, Christuskirche
CPO - 555 432-2 (2 CDs) (© 2021) (1.24'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Extracts at Concertzender Nederland (Dec 23, 2021)

[in order of appearance] [Prologue] Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1657): Freue dich sehr, du Tochter Zion [15]; Tobias MICHAEL (1592-1657): Das Volk so im Finstern wandelt [8]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Sei gegrüßet Maria (SWV 333) [9]; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611): Übers Gebirg Maria geht [10]; Melchior FRANCK (c1579-1639): Hosianna dem Sohne David [5]
[Geburt Jesu & Anbetung der Hirten] Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1619-1684): Sonata VI (sinfonia) [16]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Ein Kind ist uns geboren (SWV 384) [12]; Evangelium I: Es begab sich aber zu der selbigen Zeit*; Sethus CALVIUS (1556-1615): Joseph, lieber Joseph mein [1]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium II: Und es waren Hirten in derselbigen Gegend*; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: O ihr lieben Hirten fürchtet euch nicht [13]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium III: Und alsbald waren Engel; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Intermedium II: Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe*; Evangelium IV: Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren*; Stephan OTTO (1603-1656): O ihr lieben Hirten (Lasset uns gehen) [11]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium V: Und sie kamen eilend*; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571/72-1621): Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [2]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium VI: Maria aber behielt alle diese Wort*; Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Psallite unigenito [7]
[Anbetung der heiligen drei Könige & Flucht nach Ägypten] Philipp DULICHIUS (1562-1631): Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt [6]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium VII: Und da acht Tage um waren*; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Lobt Gott ihr Christen all zugleich [4]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium VIII: Da nun Jesu geboren war zu Bethlehem*; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Wo ist der neugeborene König [13]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium IX: Da das der König Herodes hörete; Johann Georg CARL (c1677-c1700): Da Jesus geboren ward zu Bethlehem (Zu Bethlehem im jüdischen Lande); Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium X: Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich*; Johann Georg CARL: Da Jesus geboren ward zu Bethlehem (Ziehet hin); Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium XI: Als sie nun den König gehöret hatten*; Bartholomäus GESIUS (1562-1613): Deo dicamus/Zu Bethlehem [3]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium XII: Da sie aber nun hinweggezogen waren*; Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL (1626-1712): Stehe auf Joseph ... und fleuch [14]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium XIII: Und er stund auf und nahm das Kindlein*; Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL: Stehe auf Joseph ... und zeuch hin [14]; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Evangelium XIV: Und er stund auf und nahm das Kindlein*; Das Wort ward Fleisch (SWV 385) [12]; Samuel SCHEIDT: In dulci jubilo [7]

Sources: [1] Erhard Bodenschatz, ed., Florilegium selectissimarum cantionum, 1603; Michael Praetorius, [2] Musae Sioniae IV, 1607; [3] Musae Sioniae V, 1607; [4] Johann Hermann Schein, Cantional oder Gesangbuch Augspurgischer Confession, 1627; [5] Melchior Franck, Rosetulum Musicum, 1628/29; [6] Philipp Dulichius, Primus tomus centuriae harmonias sacras laudibus sanctissimae triados consecratas continentis, 1630 [7] Samuel Scheidt, Geistlicher Concerten ... dritter Theil, 1635; [8] Tobias Michael, Musicalischer Seelen-Lust ander Theil, darinnen, gleichermassen, ausserlesene ... Glaubens-Seufftzerlein, 1637; [9] Heinrich Schütz, Anderer Theil kleiner geistlichen Concerten, 1639; [10] Johannes Eccard, Ander Theil der preussischen Festlieder von Ostern an biss Advent, 1644; [11] Stephan Otto, Kronen-Krönlein, oder musikalischer Vorläufer, 1648; [12] Heinrich Schütz, Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648; [13] Andreas Hammerschmidt, Musicalische Gespräche über die Evangelia, 1655; [14] Wolfgang Carl Briegel, Evangelische Gespräche, Erster Theil, 1660; [15] Andreas Hammerschmidt, Fest- und Zeit-Andachten, 1671; [16] Johann Rosenmüller, Sonate à 2. 3. 4. è 5. Stromenti da Arco & Altri, 1682

Magdalena Harer, Joowon Chung, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Johannes Gaubitz, Sören Richter, tenor; Matthias Lutze, bass
Moni Fischalek, recorder, cornett; Martyna Pastuszka, violin; Juliane Laake, viola da gamba, violone; Maximilian Ehrhardt, harp; Magnus Andersson, theorbo; Klaus Eichhorn, organ

The Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the cornerstones of the repertoire for Advent and Christmas. However, it was not the only work of this kind in Bach's time, and it also had its predecessors. The best-known of them are those by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Schelle, which both belong to the genre known as Historia. Whether Schütz was the first to compose a Historia on the subject of Christ's birth is hard to say; that may also be Tobias Zeutschner, whose Historia (Die Geburth unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi) has been recorded recently by Weser-Renaissance Bremen. However, Schütz's Historia is the longest, as he uses a compilation of the narrative in the four gospels, and added extended Intermedia to the storyline.

The text from the Gospels is set for tenor, acting as the Evangelist - comparable with that role in Bach's oratorios - and basso continuo. These episodes are called Evangelium. They are alternated by Intermedia in up to ten vocal and instrumental parts. The parts of the Evangelist and the basso continuo were for sale, but the additional parts were available as rental material. Schütz may have considered that the sale of such parts would not be very profitable, as only a few chapels and churches may have had the forces to perform them. It is quite interesting that in his preface Schütz suggests an alternative way to perform his Historia: "[It] should be a free choice in performing the ten concertos (whose texts are also provided on these prints) in drawing upon the local corpus musicum in the manner desired or even to compose anew or to have it composed by others".

The latter was the starting point for the Ensemble Polyharmonique to record this 'new' Christmas Oratorio, on the basis of Schütz's Historia. The setting of the texts from the Gospels by Schütz is the framework of this recording. They are sung to Schütz's original music by the tenor Johannes Gaubitz. Where Schütz inserted an Intermedium, the performers have looked for different pieces by German composers of the 17th century, which fit into the narrative. With six voices, three melody instruments and a continuo group, the scoring is more modest than Schütz requires in most of his Intermedia.

The piece is divided into three sections. First, we get a Prologue, which includes the announcement of Christ's birth to Mary. Here one piece by Schütz, from his Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, is included. It is followed by one of the best-known Advent motets from the German early 17th century, Übers Gebirg Maria geht by Johannes Eccard. It is often sung by a choir, and the performance here, with solo voices and instruments playing colla voce, is a nice alternative. Eccard's contemporary Melchior Franck is represented with a setting of the jubilation of the people greeting Jesus, when he enters Jerusalem just before his Passion: "Hosannah to the Son of David", which was also sung at Advent.

The second chapter is about Jesus's birth and the adoration of the shepherds. After a sinfonia - a movement from a sonata by Johann Rosenmüller - we get another piece by Schütz, this time from his Geistliche Chor-Music: "For unto us a child is born", a setting or the verses 6 and 7 from Isaiah 9. When the Evangelist mentions that there was no place for Joseph and Mary in the inn, a motet by Sethus Calvisius is sung, on the traditional text Joseph, lieber Joseph mein. For this arrangement Calvisius, who was Thomaskantor in Leipzig around 1600, uses the melody of Resonet in laudibus. This is followed by the announcement of Jesus's birth to the shepherds with a piece by Andreas Hammerschmidt, one of the main composers of sacred music in Protestant Germany from the generation after Schütz. It includes a solo part for soprano, who represents the angel. For the choir of the angels the performers have turned to Schütz's Historia; it is the only piece from that work (except the text of the Evangelist) that has been included here. The shepherds then express their wish to go to see the newborn with the words from Luke 2, vs 15b, which is here heard in a setting in three parts by Stephan Otto, who was a close friend of Hammerschmidt and worked in several places, among them Augsburg and Freiberg. This piece is an excerpt from a dialogue, which he included in a collection of fifteen pieces of various kinds, published in 1648. When the Evangelist says that the shepherds are telling the people what they have seen, we get one of the most famous and beloved Christmas pieces of all time, Michael Praetorius's Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. This section ends with a sacred concerto for four voices by Samuel Scheidt, Psallite, unigenito. The text is a mixture of Latin and German. The last section opens with the words "Sing and resound Jesu", and here the voices imitate bell-ringing.

In the third section we hear about the arrival of the wise men and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt, when Herodes tries to kill the new-born King. It opens with a setting of the famous words from the Gospel according to John: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son". The composer, Daniel Dulichius, is one of the many little-known composers of that time in Germany. He worked for most of his life at Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), as Kantor at the ducal Gymnasium and the Marienkirche, and was also responsible for the music at the Pomeranian court. The episode in story which tells about the circumcision of Jesus is followed by a simple chorale setting by Johann Hermann Schein, who for a number of years was Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and a close friend of Schütz. Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, all zugleich is still very much part of the Christmas repertoire. The arrival of the wise men is illustrated with another piece by Hammerschmidt. Two texts from Matthew 2 are performed in settings by Johann Georg Carl, a cmposer who has no entry in New Grove. These pieces are extracts from a larger work, Da Jesus geboren ward zu Bethlehem, which seems also to indicate a kind of Historia. It would be nice if this piece would be further investigated. When the Evangelist mentions that the wise men return home, we get a piece by Bartholomäus Gesius, a setting of another text which is a mixture of Latin and German, Deo dicamus/Zu Bethlehem. Gesius is a representative of the late Renaissance in Germany. He published a large number of hymn melodies and played a key role in the development of the Passion in Germany. His place in (German) music history has not been given enough attention, as far as recordings of his oeuvre are concerned. Instead of the Intermedium VIII in Schütz's Historia, we hear a setting of the same words of the angel by Wolfgang Carl Briegel: "Arise, Joseph, and take the little child and his mother" (Stehe auf, Joseph). Briegel was Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt, where he was the predecessor of Christoph Graupner.

At the end of this 'alternative' Historia for Christmas, we hear another piece from Schütz's Geistliche Chor-Music: Das Wort ward Fleisch is a setting of the 14th verse from the Gospel according to John: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". It is followed by an extended setting of one of the most popular Christmas songs, In dulci jubilo, by Samuel Scheidt. At its end we hear again the imitation of bells, on the words "And the bells are sounding in Regis curia".

This production is a model of creative programming, based on historical information. We get here a whole array of pieces that are hardly known, often by composers who are very poorly represented on disc. This 'oratorio' is the ideal way to get acquainted with them. It is to be hoped that this disc is going to encourage other performers to investigate the oeuvre of the likes of Calvisius, Otto, Gesius and Briegel (the Ensemble Polyharmonique has recorded a disc with pieces by Briegel which will be released in due course; that is certainly something to look forward to). The insertion of the various pieces within Schütz's framework makes much sense, and this way they get the meaning the composers intended, probably more than when they were performed separately. The Ensemble Polyharmonique once again proves to be one of the best of its kind. It has some of the best singers in the field in its ranks, who have a vast experience in German music of the 17th century. Johannes Gaubitz is an excellent Evangelist, and his colleagues are all in superb form. We have performances here which are fully idiomatic, and do ample justice to both the musical features and the spiritual meaning of the pieces that were selected for this project.

This production is one of the most interesting and compelling of recent years.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Polyharmonique

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