musica Dei donum

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"Christmas at the Court of Dresden"

Christine Wolff, soprano; Britta Schwarz, contralto; Martin Petzold, tenor
Körnischer Sing-Verein Dresden, Dresdner Instrumental-Concert
Dir: Peter Kopp

rec: Jan 29 - Feb 1, 2004, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.169 (77'39")

anon/arr Johann Georg Schürer: Christus natus est & Psalm 94; Jesu Redemptor omnium; Johann David Heinichen: Pastorale per la Notte di Natale in A (S 242); Te Deum; plainchant: Domine labia mea aperies; Giovanni Alberti Ristori: Messa per il Santissimo Natale; O admirabile mysterium, Motetto pastorale; Josef Seger: Prelude in c minor

Royals and aristocrats have always looked for ways to show off. As music played an important role in public life anyway, attracting first-class composers and performers was a way to show the world how powerful they were. And in the first half of the 18th century, the court in Dresden was no exception. The orchestra was considered one of the best, if not the best of Europe. Composers who wrote music for the court orchestra - sometimes they were a member of the orchestra themselves - exploited the almost unlimited possibilities of this ensemble of virtuosos. Not only purely instrumental works, but also vocal works reflected the quality of the musicians at the court. It is no coincidence that the sacred music of composers like Heinichen, Zelenka and Hasse - only to mention the best-known - require very skilled performers. Some of these works have been recorded in the past, but one tends to forget that most of these pieces were intended for liturgical use. It was therefore a splendid idea to present some sacred music written for or performed at the liturgy of Chistmas Eve in a liturgical setting.

It has to be stressed, though, that this is not a liturgical reconstruction in the strict sense of the word. Obviously the non-musical elements of the liturgy have been left out. There are no readings here, and only some of the responsories associated with them. The first part of this disc is devoted to music performed during the matutinal service on Christmas Eve. It starts with an organ prelude, which is followed by the versicle Domine labia mea aperies, after which the invitatory Christus natus est is performed. This piece and the following hymn Jesu redemptor omnium have originally been composed by an anonymous master from Bohemia for five voices and organ. Johann Georg Schürer, who was a choirboy in Dresden, and later became organist and, from 1748, church composer in the court orchestra, added parts for winds and strings. The invitatory is performed in alternation with Psalm 94: soprano and alto soloists sing the text of the invitatory, the men of the choir the text of Psalm 94 as plainchant, both with orchestra.

The service continued with three other Psalms and their corresponding antiphons, which are omitted here. Two of the responsories connected to the readings were replaced by instrumental pieces. One such a piece is included here: the Pastorale by Heinichen. As this recording aims at giving an idea of Christmas Eve as it could have been celebrated around 1750 one may ask if a piece by Heinichen would still have been performed at that time, especially considering the change of musical taste. That same question applies to the recording of Heinichen's setting of the Te Deum, or rather one of the three of his compositions of this text. Here the horns play an important role, undoubtedly reflecting the skills of the horn players in the Dresden court orchestra.

On the other hand, maybe the taste in sacred music wasn't changing as rapidly as in instrumental music, for instance. Since the next piece, the Messa per il Santissimo Natale by Ristori in some way reminds of sacred music by Zelenka, another key figure in Dresden sacred music of the first half of the 18th century. Ristori was probably born in Bologna, and came to Dresden as part of the theatrical troupe of his father. In particular the treatment of the orchestra reminds of Zelenka's sacred compositions. In the Credo the tenors sing the plainchant phrase 'Credo in unum Deum' throughout the first and third section. The connection with Christmas shines through in the section 'Cum sancto Spiritu' of the Gloria, a fugue which is twice interrupted by sections in 12/8 meter, a siciliano rhythm traditionally associated with pastoral music. The same rhythm is used in the motet O admirabile mysterium, which is performed as alternative for the offertory which is sung between the Credo and the Sanctus of the mass. Here the siciliano rhythm is found in the middle section, which has an ABA-structure: the A-part is sung by four high voices whereas the B-part is sung by the soprano and alto soloists. The first section of the motet is a recitativo accompagnato in true operatic style.

Like I said, this is not a reconstruction, and I would have liked a more detailed explanation of the choices of music made here. But otherwise this is a very interesting and revealing concept, which reminds us that the much-admired sacred music by the best composers in Dresden was written for liturgical use. Recordings like this are very useful to put the music in its proper context.

I am happy to say that the performance never disappoints. I would have liked somewhat sharper dynamic accents and articulation now and then, and at the start the contralto doesn't sound completely comfortable. But all participants are performing at a high level, and do this music full justice. And I am also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music of Ristori, a composer I hadn't heard of before. I definitely hope to hear more from him in the future.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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