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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Weihnachtshistorie (SWV 435)

Gerlinde Sämann, sopranoa; Georg Poplutz, tenorb
Dresdner Kammerchor; Dresdner Barockorchester
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Jan 13 - 16, 2014, Radeberg, Stadtkirche 'Zum Heiligen Namen Gottes'
Carus - 83.257 (© 2014) (61'38")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding (SWV 450); Heute ist Christus, der Herr, geboren (SWV 439)ace; Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi (SWV 435)abfghijk; Hodie Christus natus est (SWV 456)abdfgi; Magnificat anima mea (SWV 468)abfi; O bone Jesu, fili Mariae (SWV 471)abcei

[DK, soli] Isabel Jantschekc, Marie Luise Werneburgd, soprano; Maria Stosiek, contraltoe; Stefan Kunath, altof; Tobias Mäthgerg, Cenek Svobodah, tenor; Felix Schwandtkei, Martin Schicketanzj, Georg Preißlerk, bass

The account of the main events in the life of Jesus - his birth, his Passion and death, and his resurrection - have frequently been set to music since early times. The first specimens were the liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages. Here and in later compositions only the biblical narrative was set; in the 16th century this was sometimes preceded and closed by a short free text. It was in the 17th century that the texts of the evangelists were increasingly extended with free material which then would lead to the oratorios of the 18th century, with their recitatives and arias of a reflective character.

Heinrich Schütz composed various works in the category of the historia. His three Passions are conservative in character, and not that different from what was written in the 16th century. Only the scoring differs in that the narrative is sung by a solo voice, with other voices taking the roles of the various characters in the story and the tutti singing the words of the crowd, and also performing the title and the conclusion. Two other pieces are very different: the stories of the birth and the resurrection; the setting of Jesus' seven words at the cross take a special place. These three works are for voices and instruments and far more modern in style.

The fact that the Weihnachtshistorie is so different from the three Passions has nothing to do with the time of composition. The Passions date from the 1650s/60s whereas the first version of the Weihnachtshistorie was first performed in 1660; the second version, as it is performed in our time, was printed in 1664. It is rather the subject which inspired Schütz to compose one of his most exuberant and dramatic works. Like the Passions it opens with an introduction (Introduktion oder Eingang), and closes with a conclusion (Beschluß). The account of the events is allocated to a solo voice (tenor), accompanied by basso continuo. The various episodes are then set as intermedia. Here solo voices sing the roles of characters which figure in the story: the Angel, the heavenly host, the shepherds, the wise men, the priests and scribes and Herodes. These intermedia have the form of sacred concertos; the voices are accompanied by instruments, dependent on the characters they represent. The Angel, for instance, is supported by two viole da gamba which, according to Oliver Geisler in his liner-notes, "can certainly be interpreted as the angels' wings". "In particular, the swinging musical pendulum figure with which the Angel's intermedia begin suggest such an interpretation". Through musical means the three interventions of the Angel - the proclamation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds, and his two warnings to Joseph - are clearly connected. It doesn't come as a surprise to hear recorders in the Intermedium III in which the shepherds go to Bethlehem to pay homage to the new-born King. Herod (Intermedium VI) is supported by two instruments for which Schütz offers the alternatives Clarin vel Cornettino, meaning trumpets or cornetts, traditionally associated with royalty; here cornetts are used.

Schütz gave an instruction for the performance of the part of the Evangelist. "And if the intelligent director knows how to choose and use a good, light tenor voice for the part of the Evangelist, whose words (without giving any beat with the hand) may only be sung according to the beat in normal speech rhythm." This part should be sung in a rather 'objective' manner, although probably not as much as in the Passions. There are various moments when the melodic flow expresses the events which are described. The most emotional episode is the description of Herod's murder of the children of Bethlehem. The closing phrase is also a passage of notable expression: "And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him".

There are quite a number of recordings available, and many of them are quite good. In this respect the Weihnachtshistorie has fared considerably better than the Passions. That is partly due to the important role of instruments. Today there are hardly any ensembles of this kind which are not able to give a really good account of the instrumental parts. The Dresdner Barockorchester certainly does. It is the vocal line-up which sometimes causes problems, but that is not the case here. Gerlinde Sämann is excellent as the Angel, Felix Schwandtke sings the role of Herod very well, without pathetic exaggeration, and Georg Poplutz is a convincing Evangelist. He shows a perfect understanding of the character of his part, and every word is clearly understandable. I am also happy to note that he avoids vibrato which would really spoil this part. The smaller roles are all very well realized and the voices blend perfectly. Even so, the dramatic character of the work probably doesn't come out to full extent. I would have liked stronger dynamic shading and more contrast now and then. This is a recording of considerable qualities, and if you purchase this disc, you won't regret it. For me the recording of Paul McCreesh is still first choice, not only because of the liturgical embedding and the use of a large organ for the basso continuo, but also because Charles Daniels is simply unsurpassable as Evangelist.

The other works are all related to Advent and Christmas, even though the Magnificat is - liturgically speaking - not specifically connected to this time of the year. The setting recorded here (SWV 468) is a late work, called Uppsala Magnificat, after the place where it is preserved. This piece again shows Schütz's theatrical skills: the contrasts in content between the verses are graphically expressed in the music. That comes well off here. Hodie Christus natus est is notable for its swinging rhythm which is well realised, although I find the tempo a little too slow. The three sopranos give a fine account of Heute ist Christus, der Herr, geboren, one of Schütz's lesser-known compositions. Ach Herr, du Schöpfer aller Ding is a setting of the 9th stanza of Luther's hymn Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her. Schütz used hymn texts regularly, but very seldom made use of the corresponding melodies; this is another free setting. It is quite different in character from most pieces on this disc as here the humble circumstances of Jesus's birth are lamented. The wry harmonies are a little underexposed. The opening words "Ach, Herr" should have been given more attention. This piece is called a madrigale spirituale and that could be an indication that Schütz had a performance with one voice per part in mind. O bone Jesu, fili Mariae is a setting of a text by Bernard of Clairvaux; the various sections are alternatively set for tutti and solo voices. The closing episode is reminiscent of the oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi, and a token of the Italian influence in Schütz's oeuvre.

Hans-Christoph Rademann is not the most adventurous interpreter of Schütz's music, but this recording should still be welcomed as a nice addition to the discography. The fact that some of the smaller pieces on this disc are hard to find in recordings adds to the value of this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Gerlinde Sämann
Georg Poplutz
Dresdner Kammerchor
Dresdner Barockorchester

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