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"A Wondrous Mystery - Renaissance Choral Music for Christmas"

stile antico

rec: Feb 2015, London, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807575 (© 2015) (72'57")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jacobus CLEMENS non Papa (c1510-c1555): Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis a 5; Pastores quidnam vidistis a 5; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611): Übers Gebirg Maria geht a 5; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her a 5; Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591): Canite tuba a 5; Mirabile mysterium a 5; Hans-Leo HASSLER (1564-1612): Hodie Christus natus est a 10; Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Magnificat 5. toni a 8; Michael PRAETORIUS (c1571-1621): Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem; Es ist ein Ros entsprungen a 4

Sources: Hans-Leo Hassler, Cantiones sacrae de festis praecipuis totius anni, 1591; Johannes Eccard, Der erste Theil geistlicher Lieder auff den Choral oder gemeine Kirchen Melodey, 1597; Hieronymus Praetorius, Canticum Beatae Mariae Virginis seu Magnificat, 16222 ; Johann Stobaeus, ed., Preußische Festlieder, 1642/44

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield, contralto; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, tenor; Will Dawes, Thomas Flint, Matthew O'Donovan, bass

It is not so difficult to put together a programme of music for Christmastide. Throughout the centuries this feast has probably been the most fruitful source of inspiration for composers, reflecting the importance of this feast in Christendom. It may be a bigger problem to make a choice from the large repertoire and to avoid recording those pieces which are already too familiar. Stile antico's disc is a mixture of fairly well-known pieces and some less common works.

The programme has a strong German accent. Jacobus Clemens non Papa is the only representative of the Franco-Flemish school; Jacobus Handl-Gallus was from Slovenia and worked most of his life at the Habsburg court in Prague. The remaining composers are all German and with them we are on the verge between the renaissance and baroque periods.

Jacobus Clemens non Papa was one of the main composers of his time. In contrast to many representatives of the Franco-Flemish school he never worked in France or Italy; during his whole career his activities confined themselves to the Netherlands. This could also explain the large number of songs on Dutch texts. The Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis is a parody mass which is based on his own motet with that title. It is in five parts; in the Benedictus the number of parts is reduced to three and in the Agnus Dei Clemens adds a sixth voice.

Jacobus Handl-Gallus is represented with two motets. The text of Canite tuba in Sion has some strongly declamatory elements, with words like "blow (the trumpet)", "call (the nations)" and "proclaim (to the people)". Those are eloquently illustrated in Handl's setting and that comes perfectly off in stile antico's performance. One of Handl's most remarkable compositions is the motet Mirabile mysterium which is full of chromaticism; one is inevitably reminded of Carlo Gesualdo's late madrigals. One wonders what may have inspired him to use it. Was is just an experiment with harmony? The text is about the "wondrous mystery" of the incarnation. Nature is recreated; God is made man but He remains what he was and He takes on what He was not, "suffering neither commixture nor division". Could it be that Handl wanted to express the extraordinariness of these events in an extraordinary harmonic idiom? Stile antico delivers a fine performance but not as incisive as the Huelgas Ensemble in a concert during the 2014 Utrecht Festival Early Music.

British ensembles in German music is often a problem. Therefore I was curious to hear what stile antico would make of the German items. Hodie Christus natus est by Hans Leo Hassler is not much of a problem but there is also little German about it. It shows the influence of the Venetian polychoral style. That influence also manifests itself in the Magnificat 5. toni by Hieronymus Praetorius which probably dates from about ten years later. It is an alternatim setting and was specifically intended for Christmastide as it is accompanied by two Christmas carols - Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo - which, according to the preface, should be inserted into the Magnificat. The performance is better than that of The Cardinall's Musick (Hyperion, 2008) but still too much approached from the angle of the 16th century. Stylistically it roots in the old style but the style which would dominate the next century casts its shadows in much music of the late 16th century and that is the case here as well. This piece requires a more detailed treatment of the text according to the rules of the German language, even though the Magnificat and part of In dulci jubilo are in Latin. There is certainly no justification for the Italian pronunciation of Latin. In his liner-notes Matthew O'Donovan states that the Magnificat "would almost certainly have been originally performed with continuo and instrumental accompaniment". Then why did stile antico decide to perform it a cappella?

In sacred music written in the Protestant part of Germany in the late 16th and early 17th centuries the chorale played a crucial role. That goes especially for the oeuvre of Michael Praetorius. He published a large number of collections with sacred music for all sorts of scorings, from simple harmonisations to large-scale polychoral concertos. Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem belongs to the former category; that is also the case with Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, one of Praetorius' most famous and most popular Christmas pieces. In between the two stanzas we hear a canon by Melchior Vulpius, sung by the upper voices of stile antico. Johannes Eccard is one of the main German composers from around 1600 who is not as well known as he deserves to be. Vom Himmel hoch is an arrangement of a chorale by Martin Luther. Übers Gebirg Maria geht is one of Eccard's best-known works. It belongs among the genre of the Kantionalmotetten, which is considered his own invention. In these he combines the features of the motet with a tuneful melody. The two stanzas end with a refrain which refers to the German text of the Magnificat: "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God. He is my Saviour - fear him; He will always be merciful". This motet receives the best performance of all the German pieces, especially in regard to articulation and the use of dynamic accents - two of the main issues in non-German performances of German music.

The strenghts of stile antico are in the music which belongs to the style which has given the ensemble its name. In case of music written on the brink of the new era the performances are more of a mixed success as this disc shows. Clemens non Papa and Handl-Gallus are the best part of this disc. The German pieces are less than ideal, but I hasten to add that they are not bad at all - I have heard much worse. They certainly should not prevent you from adding this disc to your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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