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Johann Rosenmüller (c1619 - 1684): 'Weihnachtshistorie'

Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino
Dir.: Konrad Junghänel

rec: June 2004, Neustadt-Mandelsloh, Ev. Kirche St Osdag
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901861 (77'20")

Christus ist mein Leben; Entsetze dich, Natur; Evangelium am Heiligen Christtage; Gloria in excelsis Deo / Das Wort ward Fleisch; Ich freue mich in dir; Lieber Herre Gott, wecke uns auf; Nihil novum sub sole; O nomen Jesu

[CC] Johanna Koslowsky, Susanne Rydén, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, contralto; Henning Voss, alto; Benoît Haller, Wilfried Jochens, Hans-Jörg Mammel, tenor; Markus Flaig, Stephan Schreckenberger, bass; Ursula Bundies, Annette Sichelschmidt, violin; Volker Mühlberg, Volker Hagedorn, viola; Albert Brüggen, cello; Matthias Müller-Mohr, violone; Carsten Lohff, organ; [CP] Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, cornett; Charles Toet, Ole K. Andersen, David Yacus, Henning Wiegräbe, trombone

Although the title of this disc suggests otherwise, we don't have a newly discovered Christmas Oratorio by Rosenmüller here. The pieces on this CD are all related to Christmas, but only the first item deals with the Christmas story as told in the Gospels, and then only with a small part of it: the announcement of Jesus' birth to the shepherds.

This recording brings eight pieces which have been composed to be performed during the Christmas season in Leipzig in the years 1645 to 1655. They deliver an impressive picture of the way Rosenmüller incorporated the Italian style into his own compositions. His leaning towards Italian music dates from long before he actually went to Italy, after his career in Leipzig had come to an end due to his misbehaviour.
Right from the start we hear the Italian influence in the first item on this disc, a short fragment from the Christmas story as told in the gospel of St Luke, which is set according to the Italian principle of the 'dialogo', here between the angel and the shepherds.

Roland Wilson, in the liner notes of Musica Fiata's recording of Rosenmüller's 'Requiem', mentions some of the features of his compositions, which we also find in the pieces recorded here.
In order to point out contrasts in the text Rosenmüller makes use of changes in rhythm and tempo. An example is the line "ihn mit Freuden zu empfahen" (to receive Him with joy) in Lieber Herre Gott, wecke uns auf. Another way to do this is an alternation of homophonic and polyphonic passages. We see that in Gloria in excelsis Deo / Das Wort ward Fleisch, where the first part of the song of the angels, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" is polyphonic, and the second part, "et in terra pax" is set in homophonic style. In this same concerto we find another feature of Rosenmüller's music: the use of combinations of voices and instruments to underline opposing elements in the text. The vocal section starts with two sopranos singing 'Gloria in excelsis', representing the angels. The German part of the text is the reaction of the shepherds, and is sung by alto, two tenors and bass. The contrast between high and low in the vocal parts is foreshadowed by the instruments in the sinfonia with which this piece begins.
And it is impossible to overlook the role of the bass as 'vox Dei' on the line "Ecce nova ego facio omnia" (For behold, I make all things new) in Nihil novum sub sole.

In several pieces the instruments are echoing the voices, for instance on the word "heute" (Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein - Today thou shalt be with me in paradise) in Christus ist mein Leben or at the end of Ich freue mich in dir: "O Jesu, schlaf ich ein". On these words the music just dies down, a striking example of text expression.
And then there are rests which are used to single out crucial elements in the text. In Nihil novum sub sole the words "Deus est" and "virgo est" are preceded by a short pause of the voices which draws the attention on the real miracle of Jesus' birth: "The child that is born, is God" and "the mother that bore him is a virgin."

An essential element in music influenced by the Italian style is word-painting. We find this time and again in these concertos, for instance on the words "in Windeln gewickelt" in Evangelium am Heiligen Christtage or on "in tausend Stücke spalten" (split into a thousand pieces) in Ich freue mich in dir.
It is hardly surprising that there are few dissonances in music linked to Christmas. There is one particularly striking example, though, in Christus ist mein Leben, where "Sterben" ("Sterben ist mein Gewinn" - to die is gain) is set to some strong dissonant chords.

These are only a few examples of the very imaginative and very expressive way Rosenmüller has set the texts to music. Repeated listening will reveal more details in this respect, which in my view is one feature of really good music. And good, or rather brilliant, music this is. I can't recommend this too highly. It only proves that Rosenmüller is one of the most expressive composers of the 17th century.

I am happy to say that the performance by Cantus Cölln does full justice to this excellent music. The ensemble has made some fine recordings of Rosenmüller's music in the past, among them a 'Vesper'. According to the information on the sleeve Rosenmüller's music belongs to the ensemble's favourite repertoire, and it shows. The recordings of Rosenmüller's music Cantus Cölln has made belong to the best available and also to the best this ensemble has produced. One of the strengths of Cantus Cölln has always been it's inner coherence. No singer is out of line; the members - singers and instrumentalists alike - are completely congenial in their approach of this repertoire. The voices blend excellently without losing their individual character, and all singers are able to sing solos as well. Cantus Cölln is brilliantly partnered here by Concerto Palatino, which is unsurpassable in regard to the performance of the often virtuosic but always expressive parts for cornets and trombones in the music of the 17th century.

In short: this is a top-class recording, which brings hardly-known music by one of the most expressive composers of the baroque era. I shall return to it often, and I wholeheartedly recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

Relevant links:

Johann Rosenmüller
Cantus Cölln

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