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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585 - 1672): Weihnachtshistorie

[I] Heinrich SCHÜTZ: "The Christmas Story"
Yale Schola Cantorum
Dir: David Hill
rec: Jan 24 - 27, 2018, New Haven, Conn., St Thomas's Episcopal Church
Hyperion - CDA 68315 (© 2019) (71'03")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave Maria (SWV 334) [1]; Das Wort ward Fleisch (SWV 385) [2]; Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten (SWV 395) [2]; Ein Kind ist uns geboren (SWV 384) [2]; Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi (SWV 435); Hodie Christus natus est (SWV 456); Magnificat (SWV 468)

Sources: [1] Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, II, 1639 [2] Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648

Isobel Anthony, Maggie Burk, Emilia Donato, Octavia McAloon, Lucine Musaelian, Addy Sterrett, Joy Wang, soprano; Antonia Chandler, Evanna Llai, Ashley Mulcahy, Emma Simmons, Abigail Storch, contralto; Bradley Sharpe, alto; Hannah Kohlenberg Goodwillie, Haitham Haidar, Joseph Kemper, Simon Lee, Wonhee Lim, James Reese, Will Watson, tenor; Will Doreza, Zachary Fletcher, Andrew Hon, Raphaël Laden-Guindon, Charles Littlewood, Paul Olive-Reese,Mmatt Sullivan, Edward Vogel, bass
Grant Herreid, recorder, cornett, theorbo; Mack Ramsey, recorder, sackbut; Christopher Belluscio, cornett; Timothy Will, Perry Sutton, trumpet; Liza Malamut, Erik Schmalz, sackbut; Benjamin Matus, dulcian; Daniel S. Lee, Aaron Brown, violin; Jessica Troy, Alissa Smith, viola; Martha McGaughey, Lucine Musaelian, viola da gamba; Ezra Seltzer, cello; Simon Jacobs, organ

[II] Johann ROSENMÜLLER (1617 - 1684): "Es waren Hirten auf dem Felde - Geistliche Konzerte zur Weihnacht" (Sacred Concertos for Christmastide)
La Chapelle Rhénane
Dir: Benoît Haller
rec: April 25 - 29, 2019, Orschwiller (F), Église Saint-Maurice
Christophorus - CHR 77445 (© 2019) (54'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann ROSENMÜLLER: Es waren Hirten auf dem Felde bei den Hürden; Gloria/Das Wort ward Fleisch; Heinrich SCHÜTZ: Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi (SWV 435)

Salomé Haller, Monique Zanetti, soprano; Jean-François Lombard, Daniel Schreiber, alto; Michael Feyfar, Paco Garcia, Benoît Haller, Jan Petryka, tenor; Benoît Arnould, Mmatthieu Lécroart, Jean Moissonnier, René Schirrer, bass
Judith Pacquier, Liselotte Emery, recorder, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Noëlle Quartiero, James Wigfull, Abel Rohrbach, sackbut; Mélanie Flahaut, dulcian; Guillaume Humbrecht, Clémence Schaming, violin; Ronald Martin Alonso, Christine Plubeau, viola da gamba; Sarah Van Oudenhove, violone; Andreas Arend, theorbo; Sébastien Wonner, harpsichord, organ

Scores Schütz

The Weihnachtshistorie by Heinrich Schütz is comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio: in both works the text of the Gospels is in the centre. There are also meaningful differences: Bach's work includes free poetry, whereas Schütz confines himself to the biblical narrative. Although Bach's oratorio is better known and more frequently performed and recorded, there is certainly no lack of recordings of Schütz's Weihnachtshistorie. Two new recordings have been released in recent years. They arrived too late to be reviewed last year.

The first version of the Weihnachtshistorie had its premiere 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. 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 a commentator, "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.

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".

I have to admit that I was rather sceptical when I saw the Hyperion disc, as here the Weihnachtshistorie is performed by American forces. Over the years too often have I encountered performances from the Anglosaxon world which showed a lack of understanding of the typical features of German music (even though it is unmistakably influenced by the Italian style). And the German language is notoriously difficult to grasp by non-German speakers. I was pleasantly surprised: pronunciation, phrasing and articulation leave little to be desired. There is no lack of dynamic differentiation, and James Reese, who takes the role of the Evangelist, masters the art of speechlike singing. Unfortunately, the tempo of his performance is unnaturally slow, and this is one of the reasons this recording as a whole is somewhat disappointing. Moreover, in the ensembles some of the voices are marred by a clearly audible vibrato, which has a damaging effect. As a result, this performance is not really up to the competition.

The programme is extended by other pieces which are connected to Christmas. Ave Maria tells about the annunciation of Jesus's birth by the angel Gabriel. The setting is taken from the second volume of the Kleine Geistliche Konzerte and is for five vocal and instrumental voices and basso continuo. Its dramatic character is expressed in that it is called a Dialogus. The same collection includes a version on a German text. Three months after the annunciation, Mary visits Elisabeth, and at that occasion she sings her canticle, the Magnificat. Although the Magnificat was part of every Vesper service, this setting's opulent scoring for four voices, two violins, three sackbuts and two capellae ad libitum suggests that it was written for Christmastide. Two pieces include partly the same text: Isaiah 9 vs 6 (He is called: Wondrous, Counsel, Power, Hero, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace) appears in both Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten and Ein Kind ist uns geboren. Both pieces are from the Geistliche Chor-Music, and are for six and seven voices respectively. Hodie Christus natus est, for six voices and basso continuo, also refers to the appearance of the angels and their chorus of praise. The text is the antiphon for Vespers on Christmas Day. Das Wort ward Fleisch is a setting of vs 14 from the first chapter of the Gospel after St John. It is again from the Geistliche Chor-Music and is scored for six voices and basso continuo. Although the performances are generally convincing from a stylistic point of view, the solo episodes are too often damaged by vibrato. It is also questionable whether these pieces should be performed with more than one voice per part. In some cases, such as Hodie Christus natus est, a one-voice-per-part performance seems more appropriate.

All in all, this disc leaves mixed feelings. It has many positive aspects, which pleasantly surprised me, but also some serious shortcomings.

The Christophorus disc also includes a performance of Schütz's Weihnachtshistorie. In fact, it is the main work in the programme, and it is rather odd that it is not even mentioned on the frontispiece. This rather suggests that the disc is devoted to Johann Rosenmüller, but in fact only two pieces from his pen are performed, taking about one third of the programme.

The disc starts with Rosenmüller's sacred concerto Es waren Hirten auf dem Felde bei dem Hürden, which is about the angels appearing to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus. It opens with an instrumental sinfonia, and closes with a stanza from Martin Luther's hymn Vom Himmel hoch. The scoring is for double choir; the instruments are two cornetts and two sackbuts in the first choir, and two violins and two viole da gamba in the second. Apparently it is not known when this piece was written; it is even not included in the work-list in New Grove. The German scholar Peter Wollny suggests that it dates from early in Rosenmüller's Leipzig period and must have been written about twenty years before Schütz's Weihnachtshistorie. The Italian influence, always present in Rosenmüller's oeuvre, clearly manifests itself in this piece, and especially its dramatic character. The second work, Gloria / Das Wort ward Fleisch, connects two texts from two Gospels in two languages. It opens and closes with the chorus of the angels: "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis". In between the text from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St John, mentioned above, is sung in German. It is for six voices and an ensemble of two violins, two cornetts and four sackbuts. The German text is allocated to the lower voices, which undoubtedly represent the shepherds. The vocal parts are notably virtuosic, and Wollny sees here the influence of Monteverdi's Selva morale e spirituale.

His comments are taken from the liner-notes to the recording of these two pieces by Cantus Cölln. It's a shame that Benoît Haller, director of La Chapelle Rhénane, did not selected different pieces. That would be especially important, as a large part of Rosenmüller's oeuvre is still not available on disc. Moreover, the performances by Cantus Cölln are preferable. Gloria / Das Wort ward Fleisch comes off rather well, but Es waren Hirten auf dem Felde bei den Hürden is damaged by Monique Zanetti's incessant and pretty wide vibrato.

The third and last work is Schütz's Weihnachtshistorie. The combination of Rosenmüller and Schütz makes much sense, because of the stylistic similarity and the fact that both were strongly influenced by the Italian style. It is for a reason that Wollny points out that the last-mentioned piece by Rosenmüller may date from two decades before Schütz's Weihnachtshistorie. Although there are quite a number of recordings of this work in the catalogue, and there is no specific reason to compare this performance with the one under David Hill's direction, it is almost inevitable to do so. The main difference is the way the part of the Evangelist is performed. Benoît Haller himself takes this part, and makes the best of it. His tempo is faster, which results in a more natural account of the story (although I could imagine even a slightly faster tempo). He is a true story teller, who does not get overly emotional, which seems in line with the composer's intentions. The duration of both performances is not that different: 36'19" (Haller) vs 37'27" (Hill). That is due to the fact that Haller takes a little more time in the Intermedia, which seems justified as here they have a stronger and more lasting dramatic impact. Again, Monique Zanetti's contributions are problematic, but here she takes a much smaller role, and as as result it has only a minor effect on the performance as a whole.

On balance, this is a very respectable and in many ways enjoyable account of Schütz's masterwork. However, the combination with two pieces by Rosenmüller, whose performances are less than ideal, and the relative modest duration of this disc may inspire many lovers of Schütz's music to look elsewhere, if they want a good performance of the Weihnachtshistorie. I still consider Paul McCreesh's recording ("Christmas Vespers") the best one available.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

La Chapelle Rhénane
Yale Schola Cantorum

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