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"O Jesulein... - A German Baroque Christmas Oratorio"


rec: Dec 2021, Namur, Grand Manège
Ricercar - RIC 444 (© 2022) (74'31")
[review: digital download]
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics (digital booklet only) - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] [Prima pars] [Opening chorus (for the Coronation of the Virgin)] Wolfgang Carl BRIEGEL (1626-1712): Dies ist der Tag der Fröhlichkeit; [The Annunciation] Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT (1611/12-1675): Maria, gegrüsset seist du; Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; [The Angels] Christoph BERNHARD (1628-1692): Fürchtet euch nicht; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Freude, grosse Freude; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; [The shepherds and the adoration at the manger] Christian FLOR (1626-1697): Pastores currite in Bethlehem; Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT : Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein; Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Ein kleines Kindelein; Michael PRAETORIUS: Puer natus in Bethlehem; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): O bone Jesu, fili Mariae (SWV 471)
[Secunda pars] Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Angelus ad Josephum; [The Three Kings] Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BuxWV 223) (versus I); Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (Wie bin ich doch so hertzlich froh); Wo ist der neugeborne König; [The Presentation in the Temple] Johann Rudolf AHLE (1625-1673): Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener; [Jesus preaches in the temple] Samuel CAPRICORNUS (1628-1665): Sonata à 8 Instrument (exc); Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT: Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns getan?; [Conclusio] David POHLE (1624-1695): Nascitur Immanuel; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): [O Freudenzeit, o Wundernacht]

Capucine Keller, Julia Wischniewski, soprano; Paulin Bündgen, alto; Zachary Wilder, tenor; Philippe Favette, bass
Anaïs Ramage, recorder, crumhorn, bassoon; Elsa Frank, recorder, shawm, crumhorn; Jérémie Papasergio, crumhorn, rackett, bassoon, bass bombard; Jérôme Lejeune, crumhorn; Stéphanie de Failly, Florence Malgoire, violin; Ellie Mimeroski, Jorlen Vega Garcia, violin, viola; Sarah Van Oudenhove, viola da gamba; Brice Sailly, organ

Last year CPO released a set of discs with a kind of Christmas oratorio, in which the narrative of Jesus's birth in the Gospels was the core, in the setting by Heinrich Schütz, taken from his Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburt Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi, and called Evangelium. The intermedia in this work, written in the form of sacred concertos, were replaced by pieces by his contemporaries. It was rightly called a 'Christmas Oratorio after Heinrich Schütz'. The recording by Clematis to be reviewed here, is comparable in that Schütz is the source of inspiration. In the booklet, Jérôme Lejeune, who was closely involved in the construction of the programme, writes: "We pay homage to Schütz in this, the 350th anniversary of his death, with a Christmas oratorio that illuminates every facet of the genre that he set down not only for his own time but also for those who would follow him in so many ways. Schütz, like several of his contemporaries, created a perfect fusion between the Lutheran polyphonic tradition that had been passed down from the Renaissance and a range of Italian influences; these included madrigalism, or the depiction of words in music, the dramatic setting of scenes from the Bible, and the association of instruments with the vocal line. The composers whose works are presented here were either Schütz’s contemporaries or his artistic heirs in their various ways."

There are two differences between this recording and the one mentioned above. First, Schütz's Historia is entirely omitted; he is represented by only one piece from his oeuvre. Second, the story as told in the Gospels is also left out; the booklet offers the relevant passages from them. That is a nice addition, but the titles are either inaccurate or simply wrong. The title "The Three Kings" has more to do with tradition than with the narrative in the Gospels. The last episode is called "Jesus preaches in the temple", which is complete nonsense. The Gospel according to St Luke says that Joseph and Mary found him in the temple, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." That is not preaching.

The various stages of the story of the nativity are the framework of the programme. It is divided into two partes. It opens with a piece by Wolfgang Carl Briegel, who was Christoph Graupner's predecessor as Kapellmeister at the court in Darmstadt. He is the latest composer in the programme. One of the main composers here is Andreas Hammerschmidt, who was of the generation after Schütz and was strongly influenced by him. Maria, gegrüsset seist du is an example of a dialogue, which shows the Italian influence in German sacred music. It is notable that the instrumental ensemble includes just one viola, whereas in his time the instrumental writing was mostly in five parts, with split violas. It is followed by a setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, apparently the only instrumental work by Johann Schelle, one of Bach's predecessors as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. These two pieces are about the Annunciation.

The next three pieces are about the angels, announcing Jesus's birth to the shepherds. Christoph Bernhard set the text Fürchtet euch nicht for soprano, two violins and basso continuo. This was a typical Italian scoring, which his teacher Schütz also adopted. Bernhard spent some time in Rome, where he came under the influence of Giacomo Carissimi. Freude, grosse Freude by Hammerschmidt expresses the joy about Jesus's birth, ending with the chorus of the angels. This section closes with one of the most famous Christmas hymns: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, in the setting by Michael Praetorius. The last line of the second strophe says: "welches uns selig macht" (who brings us joy). That is not the line Praetorius used. In the printed edition this last line was left open. It seems that at the time it was common practice not to write out or to print lines that were to be repeated. This may well indicate - and that seems to be the general opinion - that the last line of the first stanza ("wohl zu der halben Nacht" - when half spent was the night) has to be repeated here.

The next chapter is about the shepherds, going to Bethlehem to adore the newborn baby. Pastores, currite by Christian Flor is another piece based on the dialogue principle. One of the sopranos takes the role of the angel, the words of the shepherds are in four parts. Flor worked in Lüneburg as organist, where after his death he was succeeded by Georg Böhm. The adoration of the shepherds is then expressed in two pieces by Franz Tunder and Hammerschmidt respectively. The sacred concerto Ein kleines Kindelein is one of the best-known pieces by Tunder, scored for solo voice (here alto), strings and basso comtinuo. Hammerschmidt's piece is for four voices and basso continuo. After a five-part setting of Puer natus in Bethlehem by Michael Praetorius, this chapter and the first part end with the only piece by Schütz included in the programme, O bone Jesu, fili Mariae, which has been preserved in the famous Düben-Sammlung.

The second part opens with the angel's announcing Jesus's birth to Joseph. It is a piece by Thomas Selle, who worked for most of his life in Hamburg. It is followed by three pieces about the three magi, looking for Jesus. It opens with the first of Dieterich Buxtehude's variations on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for organ with pedals, but performed here by two recorders and bassoon. Hammerschmidt's setting of this chorale follows attacca; here we get the text of the seventh stanza, 'Wie bin ich doch so hertzlich froh'. Also by Hammerschmidt is Wo ist der neugeborne König, the question of the magi. The next chapter, 'The Presentation in the temple', includes just one piece. The canticle of Simeon, known as Nunc dimittis and part of the liturgy, is performed here in the setting by Johann Rudolf Ahle on the German text Herr, nun lässt du deinen Diener. Ahle worked as organist in Mühlhausen. As one may expect, this piece is a solo for bass.

The story of Jesus in the temple opens with the first movement of a sinfonia by Samuel Capricornus, which is followed attacca by Hammerschmidt's dialogue between Mary, Joseph and Jesus, Mein Sohn, warum hast du uns getan. The parts of Mary and Joseph are sung by soprano and bass respectively, the role of Jesus is allocated to the alto. The piece closes with an Alleluia set for the tutti.

The programme ends with the Conclusio. David Pohle's Nascitur Immanuel is a setting of a madrigalian text for five voices and instruments. The closing chorale is taken from a cantata by Johann Christoph Bach, but performed here with a different text: 'O Freudenzeit, o Wundernacht'.

The latter brings me to some remarks about the programme. As far as the repertoire is concerned, it is quite interesting. It includes some well-known items, but most of the pieces are seldom performed, and some may even appear on disc here for the first time. Several composers have left a considerable oeuvre, of which very little is available on disc. Andreas Hammerschmidt is in the process of being rediscovered, and that also goes for Thomas Selle. However, there is still much work to do with regard to the output of Johann Schelle, Christoph Bernhard, Christian Flor, Johann Rudolf Ahle, Wolfgang Carl Briegel, Samuel Capricornus and David Pohle. We know just the tip of the iceberg. It is unfortunate that the documentation is so poor. The last item in the programme is telling: Jérôme Lejeune writes that the chorale is taken from a cantata by Johann Christoph Bach, but does not mention which one. Several pieces are or seem to be extracts from larger works, but we are not informed about that. The booklet omits a list of sources, from which the pieces are taken. The performers have taken several liberties with regard to the instrumental scoring, but seldom we are told what the original scoring was.

And now that we are talking about the booklet: the lyrics include quite a lot of typos. Although it is not always easy to know for sure what a typo is, as the texts are printed in the original spelling (which is praiseworthy), in some cases it is crystal clear that the text is wrong. In the case of Ahle's Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener the lyrics in the booklet are different from those in Ahle's setting. It is a mystery to me where the text has come from (a part of it appears in Christoph Bernhard's concerto with the same title). I also have serious doubts whether the translations of Pohle's Nascitur Immanuel are correct.

Lastly, the performances. Clematis consists of five singers and an instrumental ensemble of strings and various wind instruments. Some of the latter seem a little old-fashioned for the time of the music performed here, but they were longer used than we may inclined to think. The way they are used and the liberties the performers have taken with regard to the instrumental scoring are debatable. The singers are all well versed in the style of the time, but overall the performances are not as consistent as one would wish. There is some wonderful singing, but there are also moments when too much vibrato creeps in. That is especially the case with Capucine Keller, Julia Wischnewski and Zachary Wilder. Paulin Bündgen sings very well throughout, and Philippe Favette also does a very good job. The balance between the singers is not always ideal, as the sopranos tend to dominate. One thing which I often find disappointing is the lack of dynamic contrasts. That is the case here as well. Both the vocal and the instrumental performances are dynamically too flat.

Let me conclude. There is much to enjoy here, and the inclusion of many little-known pieces cannot be appreciated enough. However, the performances are not entirely satisfying, as there are just a little too many inconsistencies and shortcomings. The lack of documentation and the sloppiness of the libretto are also serious issues.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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