musica Dei donum

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"Weihnachten aus dem Berliner Dom" (Christmas from Berlin Cathedral)

Hanna Herfurtner, soprano; Clemens Leschka, Daniel Jin-Kyu Noack, Jonas Rogoll, Laurids Schürmann, treble; Georg A. Bochow, Alexander Schneider, alto; Jan Kobow, Volker Nietzke, tenor
Staats- und Domchor Berlin; Lautten Compagney
Dir: Kai-Uwe Jirka

rec: Jan 29 - Feb 1, 2016, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Sony - 88985315612 (© 2016) (61'06")
Liner-notes: D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] plainchant/anon: Rorate coeli - Veni, veni, Emmanuel; Johann CRÜGER (1598-1662): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; anon: Es ist kein Ros, hat solchen Ruhm; Johannes ECCARD (1553-1611): Übers Gebirg Maria geht; Johann CRÜGER: Magnificat 4. toni; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ; anon/Johannes ECCARD/Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Resonet in laudibus - Joseph, lieber Joseph mein; Michael PRAETORIUS/Johann CRÜGER: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern; Michael PRAETORIUS: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; Quem pastores laudavere; Johannes ECCARD: Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier; Johann CRÜGER: Im finstern Stall; Michael PRAETORIUS: In dulci jubilo

[LC] Friederike Otto, cornett; Martin Ripper, recorder; Helen Barsby, Michael Dallmann, François Petitlaurent, Markus Mokosch, trumpet; Till Krause, David Yacus, sackbut; Jennifer Harris, dulcian; Birgit Schnurpfeil, Anne von Hoff, Andreas Pfaff, violin; Ulrike Paetz, viola; Lea Rahel Bader, viola da gamba; Annette Rheinfurth, violone; Loredana Gintoli, harp; Hans-Werner Apel, Stephan Rath, lute; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ, mirliton; Peter A. Bauer, mirliton, percussion

Whereas in the Roman-Catholic parts of Europe Christmas was the main feast of the ecclesiastical year, in Germany Luther emphasized the importance of Jesus's Passion. This explains the many settings of the Passion story written in Germany during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. However, that does not mean that Christmas was overlooked. In Luther's view music was a very important tool to spread the biblical message and to give voice to the emotions of the faithful in all situations of daily life. This explains the large number of hymns and their dissemination, which is reflected in the amount of repertoire, also for Advent and Christmas.

The present disc focuses on music written in the 16th and 17th centuries. It opens with plainchant, which was the core of liturgical music in the Catholic church. It was the music Luther had grown up with and to which he often turned, when he wrote texts in German. One of the most famous examples is Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which is an adaptation of the hymn Veni redemptor gentium, written by Ambrosius of Milan in 397. It is performed here in an arrangement by Johann Crüger, one of the main composers of hymns of the 17th century, who often set texts of the pastor and poet Paul Gerhardt.

Luther was a strong advocate of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. However, Latin was not completely abolished. Especially the Kyrie and the Gloria from the Mass were still sung in Latin in some churches, and traditional Latin hymns were also sung. An example is Resonet in laudibus, a carol from the 15th century, which was printed in Germany in Protestant and Catholic collections during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is performed here in an arrangement by Johann Eccard, who - in contrast to Crüger - was a conservative composer, who stuck to the stile antico and neither made use of the monodic style nor included basso continuo parts in his compositions. Therefore there is hardly any contrast in style between his setting and Johann Walter's setting of Joseph, lieber Joseph mein.

The Magnificat has always taken a central role in the liturgical repertoire. It was part of the Vespers, and it held that position in Lutheran Germany. However, it received a special place in the repertoire for Christmastide. Johann Sebastian Bach connected his setting (BWV 243) to Christmas through the interpolation of Christmas hymns. Here we find a large-scale setting by Crüger, which is rooted in the alternatim practice, known in the Christian church from ancient times. In this setting the verses are divided between solo voices and two choirs, one high, one low, in line with Venetian practice.

Another composer who adopted the cori spezzati technique was Michael Praetorius. He was one of the great promoters of the Lutheran hymn, and arranged them in various ways, from simple harmonizations for children's voices to large-scale concertos for up to five choirs. In some of his compositions he also included elements of the monodic style, which emerged in Italy around 1600. Through his adoption of the latest fashions he was an important link between the stile antico of the 16th century, in which the Lutheran hymn was rooted, and the modern concertante style of the 17th century. He demonstrated that the hymn could be easily adapted to the style of the time, and prepared the way for later composers, including Lutheran hymns in their sacred cantatas, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Praetorius is one of the main composers in the present programme. His most famous piece could not be omitted: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; it is moving by its simplicity, which explains that this piece, which was 'discovered' in the 19th century, has become very popular and remains to be so in our time.

Another well-known piece is Übers Gebirg Maria geht by Johann Eccard. It is a rephrasing of the biblical story of the visit of Mary to Elisabeth. It comprises two stanzas, which both end with an abridged version of the Magnificat. It was originally intended for the feast of the Visitation, but is now mostly sung during Advent. It is one example of pieces, which are associated with Christmastide, although they were originally intended for a different part of the year. Another example is Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, which was conceived for Annunciation.

The programme includes some pieces, which are well-known, as I have indicated above. However, there are also some little-known items, such as the anonymous Es ist kein Ros, hat solchen Ruhm, whose text is a translation of the English carol There is no rose of swych vertu. The liner-notes don't tell, when the translation was made. It is one of the oldest pieces in the programme. Crüger is mainly known for smaller-scale settings of chorales; his larger-scale compositions are seldom performed, and his Magnificat receives here its first recording. A specific feature of this disc is that all the music is sung by male voices - except most of the soprano solo parts - and that is in line with the practice of the time. The number of voices involved is not, though: the booklet mentions more than 80 singers. It seems unlikely, that all of them participate in every piece; even so the line-up in the choral pieces is audibly too large. Nobody in the 16th or 17th century will have ever seen so many singers. It obviously damages the transparency; thanks to the excellent articulation and the good diction the texts are mostly pretty well intelligible.

In most pieces instruments are added, playing colla voce. That was common practice at the time, but the performers have taken too many liberties, especially by adding percussion, where it is really not needed, such as in Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland by Crüger. I also don't see, why bells are used at the end of his Magnificat. Resonet in laudibus is preceded by an instrumental introduction, in which the mirliton is played. Such an instrument is out of place in a programme of 16th- and 17th-century music. The disc opens with bells, probably of Berlin Cathedral, and during the bell-ringing the choir starts singing. I would have preferred to separate them, but that is not really a problem. Much more of a problem is that at the end of Praetorius' In dulci jubilo, which closes the programme, the members of the choir wish their audience Happy Christmas in various languages. That's really bad; do you want to hear that every time you play this disc?

If you don't care about these issues, you should consider this disc. There is nothing wrong with the singing and playing here, although I am not overpleased by some of the solo contributions, especially from Jan Kobow. But this disc could have been better, if the performers had taken fewer liberties. Music as good as what is on offer here doesn't need all that kind of tricks.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Hanna Herfurtner
Staats- und Domchor Berlin
Lautten Compagney

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