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"Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern - German Christmas music of the 17th century"

Dorothee Mields, sopranoa; Paul Agnew, tenorb
Lautten Compagney
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: August 6 - 9, 2012* & April 8 - 9, 2013**, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883768362 (© 2013) (78'39")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

[in order of appearance]
Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Puer natus in Bethlehemab; Nun komm, der Heiden Heilandab; trad: Ach bittrer Wintera; Maria durch ein Dornwald ginga; Matthias WECKMANN (1616-1674): Gegrüßet seist du, Holdseligeab; Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621): Es ist ein Ros entsprungenb; Nun komm, der Heiden Heilandab
Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her; Michael PRAETORIUS: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich hera; Resonet in laudibus; Singt ihr lieben Christen allab; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten (SWV 395)ab; trad: Kommet, ihr Hirtena;
Franz TUNDER (1614-1667): Ein kleines Kindeleina; Johann Hermann SCHEIN: Quem pastores laudavereab; Michael PRAETORIUS: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgensternab; Johann Hermann SCHEIN: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgensternab; Johann CRÜGER (1598-1662): Fröhlich soll mein Herze springenb; trad: Vom Himmel hoch, o Englein kommta; Johann WALTER (1496-1570): Joseph, lieber Joseph meinab; Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Ach, mein herzliebes Jesuleinab; Johann THEILE (1646-1724): Nun ich singe, Gott, ich knieab

Marie Garnier-Marzullo*, Friederike Otto**, cornett; Simon Borutzki**, Martin Ripper*, recorder; Kentaro Wada, sackbut; Monika Fischalek, dulcian; Maren Ries*, Anne von Hoff, Birgit Schnurpfeil**, violin; Ulrike Paetz, viola; Ulrike Becker, viola da gamba; Annette Rheinfurth, viola da gamba, violone Johanna Seitz, harp; Hans-Werner Apel, theorbo; Mark Nordstrand, harpsichord, organ; Peter Bauer, percussion

From early on the Christian Church aimed at telling the stories of the main stages of Jesus' life on earth: his birth, his passion and death, and his resurrection. To that end they used the biblical reports, sometimes in the form of plays and music. An example is the liturgical play of the Middle Ages. In the baroque period it was the oratorio or the historia which was performed at such occasions. Some well-known examples from Germany are from the pen of Schütz, Bach and Telemann.

In Lutheran Germany the word - and especially the Word, meaning the Scriptures - took centre stage as a way of communicating the biblical message. Luther emphasized the importance of hymns in the vernacular as a way to imprint the message in the hearts and minds of the congregation. The result was an impressively large number of hymns many of which found their way into sacred works by composers from the 16th century until our own time. Many of them have also been included in hymn books all over the world, and those which are connected to Christmas have become a part of the standard repertoire for Christmastide. The present disc includes some of the best-known specimens, such as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.

The programme is divided into three sections, and each of the above-mentioned chorales is at the heart of one of them. It is structured as a kind of historia, an account of the story of Christmas. The hymns are performed here in the form of various arrangements by some of the main composers of Protestant Germany of the 17th century: Michael Praetorius, Samuel Scheidt and Johann Hermann Schein. In addition we hear some free compositions connected to Christmastide by Matthias Weckmann, Franz Tunder, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Schelle and Johann Theile. In between are traditional songs which are performed here in an arrangement by the ensemble.

The first section is about the expectation of Jesus' birth. Strangely enough it opens with Puer natus in Bethlehem in a setting by Scheidt; it would have been more appropriate to include it in the second section which is about the actual birth and the visit of the angels to the shepherds. In the first section we also find a dialogue between the angel Gabriel and Mary: Gegrüßet seist du, Holdselige by Weckmann. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is problably less famous than the hymns just mentioned, but it is a very beautiful piece, performed here in the famous arrangement by Michael Praetorius. Maria durch ein Dornwald ging is one of the better-known traditional songs, which has been arranged by various composers in the course of history, in contrast to Ach bittrer Winter.

In the second section the angels bring the news of Jesus' birth: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her - "From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to every home". In Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten from the Geistliche Chor-Music by Schütz an angel brings the good news to the shepherds. The medieval song Resonet in laudibus in the version of Michael Praetorius is performed instrumentally. Kommet, ihr Hirten is also about the shepherds; the melody is Bohemian and dates from the early 17th century, but the text was written by Carl Riedel (1827-1888), Kapellmeister in Leipzig, and published in 1870.

The third section celebrates the birth of Jesus and includes some lullaby-like pieces. At the heart is the hymn Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern by Philipp Nicolai (1599). It relates to the feast of the Annunciation which is celebrated in March; that is the feast for which Bach composed his cantata with this title (BWV 1). However, it is very much part of the music for Christmastide, and its content makes it suitable for the celebration of Jesus' birth. Quem pastores laudavere is an example of a song with a mixture of Latin and German texts, comparable to In dulci jubilo. As it includes references to the shepherds it could also have been part of the second section. Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen is from the pen of the famous poet Paul Gerhardt, the author of many hymns, with a melody by Johann Crüger; the original has twelve stanzas of which only three are sung here. In Vom Himmel hoch, o Englein kommt various instruments are urged to sing of Mary and Jesus. Joseph, lieber Joseph mein is a lullaby: "Joseph, my dear Joseph, help me rock my little child". The disc ends with a piece by Johann Theile which was discovered in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie which returned from Kiev to Berlin in 2001. It is another lullaby and largely based on a two-note motif and sequences of one note being constantly repeated.

In regard to repertoire this is a very fine disc. Some of the items may be quite well-known, others are little-known, especially outside Germany. It is praiseworthy that this production is intended for the international market, and includes English translations of the liner-notes and the lyrics. This offers the chance to make this repertoire better known outside the German-speaking world. The involvement of a British singer in the person of Paul Agnew could also help; it is nice to notice that his German pronunciation is very good and his voice blends well with Dorothee Mields's. Her qualities don't need to be specified here: this is her core business, and her voice is perfectly suited to the repertoire.

Considering these positive aspects it is very regrettable that in the end the production as a whole is rather disappointing. There are various reasons for that. The first is that Wolfgang Katschner has taken quite some liberties in the choice of instruments in many pieces, especially the arrangements of hymns. He justifies this with reference to writings by Michael Praetorius. He is certainly right about that, but the freedom of the performer is not unlimited, and the result has to be convincing. That is not always the case. Sometimes there are just too many different combinations of instruments within a single piece. In Vom Himmel hoch by Praetorius the coherence suffers as a result of this. Even more serious is the arbitrary addition of percussion in many pieces - eleven of the 22, to be precise. This is highly exaggerated and stereotypical, a clear sign of percussionitis. Previous recordings already revealed that Katschner severely suffers from this disease, although I suspect he doesn't see it as a disease. I am pretty sure that no composer represented here has required the addition of percussion. The traditional songs are a different matter: here the performer has to make an arrangement, and as a consequence has more freedom to do as he likes. Even so, Katschner's decisions in these pieces are sometimes rather unlucky, and sometimes so many instruments are involved that the vocal part is overshadowed and the text hardly understandable.

All in all, these aspects prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending this disc. The music is excellent and deserves to be better-known. The singing and playing are of a high standard. It is just that Katschner in his arrangements fails to do justice to the music's character.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Paul Agnew
Lautten Compagney

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