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Hugo DISTLER (1908-1942)
Geistliche Chormusik Op. 12 (1934-41)
Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied op. 12, 1
Singet Frisch und wohlgemut op. 12, 4
Das ist je gewißlich what op. 12, 8
Führwahr, er trug unsere Klarnkheit op. 12, 9
Wacht auf, es tut Euch not! (1936)
O Gott, in deiner Majesteit op. 12, 3
In der Welt habt ihr Angst op. 12, 7
Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär op. 12, 5
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme op. 12, 6
MonteverdiChor München/Konrad von Abel
rec. 2-3 February 2002, Aula of the Maria-Ward-Gymnasiums in Nymphenburg; 27 June 2004, Konzertzaal des Kulturzentrums in Ascheim (op. 12, 1, 3)
THOROFON CTH 2463 [58:05]

Hugo Distler is primarily known for his vocal works, and his style is more or less defined by the Singbewegung, a movement which advocated a return to historical styles. For Distler, this meant a focus on pre-Bach vocal music, and in particular that of Heinrich Schütz. The very title of the Geistliche Chormusik op. 12 is a direct allusion to Schütz’s Geistliche Chor-Music of 1648 – the most significant collection of motets before those of J.S. Bach. The informative programme booklet goes into some detail, including some revealing statements by Distler about his position regarding religious and aesthetic questions concerning his work. In the 1934 foreword to his Op.12, he warns against those who would "see in the alignment of the new German choral music along the lines of the classical age of the choral tradition (…) nothing but stylistic imitation (…). If since the very days of the Reformation the Lutheran church has ever desperately needed to revive the belligerent and confident hymn in the spirit of Martin Luther, it is today."

Distler never completed his full conception of the Geistliche Chormusik. Overtaken by the escalation and tyranny of the war and surrounded by death and destruction, he took his own life on 1 November 1942 at the age of 34. The surviving works, with the exception of Op.12, 2 which consists of 14 didactic motets with extended spoken parts and a performing time of around 40 minutes, have been arranged on the CD in the order of their assignments in the church year – the numberings indicating the order in which they were composed.

The composer gazes sternly at us from behind his piano on the CD booklet, and the seriously intellectual nature of this music is clear from the outset. Unaccompanied voices, open intervals, tonal but sometimes angular melody and counterpoint, rhythmic homophony – elements which constantly hark back to the essence of choral music in Schütz’s time, but placed in an idiom which is unmistakeably mid-20th Century. The brilliance with which Distler trod this fine line between the old and the new is clear, and the practical usefulness of such works within a church context is also immediately apparent. These works are approachable, the texts are clear, there are no emotional histrionics – but neither are the pieces without expressive content. Distler can be playful and light, and even a superficial hearing shows his sympathy with the text. The second part of Singet Frisch und wohlgemut begins ‘Kinder, singet alle gleich’ and is set with a disarming, almost naïve simplicity which sums up the transparency of connection between words and music. These works are a poignant reminder that, while Nazism was rising in Germany, a sizeable part of the population was as concerned with the message and beliefs of Christianity – aligned in faith with most of the rest of Europe.

The texts are printed in the booklet, but only in German. Following them is a rewarding and educational experience, and the gently restrained singing of the MonteverdiChor is entirely appropriate to the music. Don’t expect a hair-raising rollercoaster ride with this CD. While not without harmonic interest, these pieces are written within strict religious frameworks which seem to preclude too much of a voyage of discovery in musical terms. On the other hand, this is very much ‘the real thing’ when it comes to choral music, so while it may have limited appeal and is not for light listening, it should not be dismissed lightly either.

Dominy Clements



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