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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672)
Christmas Vespers as it might have been celebrated at the Court of Dresden, c.1664

Organ Prelude: la Piva (Anon, Italian, c.1650) [1:51]
Chant: Deus in adjutorium [1:01]
Psalm 2, Warum toben die Heiden, SWV23 [3:54]
Hymn : Christum wir sollen loben schon (based on Johann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Cantional (1627)) [6:51]
Historia der Geburt Jesu Christi, SWV435 (The Story of the Birth of Jesus Christ) (prob. 1657-1660, pub.1664) [34:08]
Magnificat, SWV468, with Christmas interpolations based on settings by Johann SCHEIN, Michael Prætorius (1571-1621) and Hieronymus Prætorius (1560-1629) Wir Christenleut habn itzund Freud; Lobt Gott, ihr Christen all zugleich; In dulci jubilo. [15:46]
O bone Jesu, fili Mariæ, SWV471 [6:47]
Hymn: Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ [4:35]
Collect and Blessing [1:36]
Samuel SCHEIDT (1586-1630) Organ Postlude: Benedicamus Domino à 6 (Modus pleno organo pedaliter) [2:11]
Charles Daniels (tenor, Evangelist, SWV435); Charles Pott (baritone); Gabrieli Consort; Boys’ Choir and Congregational Choir of Roskilde Cathedral; Gabrieli Players (on original instruments); Kristian Olesen (cathedral organ)/Paul McCreesh
Pitch: a’=432Hz; organ tuned to unequal temperament, adapted 1/6 comma meantone.
rec. in cooperation with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark, December 1998 and May 1999. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, French and German and texts in Latin or German, with English and French translations.
Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 463 046-2 [79:51]


 

Though recorded as long ago as 1999, this wonderful recording seems to have slipped through the Musicweb net until now. I am very happy to repair the omission with what could be a very short review: the copy which I am reviewing was purchased by me and is not a review copy, the strongest possible recommendation.

McCreesh is a long-standing master of the scholarly-but-enjoyable reconstruction. He first came to the notice of the record-collecting public with a Venetian reconstruction for the Virgin label, A Venetian Coronation 1595, music for the enthronement of the Doge, a CD which still retains its full-price place in the catalogue (7 59006 2). After one more such reconstruction, that of the Burgundian Banquet du Vœu (deleted but well worth searching for), Virgin let him slip through their fingers to DG Archiv, who recorded him in a reconstructed Venetian Vespers service, another highly recommendable recording which, inexplicably, never seems to have caught on as well as the other reconstructions (Monteverdi, Rigatti, etc, now at bargain-price on 476 1868, 2 CDs for around £7-£8 in the UK).

He then turned his attention to the reconstruction of a Lutheran Christmas Mass as it might have been celebrated with the music of Prætorius (439 250-2, 439 931-2, with a different cover in some countries) another older recording which my colleague Dan Morgan has recently caught up with. I agree with every enthusiastic word of his review.

This recording of Schütz’s Christmas Vespers (463 046-2) and Bach’s Epiphany Mass (457 631-2, 2 CDs) followed, as did a CD entitled A Venetian Christmas, which I have recently reviewed (471 333-2). A DVD of Christmas in Rome (Palestrina, Vivaldi’s Gloria, etc, in collaboration with The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock, on 073 4361) completes the series to date apart from the items contributed from his various Christmas recordings to The Baroque Christmas Album (DG 477 5762). (Are there any more in the pipeline?)

The Prætorius and Venetian CDs offer a thoroughly absorbing experience: sit back and you can imagine that you are in Saint Mark’s basilica or some North German cathedral or ducal chapel. This Schütz recording offers the same experience, with Roskilde Cathedral transformed for the occasion into the Dresden ducal chapel, depicted on p.19 of the booklet. For further ideas of the kind of building for which the music was intended, see the front of the Prætorius CD at the head of DM’s Musicweb review or the online reconstruction of the glorious contemporary Himmelsburg chapel at Weimar in 3D.

From around 1600 (Christmas in Venice) via around 1620 (Prætorius Christmas Mass) we move on to around 1664 in Dresden. If the new date seems suspiciously exact by comparison with the earlier recordings, it is because Schütz’s Christmas Story was published in that year. This gem of a work is usually performed on its own – in bygone days it often took a whole LP to itself – but there is good reason to believe that it was performed as part of Christmas Vespers in the ducal chapel. It makes perfectly good sense to perform it on its own, as on the recent budget-price Hyperion Helios reissue, CDH55310, where it is appropriately accompanied by Christmas motets by Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz’s tutor, whose style he espoused so fully that some works attributed to Schütz, such as Cantate Domino, may actually be by Gabrieli. It makes better sense, however, to embed the work in its original context, the Latin Vespers service celebrated in Lutheran churches on festivals.

The recording opens with short organ prelude, an Italian piece from around 1650, played by Kristian Olesen on the main cathedral organ. The CD is almost worth its price for this instrument alone, a rare example of a North German type of organ faithfully restored in 1991 to its original pre-equal-temperament tuning and, therefore, well suited to the music of Prætorius on the earlier disc and that of Schütz on this. A full specification of the instrument is given on p.13 of the booklet.

Following the chanted versicle and response, Schütz’s setting of the Second Psalm, traditionally associated with Christmas Vespers, Warum toben die Heiden, bursts upon us with full force, two consorts of nine voices each, accompanied by two capellas of wind instruments, full panoply of continuo instruments, including two organs, and the main cathedral organ. Is it a bit of a shouting match, as one reviewer suggested? Yes, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and it serves as one of the reminders of Schütz’s debt to his Venetian masters. The cathedral is clearly a reverberant location but the recording team never loses the plot here or in the congregational hymn which follows, where the Roskilde choristers act as surely the most in-tune congregation ever.

The similarity of the framework of Lutheran Vespers to the Roman rite and to Anglican Evensong reminds us just how conservative a Reformation Lutheranism originally was – even more conservative in some ways than the Book of Common Prayer in retaining Latin on high days. Luther kept many of the pre-Reformation office hymns but he translated them into German and he gave them to the congregation to sing. Christum wir sollen loben schon is an adaptation of the Latin A solis ortus, with the concepts and the melody simplified for the congregation. The second hymn (Gelobet seist du, track 32) is another of Luther’s pre-Reformation adaptations.

The setting of the Magnificat is one of Schütz’s most elaborate and again demonstrates his Venetian tuition. A number of Christmas verses are inserted, a practice which we know to have been common in Lutheran usage at the time – as in the alternative version of JS Bach’s Magnificat – though we do not know for sure which interpolations would have been employed at Dresden. Those chosen here introduce us to the works of three of Schütz’s talented contemporaries, Schein and the two Prætoriuses. (Real name Schultheiss, but it was fashionable in the Renaissance and later to sport a Latin, Italian or Greek name.)

In the Roman rite the Magnificat is commonly accompanied by an antiphon but, as these often contained Marian theology inimical to the evangelical temperament, they were usually replaced in Lutheran usage by a motet. (In Anglican Evensong, they gave way to the Anthem, a word itself derived from the work antiphon.) O bone Jesu serves that purpose here, a piece every bit the equal musically of its counterparts in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers.

After the Latin Collect and Blessing – again, in their traditional place, as in Anglican Evensong – a Postlude by Scheidt, another of the three famous Sch’s, Schütz, Schein and Scheidt, rounds off an excellent recording.

But I am getting ahead of myself, in that I have not yet mentioned the Christmas Story, the Historia, interpolated at the point where we would have expected the Lesson. Schütz published this work in two parts, which has led to difficulties in establishing the exact text. Modern detective work has almost fully restored the original, but the editor, Timothy Roberts, has resorted to some putative additions for this recording. Prior to Schütz’s time the Evangelist in settings of the Christmas, Easter and Ascension stories and in the Passion settings had simply employed chant. (Schütz’s own St Matthew Passion sounds especially sparse to modern ears, partly because of the limited musical role of the Evangelist and partly as a result of the ravages of the Thirty Years War.) Schütz proudly advertised his use of the new Italianate stylo recitativo in the Historia.

If it seems that Charles Daniels might have made a little more of his role as Evangelist, that may in part be due to the fact that Schütz himself was still finding his feet in this new style and does not give him much opportunity to express himself, except on track 20, where he reports the slaying of the Innocents and quotes Jeremiah’s affective words on Rachel weeping for her children. Daniels certainly makes the most of his opportunities there without any of the soppiness of Ian Partridge on the Norrington recording referred to below.

I was a little disappointed with some of the other solo singing – are angels quite as delicate-sounding as here, or is the recording balance on track 7 for once to blame? – but, all in all, the Historia is well presented. Memories of the rough-and-ready but charming Vox Turnabout LP performance (Jörg Faerber?) which was my first introduction to this music are not completely erased – in some ways, perhaps, it was closer to what Schütz’s contemporaries would have heard than note-perfect modern recordings. There are also recommendable bargain versions on Virgin (5 61353-2, deleted?) and Naxos (8.553514) as well as the Helios to which I have referred, all three appropriately coupled, though none is set in liturgical context.

In the end, it is that context, so ably provided here, that sways the balance in favour of the Archiv version. The apparent deletion of Roger Norrington’s 1970s Decca Schütz recordings has brought losses in the form of the double-choir motets, but his version of the Historia with Ian Partridge a rather undernourished Evangelist is not exactly one of them: the whole interpretation, once hailed as fresh, now sounds dragged out in places by comparison with this McCreesh version. Felicity Palmer, however, as Norrington’s Angel outsings Susan Hemington Jones on the Archiv and Eric Stannard out-Herods McCreesh’s Neal Davies.

Apart from the minor criticisms of some of the solo singing in the Historia, to which I have referred, the performances are all up to the very high standards which McCreesh has established and the recording copes supremely well with what must have been a very difficult set of demands. Even at the ‘busiest’ moments, such as the psalm and the end of the Historia (Dank sagen wir alle Gott, track 23) every strand is clear.

The notes are also up to the usual high standards and the whole adds up to another highly recommendable recording for Christmas listening with a difference. I only wish that DG had chosen for the brochure cover a colour reproduction of the Francesco Francia painting, reproduced in monochrome on the inside cover, instead of the naïve drawing, far more suited to the simple pastoral style of the Ryba or Pascha Christmas masses, which they have chosen. That and the childish star on the CD label detract from an otherwise first-class production: this is not naïve music.

This CD really has the lively variety which I found missing in the last, otherwise recommendable Christmas recording which I reviewed, from Bremen Cathedral (CPO 777 238-2). Assuming that you have already ordered this Schütz, the Prætorius and Venetian recordings, how about getting McCreesh’s Bach Epiphany Mass (457 631-2, 2CDs) in time for that festival on January 6th?

Looking forward even further, how about Schütz’s Easter Story (Die Auferstehung unsres Herren Jesu Christi)? Sadly, only one version of this seems to have been untouched by the deletions axe, CPO 777 027-2, Weser-Renaissance/Manfred Cordes, but this will do very well enough: "impressive and idiomatic performances of one of Schütz’s masterpieces and some fine sacred concertos for Easter" according to Johann van Veen’s review. But I’d still look out for stray copies of the Harmonia Mundi/Jacobs or Sony Classical/Bernius versions, though the latter is coupled with another version of the Christmas Historia.

Brian Wilson



 


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