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Weihnachten im Bremer Dom (Christmas at Bremen Cathedral)
Veni Redemptor gentium (Gregorian Hymn from the Klosternburger Hymnar) [0:35]
arr. Vincent NOVELLO (1781-1861): Adeste fideles [4:48]
Johannes Eccard (1553-1611): Übers Gebirg Maria geht (1598) [2:29]
Johann Crüger (1598-1662): Wie soll ich dich empfangen (1649) [2:10]
Wolfgang Helbich: Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen [1:53]
O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf [2:17]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): O Jesulein süß (1736) [1:49]
Michael PrÆtorius (1571-1621): Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (1609) [1:43]
Johannes Eccard: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (1597) [1:09]
Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (1618/26) [1:51]
Johannes Eccard: In dulci jubilo (1597) [2:27]
Johann Sebastian Bach: Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier (1736) [2:31]
Johann Crüger: Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen (1649) [1:36]
Max Reger (1873-1916): Uns ist geboren ein Kindelein (1914) [1:16]
Mariä Wiegenlied Op.76/52 [2:44]
Kommt und lasst uns Christum ehren (1899) [2:00]
Wolfgang Helbich: Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt [1:12]
Wolfgang Friedrich Riem (1779-1857): Ehre sei Gott (1814-57?)[1:39]
Hermann Schroeder (1904-1984): Lieb Nachtigall, wach auf! (c. 1670)[1:20]
Wolfgang Helbich: Engel haben Himmelslieder [2:20]
Hermann Schroeder: Kindelein zart (c. 1860) [2:13]
arr. Wolfgang Helbich Still, Still, Still [3:18]
– Es wird schon gleich dunkel (Tyrolean folksong) [2:32]
August von Othegraven (1864-1946): Von Himmel hoch, ihr Englein kommt [2:14]
Joseph Schnabel (1767-1831): Transeamus [3:14]
O sanctissima (Sicilian folksong) [2:25]
Franz Gruber (1787-1863): Stille Nacht [3:14]
Dorothee Mields (soprano); Waltraud Hoffmann-Mucher (alto); Matthias Gerchen (bass); Beate Röllecke (organ continuo); Tim Fischer (guitar); Wolfgang Baumgratz (Sauer-organ); Bremer Domchor (Bremen Cathedral Choir); Mädchenchor der Bremer Domsingschule (Girls’ Choir of Bremen Cathedral Music School); Kammer Sinfonie Bremen/Wolfgang Helbich
rec. St Petri Dom (St Peter’s Cathedral), Bremen, Germany, 19-21 July 2006. In association with Radio Bremen, DDD.
Notes in German, English and French. Texts in Latin and German with English translations.
CPO 777 238-2 [59:13]

This recording is clearly aimed at a German-speaking audience and, as such, its contents are almost predictable. The one piece which I had not come across, Es wird schon gleich dunkel, my Austrian friend was able to recite word-perfect in Tyrolean dialect from childhood memory:

Es wird scho glei dumpa, es wird ja schon Nacht,
drumm kimm i zu dir her, mein Heiland auf d’Wacht.
Wir singen a Liadl dem Liabling, dem kloan,
du magst ja net schlafn, i hör di nur woan.

(After much hesitation the spell-checker has tentatively, and wrongly, identified that as ‘German (Germany)’. I don’t think there is a spell-checker for Tyrolean German.)

Dorothee Mields and Wolfgang Helbich contributed as soloist and conductor respectively to the Naxos CD of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum (8.554753); their roles were praised in a two-handed review by John Quinn and Terry Barfoot, though the orchestral contribution to that CD (not the Bremer Kammer Sinfonie) was less distinguished. The Kammer Sinfonie and the Bremen Choir did appear on another Helbich recording, of Brahms’s German Requiem (MDG 334 1137) reviewed by William Kreindler, who felt that the performance was not ‘romantic’ enough and that the acoustic rather marred the recording. Robert Hugill made the Hoffman-Mucher/Bremer Domchor/Kammer Sinfonie/Helbich combination in Reinthaler’s Jeptha Recording of the Month (CPO 999 938-2). Helbich’s recording of ‘apocryphal’ Bach works has also received considerable critical acclaim. (The ‘reconstructed’ St Luke Passion with the Bremen Baroque Orchestra on CPO 999 293-2, 2 CDs.) I came to this recording, therefore, with high expectations and was not disappointed.

A brief piece of plainsong opens the recording on a good note. Veni Redemptor gentium is perhaps better known in Luther’s translation as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, an Advent-tide invitatory. Several of the pieces here are more appropriate to Advent than to Christmas, as the notes acknowledge. O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf is partly based on the Advent prose Rorate cœli desuper – drop down dew, O ye heavens – and Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen begins by quoting the Epistle for the First Sunday in Advent, though it ends with the birth of Jesus.

Sung unaccompanied by the soprano with all the purity one might expect of a treble, Veni Redemptor is followed by an equally restrained arrangement of Adeste fideles for soprano and choir with some light and stylish ornamentation: no need to pull out all the stops at this point. My only grouse concerns the pronunciation of the hard g in words like angelorum, a personal dislike. The recording captures the unaccompanied solo and the full choir equally well. It being almost 50 years since I was last in Bremen Cathedral, a time when I was much less concerned with matters acoustic, I cannot remember how reverberant the building is. It spoiled the Brahms Requiem for WK but it is not troublesome on this recording.

After these opening pieces, we hear two early works, Eccard’s Übers Gebirg Maria geht (1598) and Crüger’s Wie soll ich dich empfangen? (1649) The former is, strictly, relevant to the Feast of the Visitation but forms a regular part of German carol services and recordings. In neither work does Helbich attempt real authenticity, though the notes point out that the original two-violin accompaniment is retained for this and the earlier Crüger setting. The singing is light and dextrous and the accompaniment is restrained enough; neither does anything to raise the hackles of moderate authenticists like myself.

Die nacht ist vorgedrungen is sung in an arrangement by the conductor, Helbich, based on a melody by Joahnnes Petzold (1939). Both this and the following Helbich arrangement of O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf (nice to see that CPO have ignored the reformed orthography and retained the ß symbol) are in character with the earlier pieces and the orchestration of O Heiland even includes some pseudo-baroque wind sounds. Perhaps the words of this piece, an invitation to the Saviour to tear open the heavens, to tear apart the locked and barred doors and gates (rather feebly translated as ‘open’ in the booklet) might have warranted letting rip (pun intended) a little more.

Bach’s setting of O Jesulein süß and Prætorius’s of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen continue the mood, with Mields again striking the right treble-like tone in the former and the choir singing with affective simplicity in the latter. Eccard’s Vom Himmel hoch, a more elaborate five-part setting of Luther’s chorale from 1597 and Schein’s setting of Gelobet seist du, for soprano and alto soloists and the tenors of the choir, both strike a rather livelier tone. The two soloists are well matched and the recording avoids their being swamped by the choir without being recorded unnaturally forward.

The booklet describes Gelobet seist du as "very lively" but the tone of the performance here is again one of restrained liveliness rather than exuberance. You may find the English note in the booklet confusing when it states that "It plays in a very lively manner with the melody and has it sound in parts, before the male voices present it verse by verse." What this rather muddled translation means is that fragments of the melody are presented first ("lasst sie [die Melodie] in Ausschnitten erklingen") before being sung verse by verse. The melody of this Christmas chorale would, of course, have been thoroughly familiar to Schein’s hearers and for generations afterwards, so there is nothing especially unusual about the practice of partial quotation of a well-known tune to make the note-writer describe Schein as "so originell" (so original) – his contemporaries Scheidt, Demantius and (especially) Schütz are at least equally deserving of the epithet.

In dulci jubilo receives a fairly measured and thoughtful performance, slower than most without ever being allowed to drag. This tone of tasteful rejoicing typifies the recording as a whole. If you are looking for outright exuberance, look elsewhere – you won’t find it on this track or the next, a tasteful performance of Bach’s Ich steh’ an deiner Krippen hier for soprano and positive organ only, or the following version of Crüger’s Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen for choir and orchestra. Once again, though the accompaniment could hardly be described as authentic in tone, it is restrained enough not to upset any but the most extreme authenticist.

If, however, you want to hear In dulci jubilo really go with a bang, try the final track of the Prætorius Lutheran Christmas Mass, performed with spectacular accompaniment by the Gabrieli Consort and Players under Paul McCreesh on Archiv 439 250-2, a recording of whose virtues my colleague DM has recently eloquently reminded us. Prætorius’s setting of Vom Himmel hoch on that CD also offers the one thing which this CPO recording lacks, exuberance.

The first two Reger pieces are different in style from the likes of Eccard and Crüger but the performances which they receive, while more overtly ‘romantic’ in tone, are restrained and the accompaniment of the first two on the Sauer organ is perfectly in keeping with the mood of this recording. The third Reger piece is an arrangement of the familiar Quem pastores laudavere, sung a cappella. Since the notes carefully distinguish between the positive organ and the Sauer instrument, it would have been helpful if the booklet had included organ specifications of the kind which are commonly contained in CD notes. Here we are not even told what the ‘Sauer organ’ is.

These – and a little more detail about the music – would have been more useful than the detailed artist biographies and the information that the good people of Bremen were amazed that a Christmas recording was being made in July. (It happens regularly at Oxford and Cambridge colleges.) Though the translator’s English is generally accurate, it is not quite idiomatic – she maintains the German rule of order of adverbs, time-manner-place, which reads awkwardly in English in places. ‘Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen’ (track 5) is rather awkwardly translated as ‘the night is going its way’, when the Authorised Version’s ‘the night is far spent’ is still a familiar English phrase. The confused note on Schein, referred to above, is another example of awkward translation.

The Children’s Choir join the main choir to perform Helbich’s own arrangement of Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt. They sing well in tune with no attempt to sound bogus coy. Both this and Wilhelm Riem’s Ehre sei Gott, written some time between 1814 and 1857 when he was Helbich’s predecessor at Bremen, contrive to sound in keeping with the works from the 18th century and earlier. If someone had told me that the Riem was a chorus from a rediscovered early Mendelssohn oratorio, I might well have believed them. Helbich’s 5-part arrangement of Still, still, still matches that mood particularly well and it receives an excellent performance, with some beautifully quiet singing at the end. The same is also true of von Othengraven’s of Vom Himmel hoch (better known as Susani, susani).

The children perform well again in Engel haben Himmelslieder (familiar to English-speaking listeners as ‘Angels from the realms of glory’). I think I even prefer them to the more famous Regensburger Domspatzen in this kind of repertoire. In Lieb Nachtigall and Kindelein zart the soprano-alto duet with choir arrangement works very well, as it does again in the Tyrolean folksong to which I have already referred. I’m not in a position to report how authentic their Tyrolean accents are – I’m more at home with North German and Cologne dialects – but it sounds fine to me; it certainly works well musically.

Joseph Schnabel’s Transeamus breathes the same air as the various Bohemian Christmas folk masses which have surfaced on recordings from time to time. (There are several current recordings of the Ryba Christmas Mass, including one on Naxos 8.554428 which I have seen recommended. Jonathan Woolf liked the bargain-price version on Supraphon SU 36582. I have not heard any of those currently available. I can, however, speak from personal experience of the performance of the Pascha Christmas Mass on Campion RRCD1305, an appropriately peasant-sounding affair.) I suspect that the original orchestration of Transeamus may have been more appropriately rough-and-ready than the setting by Gruber (Joseph, not the famous Franz of Stille Nacht) revised by Helbich, performed here, fine though that is. This is bass Matthias Gerchen’s only chance to shine as soloist and his light, baritone-like voice is well suited to the music.

The Sicilian folksong O Sanctissima is sung to the tune of the more familiar (to Germanic ears) O du fröhliche. Stille Nacht, which has almost attained folksong status over the years, is performed in its original setting, soprano and alto with guitar accompaniment. (Remember the story of the non-functional organ.) It receives an affective, though not over-schmaltzy performance and these last two works round the CD off well. We might have expected a more rousing send-off, but this isn’t that kind of recording: despite the claim in the booklet that this is a "bright and colourful bouquet" of works "of a great variety", the general tone is, as I have indicated, thoughtful and reflective.

Granted that this recording is not really aimed at the Anglophone world, that it offers measured rather than exuberant performances and that it is fairly predictable of its kind, prospective purchasers may go ahead with confidence, especially if they wish to sample some less familiar repertoire, well performed and recorded. If, however, you haven’t yet purchased McCreesh’s Archiv recordings of Prætorius’s Christmas Mass (see above) or Schütz’s Christmas Vespers, (463 046-2) go for one or both of those first. Watch this space for my take on the Schütz, my next priority for review – or get your order in without waiting.

Brian Wilson
Aimed at a German- rather than an English-speaking audience and pensive rather than exuberant ... see Full Review


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