In season or out, this
Praetorius disc is a gem.
is best known to British music-lovers
through his hymn arrangements, particularly
at Christmas: the Advent hymn Come,
Thou Redeemer of the Earth is his,
as is the chorale Es ist ein Ros
entsprungen, sometimes anglicised
to Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.
This is hardly surprising, as Praetorius
grew up in the aftermath of the Reformation.
His father had studied theology at Wittenberg
under Luther himself and Michael was
brought up in a piously Lutheran household,
a faith he made his own. Throughout
his life he repeatedly expressed his
regret that he had not become a theologian
and he interpreted his initials (MPC)
to mean "Mihi Patria Coelum":
Heaven is my fatherland.
He spent most of his
life in the employ of various German
princes and, while he composed a large
amount of instrumental music for entertainment
at court, it’s for his sacred music
that he is best known, and this disc
shows why. It collects together some
of his music for the Advent season,
and most attractive it is too. Each
item is based around a German or Latin
hymn: as one would expect, the hymn
tune is repeated regularly and without
variation throughout each piece, but
it is seldom if every dull because of
the ingenious accompaniments and variations
that the composer spins around each
stanza. Take track 3, based on the chorale
Von Himmel hoch: first the theme
is played by the ensemble (little more
than a spare continuum group at this
stage), then sung by the all four parts.
Two sopranos sing the next stanza while
two recorders dance around them, followed
by a soprano soloist supported by a
pair of complementary violas da gamba.
And so it continues until the end of
the hymn: each stanza undergoes a new
treatment so we have the attraction
of something new together with the reiteration
of the steady chorale theme. In contrast
to this come the more complex numbers
such as Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ,
which contains more complex counterpoint
and has a more developmental role for
the instruments. The variety ensures
that the disc is never dull, in spite
of the repetition.
Incredibly, the performers
are all students at the Bremen College
of Arts - conducted by their professor
- specialising in this branch of early
music. Incredible because the performances
contain a polish and flair that would
put some professional groups to shame.
They have clearly benefited from studying
together and growing closer as musicians
as their rehearsals have developed.
The ensemble itself is rather small:
the chorus contains four sopranos and
one each of alto, tenor and bass, while
the instrumentalists are four recorders,
four violas da gamba, one harp and an
organ positive. This feels entirely
right for the repertoire, however, and
they show a most enjoyable lilt in the
ever popular In dulci jubilo.
Players and singers weave in and out
of each other with complete security
and togetherness, though there is an
unaccompanied bass entry in Puer
Natus where the music noticeably
All in all a great
place to begin an exploration of Praetorius’
music. Next December, when you’re singing
one of his hymns in church, spare him
a thought: had he not been surpassed
by the likes of Bach he deserves to
be much better known.