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Weihnachtslieder (Christmas Carols)
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Macht hoch die Tür [02:37]
Unser lieben Frauen Traum, op. 138, No 4 [02:11]
Günter RAPHAEL (1903-1960)
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland [02:34]
Wolfgang HOFMANN (b.1928)
Das Volk, das im Finstern wandelt [07:30]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, op. 122, No 8 [02:33]
Erhard MAUERSBERGER (1903-1982)
Weihnacht [02:13]
Gustav BRAND (1883-1963)
König der Könige [02:35]
Vom Himmel hoch, o Englein kommt [01:44]
Wach, Nachtigall, wach auf [01:45]
Carl THIEL (1862-1939)
In dulci jubilo [02:26]
Johann Friedrich REICHARDT (1752-1814)
Heilige Nacht [02:26]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Pastorella (Pastorale) in F (BWV 590):
pastorella [02:18]
allemande [03:08]
Cornelius FREUNDT (c1535-1591)
Wie schön singt uns der Engel Schar [02:15]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Uns ist ein Kindlein heut geborn (BWV 414) [02:19]
Erhard BODENSCHATZ (c.1576-1636)
Joseph, lieber Joseph mein [02:10]
Robert FUCHS (1847-1927)
O Jesulein zart, dein Kripplein ist hart [02:35]
Schlaf, mein Kindelein [03:13]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Pastorella (Pastorale) in F (BWV 590):
aria [02:54]
gigue [04:34]
Georg Christoph BILLER (b.1955)
O du fröhliche [02:25]
Carl RIEDEL (1827-1888)
Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt [01:25]
Kommet, ihr Hirten [01:26]
Lasst alle Gott uns loben [02:29]
Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, op. 135a [01:29]
Gustav SCHRECK (1849-1918)/Georg Christoph BILLER
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht [02:56]
Thomanerchor Leipzig/Georg Christoph Biller; Ulrich Böhme (organ)
rec. 20 - 22 December 2007, 20 - 22 December 2008, St Thomas's Church, Leipzig
CARUS 83.440 [68:12]
Experience Classicsonline

The choir of St Thomas's in Leipzig is one of the world's oldest all-male choirs. The present director, Georg Christoph Biller, is the 16th Thomaskantor since the great Johann Sebastian Bach and was appointed in 1992. Under his direction the choir has gained in stature and has been brought into line with the latest developments in performance practice, in particular in regard to early music. This has had an overall positive effect on the sound of the choir and has also increased its international status. But I assume it still is one of the lesser-known ensembles of boys and men, in comparison to, for instance, the Vienna Boys' Choir or the Tölzer Knabenchor, especially outside the German-speaking world. There many college and cathedral choirs from the United Kingdom that are far better known.

The sound of this choir is quite different from that of British choirs, which is partially the result of the fact that the altos are mostly boys, and not adult male altos as in most British choirs. It is also influenced by the repertoire this choir mostly sings, in which German music dominates. That is also one of the attractive aspects of this disc. We hear some familiar tunes, but always in tasteful arrangements, without bell-ringing and other trivial stuff. The only bell we hear on this disc is the so-called Zimbelstern, an organ stop which was a common feature of organs in Northern Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. It is used here in the Pastorella (or Pastorale) by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is played on the recently-built 'Bach organ' in St Thomas's. The other organ pieces are played on the Sauer organ which has recently been restored.

One of the organ pieces is by Max Reger, who is also represented by several vocal compositions, which is one of the lesser-known parts of his oeuvre. This disc is evidence that he has written some very fine vocal music. There is also a historical reason for Reger being given so much attention on this disc: from 1902 to his death in 1950 Karl Straube was the organist of St Thomas's (and since 1918 also Thomaskantor) and he was Reger's favourite interpreter of his organ music. It was also under Straube's guidance that the Sauer organ was built in 1908. He greatly encouraged young composers, and one of them was Günter Rafael, whose music was banned during the Nazi years as he was half Jewish. After the war he became a leading personality in German musical life. His arrangement of the well-known hymn 'Nun komm der Heiden Heiland' is part of the first section of the programme which is devoted to music for Advent. This section closes with a motet of Wolfgang Hofmann, on verses from the 9th chapter of the prophet Isaiah: "The people that had walked in darkness have seen a great light". In this motet he uses two hymns as cantus firmus: first 'Es ist ein Ros entsprungen' and later 'Zu Bethlehem geboren'.

The next section is about the Christmas story, beginning with 'Weihnacht' by Erhard Mauersberger, who was one of Karl Straube's pupils and was Thomaskantor from 1961 to 1970. His three pieces on this disc are written in a late-romantic idiom. Carl Thiel was a German organist and composer of church music. Johann Friedrich Reichardt was a colourful figure in Germany who wasn't only a composer but also a writer on music and on politics.

In this section we meet also two little-known composers of the late 16th and early 17th century. Cornelius Freundt worked in Zwickau; some of his Christmas pieces remained popular until the 18th century. Erhard Bodenschatz was a composer who worked in Thuringia and whose works stylistically belong to the early baroque.

Robert Fuchs was an Austrian composer who was mainly known as teacher at the Vienna conservatoire, where for instance Mahler, Sibelius and Wolf were his pupils. 'O Jesulein zart' is on the same melody as 'O Jesulein süss', mainly known from Bach's harmonisation in Schemelli's Gesangbuch.

The last section is about the joy which Christmas brings about. It begins with Georg Christoph Biller's setting of the popular carol 'O du fröhliche'. It also contains three nice pieces by Carl Riedel who was a chorus-master and composer and played an important role in the rediscovery of the music of Heinrich Schütz. The closing piece is the inevitable 'Stille Nacht', but thanks to the arrangements by Gustav Schreck - Thomaskantor from 1893 to 1918 - and Biller it is different from what we usually get to hear.

It is a tradition in St Thomas's that the choir sings Christmas music on three consecutive nights between the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. This disc is a compilation of such concerts in 2007 and 2008. This is a very nice tradition which is held in high esteem by the inhabitants of Leipzig. That is understandable, not just because of the popularity of Christmas music but also because of the quality of the singing of this choir. Some members sing short solos and they do that very well. They give some idea of the demanding level of training the singers of the choir are receiving.

Although a considerable part of this programme consists of music from an era which I don't appreciate very much this disc has given me great pleasure. This programme is indeed tasteful and avoids - as Eckhard Waschnewski writes in the booklet - "the temptation to treat Christmas music as a commercially-marketed hit parade". This can hardly be appreciated enough, considering the many discs of a very different kind which flood the market in the last months of each year.

The choir sings with great devotion, they produce a beautiful and strong sound, with fine dynamic shadings. The ensemble is impressive, in particular considering this is a live recording. The organ pieces are given stylish performances by Ulrich Böhme.

Johan van Veen


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