A shorter version of this review will appear in my 2012/21 Download Roundup.
You won’t be surprised when you look at the recording date to learn that this recording has been once around the block already – indeed, it’s still available on CD and as a download with its former catalogue number 98.574. There’s a more economical rival recording on CPO 777211-2, complete on one CD. Unfortunately the timings for the Hänssler recording just miss the limit for one disc but, surely, something else could have been found as a filler – less than 83 minutes on two full-price CDs is extravagant.
Indeed, should we not be entitled to expect that a reissue from 1988 would now be offered at mid- or even budget-price? The more attractive cover doesn’t offer much consolation; Hyperion are releasing their recordings from a similar vintage on their budget Helios label. Even downloading from classicsonline.com
won’t save you much; there too there’s no reduction on the usual price per CD to take account of the playing time, whereas they offer the CPO recording for just £4.99.
Herzogenberg is often regarded as a mere imitator of Brahms – his Variations on a Theme of Brahms
is probably his best-known work (Toccata TOCC0010 - review
) – but Die Geburt Christi
proves that snap judgement to be less than the whole story. Certainly he was not untalented and I wasn’t aware of any undue degree of Brahmsian influence in Die Geburt
. This is an utterly charming work produced in association with the Protestant theologian Spitta, blending the composer’s Catholic sensitivity with music for Lutheran performance interspersed with congregational singing of chorales – Ein’ feste Burg
and O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
here pressed into service with different words as, indeed, the latter was by Bach in his Christmas Oratorio
. Traditional carols such as Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
and Resonet in laudibus
, the latter adapted as a cradle song, are treated to fresh and attractive arrangements.
The work is divided into three parts – Die Verheißung
, the promise, consisting of Old Testament proof texts, Die Erfüllung
, the fulfilment, narrating the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, and Die Anbetung
, worship or adoration, with words again from Luke.
The Lutheran credentials are established from the outset with the opening unison chorale to the tune of the Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her.
Many of the proof texts in part 1 will be familiar from the Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols from King’s and from Handel’s Messiah
, though others will seem less obvious.
The transition from part 2 to part 3 is marked with singing of the chorale Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’
– the German version of Gloria in excelsis
. Unlike the live recording on CPO I am fairly sure that no congregation was present, but all the chorales are delivered in lusty fashion – a little more in tune and less ragged than that Wurzburg performance.
Every good Christmas composition has to have something for the shepherds; in Messiah
it’s the Pastoral Symphony, here it’s the Hirtenmusik
which opens part 3, music which I think you will fall in love with. The CPO performers, though generally a shade brisker than those on Hänssler, linger a shade longer and slightly more lovingly; there’s very little to choose between the two. There’s certainly everything to love about the Chor der Kinder
or children’s choir which follows, though there’s nothing twee about the way these young voices sing what English-speaking listeners will recognise as Jesu, good above all other
, with Herzogenberg’s deftly varied accompaniment. The well-known In dulci jubilo
is also treated to all-German words instead of the usual Latin/vernacular macaronic, but still sounds as wonderful in this setting.
The performance is good, with no shortcomings of any significance from the soloists, choir or accompaniment and Christian Grube’s overall direction is clearly sympathetic to the music. A full-blown blockbuster approach would have been quite inappropriate to this sensitive and delicate work and Grube gets the scale just right. I used the invaluable Naxos Music Library to listen to the CPO recording for comparison – a live recording with some of the limitations which that implies, including somewhat opaque sound in the chorales, but that’s not a major problem and it’s generally a very attractive proposition; it’s certainly good enough to tempt those who regard a 2-CD set, where one disc plays for 27 minutes, as unacceptable.
The recording is good – clearer than the CPO rival. My Arcam Solo refused to play CD1 – it can be very fussy – but my other decks all obliged without a problem and even the Arcam was happy with CD2.
The Hänssler booklet is informative but could do with including an English translation of the German text; even though the basic narrative of parts 2 and 3 mainly comes from the Gospel of Luke, we should surely be able to expect an English version from a full-price release. The notes don’t include even Herzogenberg’s dates and mostly concern themselves with what the writer perceives as Herzogenberg’s search for a father figure in Brahms; only the final paragraph explains the circumstances of the work in question.
Like most of you, I suppose, I’m always looking for something unhackneyed for Christmas. This is certainly one possible answer; the only reservation must concern the full price for such short playing time.