is of phenomenal importance in the history of German – and, by extension, European – oratorio. Schütz laid down the template for many who would follow him in setting the gospel texts of the Christmas story uncut with no added choruses or arias. It’s impossible to imagine Bach’s Passions and oratorios without this work. The only reason it’s not better known must surely be because Bach fairly comprehensively surpassed him. That’s not to undo the older composer’s incalculable influence on Bach, though. Now that Harmonia Mundi have re-released Jacobs’ 1989 recording at super budget price, this festive season is a good time to get to know it.
Schütz’s setting is fairly spare, using only a small group of instruments and singers, but he uses them to great effect, and there are plenty of things that stick out as noteworthy. These include the nimble recorders that accompany the shepherds’ Pastorale, the pompous bustling of the trombones for the first appearance of the Wise Men or the portentous brass (including trombones and cornetts) that accompanies the pronouncements of Herod’s priests and scribes. I also loved the snarl that Ulrich Messthaler introduces to his voice at the word “wieder” (bring me word “again”) to suggest Herod’s duplicity. The painful sliding dissonances that accompany the Massacre of the Innocents are very powerful.
The performance is very strong. René Jacobs has an affinity with this music and he brings it to life with vigour and energy so that there is never any danger of its being dull. The overlapping of the vocal lines in the ensemble moments — you can’t really call them choruses — is very convincing, and the solo singers are all very good, especially Martin Hummel’s beautifully light-voiced Evangelist who holds the whole thing together convincingly.
The bonus tracks are a surprisingly intimate set of Christmas motets, with interweaving solo voices which tell the story in a very beautiful but always intelligible manner. These include a glowing annunciation scene, a busy Rorate caeli
and an affable angel telling Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The disc concludes with a luminescent Hodie Christus natus est
and an even more uplifting German version to finish.
As a consequence of the super budget price there are no texts included, but you’ll find online help for the Weihnachts-Historie