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Hugo DISTLER (1908-1942)
Totentanz Op. 12/2 (1934) [36:14]
Das ist geisslich wahr Op. 12/8 (1941/42) [7:08]
Fürwahr, er trug unsere Krankheit Op. 12/9 (1941/42) [9:30]
Christian Steyer (speaker); Lene Charlotte Böhme (child); Christine Rothe (renaissance flute)
Kammerchor Josquin des Préz/Ludwig Böhme
rec. 22-24 January, 4-5 May 2016, Lutherkirke Leipzig
CARUS 83.474 [52:22]

I hadn't heard of Hugo Distler until I received this CD for review. For others coming new to him, here’s some background. He was a German organist, choral conductor, teacher and composer. Born in Nuremberg he received his musical training at the Leipzig Conservatory. His compositional oeuvre focused mainly on choral and organ music. In 1931 he took up the role of organist at the Lübeck Jakobikirche, at the same time receiving an appointment to the faculty of the Lübeck Conservatory. He remained in these posts until 1937. It was a compositionally fruitful period when he wrote two of his major works: Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story), Op. 10 in 1933, and Totentanz (Dance of Death) Op. 12/2 a year later. Life took a downward turn for him once Hitler took power in 1933. The spiritual/religious bent of his music ran contrary to the Nazi way of thinking, and it came to be regarded as degenerate. By 1940 he was working in Berlin. He became depressed as friends perished, allied bombing started and the threat of conscription loomed; he was a conscientious objector, a stance regarded at the time as a treasonable offence punishable by death. When it all became too much for him, he committed suicide by putting his head in his gas oven.

Taking centre-stage on this delightful disc is the Totentanz, composed in 1934 and premiered the same year at the 'Lübecker Sing- und Spielkreis' in St Catherine's church. It comprises an aphorism motet in fourteen sections. Distler drew on texts from one of the most famous mystics of the Baroque era Johannes Scheffler (1624-1677), a Silesian poet, theologian and physician, who titled himself the 'Silesian Angel'. He wrote 'The Cherubinic Pilgrim', a book of aphorisms which inspired, not only Distler, but also Heinrich Kaminski and Adolf Brunner. Totentanz also drew inspiration from the late Gothic paintings of 'The Dance of Death' in St. Mary's Lübeck, sadly destroyed during the war, and Leonhard Lechner Athesinus (c.1553-1606) posthumously published 'German Aphorisms on life and Death'. The structure of this chorale motet, divided into compact sections, formed a ground plan for Distler's own opus. Other features of the Lechner work that attracted Distler were the alternation of homophonic and polyphonic structures, use of melisma, the pentatonic scale and old church modes alternating with modern major-minor tonality.

In order to add to the dramatic impact of Totentanz, Distler inserted spoken dialogue between the fourteen musical aphorisms, which constitutes a dialogue between Death and its victims. The texts utilized were by the German pedagogue and librettist Johannes Klöcking (1883-1951). There's no connection between the sung and spoken components, so they can be performed separately if desired. For a performance of the work in Kassel in 1934, the composer also added a set of variations for solo flute on the old folk song 'There is a Reaper Whose Name is Death'. These flute solos were inserted between the fourteen sections fulfilling the role of a 'meditative contrast', and affording some cohesion. On the face of it, the work seems to provide those taking part with a range of performing options. For this recording, the 1934 Kassel performance offers a suitable and effective precedent, and the use of a renaissance flute, helps set the historical perspective.

The Kammerchor Josquin des Préz is conducted by Ludwig Böhme. There's marvellous clarity to the vocal contributions, with diction being remarkable clear. Ensemble is immaculate, as is tuning. The choir are aided by a sympathetic acoustic, both intimate and resonant. Christian Steyer recites the dialogues in German, which are provided in the booklet, together with the sung aphorisms. An English translation is provided. Steyer's rich, darkly-toned voice lends a certain intimacy. One of the dialogues is spoken by a child, Lene Charlotte Böhme. The flute solos are admirably played by Christine Rothe.

The two tuneful motets which end the disc are an added bonus. They are taken from Distler’s unfinished Geisliche Chormusik. Originally intended to frame a large St. John Passion, they display a deft skill in choral writing and are impressive for their chromatically harmonic complexity. Once again, the choir’s clear diction, pristine intonation and commitment is rewarding.

Stephen Greenbank



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