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Euch ist ein Kindlein heut geborn: Luther’s Christmas Hymns
Martin LUTHER (1483‒1548): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ; Christum wir sollen loben schon; Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her ‒ in arrangements by Martin Agricola (1486‒1556), Johann Eccard (1553‒1611), Heinrich Finck (1444‒1527), Georg Forster (1514‒68), Adam Gumpelzhaimer (1559‒1625), Johannes Hartung (1493‒1554), Hans Leo Hassler (1562‒1612), Paul Luetkeman (fl. 1580‒1610), Caspar Othmayr (1515‒53), Lucas Osiander (1534‒1604), Michael Praetorius (1571‒1621), Balthasar Resinarius (c. 1480‒1544), Esaias Reusner the Elder (died c. 1670), Thomas Stoltzer (1475‒1526), Johann Stomius (1502‒62), Moritz von Hessen (1572‒1632), Johann Walter (1496‒1570)
Veronika Winter (soprano), Ina Siedlaczek (soprano), Jan Kobow (tenor)
Hamburger Ratsmusik/Simone Eckert
rec. Ratzeburg Cathedral, 19‒22 May 2015
CARUS 83.390 [64:56]

Lutheran Symphonix
Christian SPRENGER (b. 1976)
Orchestral Fantasies on Protestant Chorales: Nun danket alle Gott; Geh aus, mein Herz; Liebster Jesu; Lobe den Herren; Befiehl du deine Wege; Ein feste Burg; Sollt’ ich meinem Gott nicht singen; Christe, du Lamm Gottes; Ich singe dir mit Herz und Mund; Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich; Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten; Hymnus
Kammerchor der Hochschule für Musik ‘Franz Liszt’, Weimar; Staatskapelle Weimar/Christian Sprenger
rec. Weimarhalle, Weimar, 25‒27 May, 2016
GENUIN GEN16440 [57:12]

On 31 October 1517, or so we are told, Martin Luther pinned 95 theses against the sale of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in Saxony, and the Protestant Reformation began. Whether the specific gesture attributed to him ever took place is now a matter of considerable doubt; but it is certain that Luther’s writings and actions in late 1517 unleashed an epoch-making process of change that has had enormous repercussions for theology, politics, society and culture right down to the present day. So it is hardly surprising that, 500 years on, 2017 will be a major Luther Year, in which we can expect an avalanche of related events, books, films, artworks ‒ and, of course, CDs.

The two discs under review here are both very much products of the current and ongoing fascination with Luther in the German-speaking lands, and both are based on Lutheran hymns. That, though, is just about all they have in common. One could indeed almost regard them as representing opposite ends of the spectrum of recordings we might expect to hear in the course of the Luther Year.

The Carus issue contains five Christmas hymns, for which Luther himself composed or adapted both the words and the music. This should not surprise us, given that he was a highly gifted musician and also was committed to the importance of Christmas as a family festival. Indeed, one could argue that he pretty much instigated such modern Christmas traditions as the giving of presents, a practice which he transferred from the Catholic Feast of St Nicholas’s Day on 6 December.

The first puzzle the disc presents us with, is to work out, how a disc containing ‘just’ five hymns can stretch over some 56 tracks. The answer is that, with the exception of ‘Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar’, the whole of which is given in a beautiful arrangement by Michael Praetorius, all the hymns are presented in a wide variety of different versions by no fewer than seventeen early-modern composers. So, for example, the first four and the seventh verses of ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ are sung by one soprano, the fifth by a second soprano and the sixth by both of them, all with subtly different instrumental accompaniments, by a total of five different named composers and one anonymous; and the section also contains the first verse sung again by a tenor, plus four purely instrumental arrangements. So, for one hymn we have seven verses, ten composers or arrangers (counting Luther) and thirteen tracks, which together last for a little less than thirteen minutes. If you’re lost, don’t worry ‒ so was I.

This rather complicated approach certainly has its advantages: it helps prevent monotony in a disc, dedicated to predominantly slow-moving church music, and it enables one to compare and contrast the different approaches taken to essentially the same material by a wide variety of near-contemporary musicians. One soon finds oneself looking forward to the next contribution by Praetorius, for example, in the awareness that it will stand out from the rest in its rhythmic sophistication and variety of colour. On the other hand, Carus’s approach to programme-building does rather over-egg the pudding, and perhaps takes conscientiousness to the point of over-earnest fussiness. One wishes the programme were interspersed with some contrastingly faster instrumental items; this happens just the once, when the brilliant recorder player Julia Fritz gives us the Bransle double by Praetorius; but it’s a shame more was not made of this idea, especially given that the disc is not especially full.

One can have no complaints about the performances, however. The two soprano soloists are well contrasted, but also blend well in the quite numerous duets they have to sing. Ina Siedlaczek sounds remarkably pure and childlike, whereas Veronika Winter’s voice is creamier and at times quite ravishingly beautiful. I would love to hear her in Bach, or, for that matter, Mozart. The distinguished tenor Jan Kobow makes a predictably fine contribution, but we don’t hear enough of him (he appears for only about six minutes in all). The instrumentalists are superbly virtuosic; the recording is good; the booklet cover (from Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi) is appropriate and gorgeous; all the German words are provided and translated; and the notes are helpful. Not one for everybody’s Christmas stocking, perhaps; but a worthy achievement nonetheless.

And so to Christian Sprenger’s Lutheran Symphonix. His ‘Orchestral Fantasies on Protestant Chorales’ have to be placed, I suppose, in the long-standing German tradition of chorale preludes and fantasies. But Brahms or Reger they are not. Rather, to quote the dodgily translated booklet, they are “readily comprehensible musical episodes” that are “recounted at a high musical level. Through the multicolored medium of the orchestration and the use of a chorus, these appear so vivid as to render the contents and messages of the songs virtually visible to the inner eye”. To be honest, the original German isn’t much clearer, and I have to report that my inner eye remained largely unaffected. What we have sounds to me, for the most part, like well-crafted, at times quite brilliantly orchestrated film music. The writing for brass is particularly striking, a reflection, no doubt, of Sprenger’s expertise as a virtuoso trombonist, who also teaches the instrument at Weimar’s Franz Liszt Conservatoire. And some of the slightly quieter and less ambitious fantasies have some interesting things to say about the chorales: I enjoyed, for example, Sprenger’s take on the seventeenth-century melody of “Lobe den Herrn” (known to us as “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation”). A lot of the disc, however, left me feeling baffled. Baffled, for one thing, about what Luther might have made of it, given not least his basic mistrust of instrumental as against vocal music (this is really why the chorales recorded on the Carus album needed others to provide accompaniments); and baffled, more relevantly, about who Sprenger’s music is really for. To appreciate it fully, it seems to me, one has to be conversant both with the Lutheran chorales, on which the fantasies are based, and with the idiom(s) favoured by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Personally, I am OK on the former but weak on the latter, and hence my listening notes rarely got beyond such banalities as “sounds like Star Wars”, “whooping wordless chorus”, “Hollywood feel-good factor” and, in respect of the last item, “Fanfare for the Common Man”.

I wish I could be more helpful, but I can’t, other than to say that this is very much a marmite disc. I can only suggest sampling it before buying it. If you respond to the first item, for example, which is based on the Crüger hymn we know as “Now thank we all our God”, then you’ll like the rest. If you don’t, you won’t. For the record, the choir is fine, the Staatskapelle Weimar is a magnificent orchestra, and the recording is admirably vivid.

Nigel Harris


 

 




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