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In dulci jubilo - Music for the Christmas season by Buxtehude and friends
Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier
Allan Rasmussen (organ)
rec. 2017, Garnisonskirken, Copenhagen
Texts and translations included
DACAPO 6.220661 SACD [77:45]

Advent and Christmas constitute one of the major parts of the ecclesiastical year, which is reflected in the number of compositions written across Europe. The present disc focuses on music by Dieterich Buxtehude and some of his German contemporaries. The programme is divided into four sections, going from the Annunciation and Advent to New Year and Epiphany. At the end it returns to the beginning with an organ arrangement of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern by Buxtehude.

The programme starts – after a short organ prelude by Heinrich Scheidemann – with a vocal arrangement of this same hymn by Philipp Nicolai (1597), which was originally written as his response to an outbreak of the plague. It soon became associated with the annunciation of Jesus’s birth to the Virgin Mary: Bach took it as the starting point for a cantata for the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March). Christian Geist composed a sacred concerto on three of the originally seven stanzas of this hymn. It has the form of a chorale arrangement: the soprano sings the hymn unaltered, with the violins adding the counterpoint. It is a little inconsistent that Else Torp adds little ornaments in the last stanza at the end of both the first and the last line.

Next follows one of the least-known pieces by Johann Christoph Bach. Many of Johann Christoph Bach’s motets are for eight voices in two choirs, and that includes Merk auf, mein Herz, which is a free arrangement of stanzas from Luther’s hymn Vom Himmel hoch. Johann Christoph was held in high esteem by the members of the Bach dynasty, including Johann Sebastian, and this motet shows why. It is full of text-illustration in various ways, through musical figures and an effective use of chromaticism. Notable examples of text-illustration are the fast tempo at the opening of the first stanza (Pay attention, my heart, look over here), the descending figure on “you come along to join me in my mysery” and the repetition on “ever” in the fourth stanza, the imitation of the braying of the ass (stanza 5) as well as the long note on “ruhn” (rest) in the sixth stanza. In the last Johann Christoph Bach turns to the melody of Luther’s chorale, which is sung by the sopranos.

Obviously the evergreen Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland cannot be omitted. Allan Rasmussen plays Buxtehude’s arrangement of this hymn on the large organ.

Next we meet the shepherds, who receive the news of Jesus’s birth with great enthusiasm. Both Buxtehude and Geist have used the meeting of the angel and the shepherds, but in different ways. Fürchtet euch nicht by Buxtehude is a so-called concerto-aria cantata: soprano and bass, supported by two violins and basso continuo, first sing the message of the angel in concertato manner: “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy”. The second section has the form of a strophic aria, which is a song of joy about the birth of the Saviour: “O blessed, gracious life! O blissful, joyous time!” After the three stanzas the opening section is repeated. In contrast, Geist presents the story in a dramatic manner, inspired by the Italian oratorios written by the likes of Carissimi. It opens with the soprano, taking the role of the angel, asking the shepherds what they saw. They answer: “We saw the child, wrapped in swaddling and choirs of angels praising the Saviour”. Then angel and shepherds - the latter represented by two tenors and bass - together sing the chorus of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will”.

The third section is devoted to the Nativity. It opens with Buxtehude’s cantata Das neugeborne Kindelein, which is a setting of a hymn by Cyriakus Schneegaß of 1597. However, Buxtehude does not make use of the hymn’s melody. It allows him to translate the text into music, for instance through coloratura on “singen” (sing) in the second stanza, and to highlight the third line from the third stanza: “Despite the devil, the world, the gate of hell!” Franz Tunder’s Ein kleines Kindelein is a strophic aria in two stanzas for sopranos, strings and basso continuo. In dulci jubilo is one of the best-known and most-beloved Christmas hymns, notable for its alternation of Latin and German texts. Buxtehude uses the form of a chorale cantata: three voices are supported by two violins and basso continuo, which play interludes and ritornellos.

The last section includes music for the weeks after Christmas, which covers the circumcision of Jesus in the temple and the visit of the wise men. Jesus dulcis memoria is a medieval hymn, written by Bernard of Clairvaux. Buxtehude has selected seven verses and has set them in the manner of a ciaccona. This bass pattern of thirteen notes is repeated 45 times. The piece is scored for three voices (ATB), two violins and basso continuo. Matthias Weckmann uses the same poem, but selects different verses for his sacred concerto for bass, two violins and basso continuo, Rex virtutum. The third piece in this section pays tribute to the influence of the Amsterdam organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, who can be considered one of the founders of the North German organ school. Scheidemann, Reincken, Weckmann, Tunder and Buxtehude all being representatives of that school. Ab Oriente venerunt Magi is about the wise men, visiting baby Jesus. It is from Sweelinck’s Cantiones Sacrae, a collection of motets in a pure stile antico. The printed edition includes a basso continuo part, but it seems that this was added by the publisher for commercial reasons. It is rightly ignored here. Unfortunately the booklet omits the lyrics of this piece.

In between the vocal items, mostly at the start and/or the end of a section in the programma, Allan Rasmussen plays organ pieces, most of which have no direct connection to the content of the vocal works, but shed light on the style of the North German organ school. The pieces which can be played without a pedal board are performed on the small organ, which is also used for the basso continuo, whereas the two chorale-based pieces by Buxtehude are played on a large organ, a modern instrument in baroque style.

This is an interesting and compelling collection of pieces for the Christmas season in different styles. Most of Buxtehude's cantatas are pretty well-known, but – as mrntioned above – Johann Christoph Bach’s motet is little-known, and that also goes for the pieces by Christian Geist. Although some pieces should have been given a bit more weight, for instance through a more moderate tempo (such as in Johann Christoph Bach’s motet) or a more marked difference in dynamics between good and bad notes, in general the performances are very good. Both the singers and the instrumentalists do a fine job here and show great affinity with the idiom of these composers from northern Germany. This disc will certainly give you much joy during the Christmas season.

Johan van Veen

The Annunciation & Advent
Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1595-1663)
Preambulum in F [1:25]
Christian GEIST (c1640-1711)
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [5:35]
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)
Merk auf, mein Herz [10:07]
Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (c1637-1707)
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BuxWV 211) [1:53]
The Shepherds
Fürchtet euch nicht (BuxWV 30) [8:09]
Christian GEIST
Pastores dicite quidnam vidistis [2:54]
Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1622)
Fugue in g minor [4:23]
The Nativity
Das neugeborne Kindelein (BuxWV 13)
Franz TUNDER (1614-1667)
Ein kleines Kindelein [4:09]
In dulci jubilo (BuxWV 52) [5:50]
Preambulum in d minor [3:38]
New Year, Epiphany & Annunciation
Jesu dulcis memoria (BuxWV 57) [8:27]
Matthias WECKMANN (1619-1674)
Rex virtutum [4:95]
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621)
Ob Oriente venerunt magi (SwWV 153) [4:04]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BuxWV 223) [6:39]



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