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Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning

Including music by Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654) and Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630)
Les Pages et les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. live 9 December 2017, la Chapelle Royale du Château de Versailles
English, French and German subtitles
PAL DVD9 HD 16/9; Stereo Dolby Digital

Ranking very high among my favourite Christmas CDs for over 20 years now has been Paul McCreesh’s wonderful reconstruction of the Lutheran Mass for Christmas, recorded under studio conditions in Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark in 1993. I bought that disc when it first came out and I doubt there’s been a Christmas since when I’ve not played it. I see that Dan Morgan reviewed it with great enthusiasm some years ago and I second every comment he made. Towards the end of 2018 I was delighted to see that a DVD of a live performance had been issued by the Château de Versailles label and I hastened to buy a copy. Unfortunately, it arrived during December and so although I had time to play and enjoy it then there wasn’t time to write a review and I thought there wouldn’t be much point in alerting MusicWeb readers to the disc in January. Consequently, I have delayed my appraisal until now. However, that’s given me the ideal excuse to watch the DVD again well before Christmas.

What Paul McCreesh does here is to present the music of a Lutheran Christmas morning Mass as it might have been celebrated in one of the major churches of central Germany in around 1620. We learn from the comprehensive and most interesting booklet note that the reconstruction follows the 1569 Wolfenbüttel order of service which respected Luther’s liturgies and would have been in use throughout Praetorius’ s lifetime. Much of the music included here is by Praetorius, including some of his harmonisations of Lutheran hymns and chorales. All the sung elements of the liturgy are included; so, for instance, the Kyrie and Gloria are sung, using Praetorius’ s 1619 Missa gantz Teudsch. The Sanctus is also sung, though here the words are Luther’s rhymed paraphrase. On a less elaborate scale, the prayers and scriptural readings (Epistle and Gospel) are sung by solo bass voices.

Arguably, the musical highlights are the hymns and motets. The service opens with the processional hymn ‘Christum wir sollen loben schon’. Here, as on several other occasions in this performance, I greatly admire the imaginative way in which McCreesh varies the forces used for each verse of this fine hymn. A lone treble voice is heard singing the first verse, the sound deliberately fragile. By that I mean no disrespect to the excellent young singer but one has the wholly appropriate sense of a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. The adult choir takes up the hymn, slowly processing down the nave of the darkened chapel to the platform from which the main ensemble will sing and play. The young boy and girl singers of Les Pages du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles are perched high above and behind the platform in the chapel gallery. This gallery, which ranges right round the chapel, will be put to marvellous use as the liturgy unfolds.

The Introit ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ similarly benefits from imaginative treatment. The Gradual Hymn, ‘Von Himmel hoch’ has, for me, always been a highpoint of the DG Archiv CD and it’s similarly impressive here. The children of Les Pages du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles sing their verses confidently from the gallery, offering a fine contrast with the verses for solo bass or for full ensemble. However, it has to be said that the performance of this hymn on the DG disc is even more thrilling. For that project McCreesh drafted in several local choirs to sing as the congregation and they, reinforced by the instrumental ensemble and the majestic, throaty sound of the Roskilde Cathedral organ, show what a thrilling experience it can be to hear committed unison singing. On this Versailles performance, taken at a rather steadier speed than was the case in Roskilde, the singers of the Gabrieli Consort are reinforced just by the singers – children and adults – from the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles and there isn’t quite the same crowd effect. (Furthermore, the organ at Versailles can’t match the splendour of the Roskilde instrument.) In this respect all the big congregational set pieces, though very effective, are marginally less exciting in Versailles than was the case in Roskilde.

That said, there are many marvellous moments in this Versailles performance. The Sanctus is terrific. At first, we hear two singers, a soprano and a tenor, each with their supporting instrument; they sing from high up in the side galleries. A little later the full choir and more instrumentalists join in and the performance is vital and colourful. This performance, I think, is as exciting as anything you’d hear from seventeenth century Venice.

Not all is spectacle, though; some of the music is on a more intimate scale. The liturgy allows space for a couple of organ solos. There’s a prelude, composed by an anonymous hand, before ‘Von Himmel hoch’ and later on, prior to the Communion motet, ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ we hear Samuel Scheidt’s prelude on the same hymn tune. Both are played with great skill. These instrumental interludes also perform a practical function because during them the artists are able to effect discreet platform rearrangements. I should also mention the Sonata ‘Paduana’ by Johann Hermann Schein which is sonorously played by a group of brass instruments from the organ gallery.

However, it’s the big ensemble set pieces that really compel one’s attention and none is more magnificent than the closing hymn, ‘In dulci jubilo’. Here, McCreesh lets his imagination take flight and the performance includes vocal and instrumental contributions from all corners of the performance space with superb use made of the galleries. In a final coup de théâtre, before the last verse McCreesh turns to the back of the hall and signals for drum and brass fanfares from the gallery at the rear. These musicians represent the town or court trumpeters who might have been employed on such a special occasion as the great Feast of Christmas. What a splendid sound they make to usher in the last verse of ‘In dulci jubilo’ and then right at the end as the last chord is sustained for a very long time. No wonder the audience’s applause erupts at the end: it’s a truly spectacular conclusion.

This DVD offers a terrific experience. The standard of performance is absolutely top notch. The singers of the Gabrieli Consort are uniformly excellent, whether taking solo parts or singing as an ensemble. The local singers from the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles also make a fine contribution, especially the young singers, Les Pages. As for the instrumentalists, they offer distinguished playing and no little flair. There are some weird and wonderful instruments on show here, not least the huge bassoon, and all the musicians display complete mastery of instruments that must be very tricky to play. It’s great to be able to see as well as hear this reconstruction. It’s clearly the product not just of great musical imagination but also of significant scholarship, though that scholarship is worn lightly. With performers at times disposed all round the performance space this must have posed significant challenges of coordination for Paul McCreesh but everything falls in to place marvellously. Just at one point in the Sanctus I spotted a momentary frown, suggesting perhaps that a corner hadn’t been negotiated quite as smoothly as he might have wished but, in all honesty, the listener wouldn’t know. McCreesh transmits his great enthusiasm for this music to all his colleagues and he is rewarded with spirited and cultivated singing and playing.

This is an outstanding and inspired musical reconstruction which brings the music of early seventeenth-century Germany vividly to life. The earlier CD is by no means displaced and I know I’ll continue to return to it with great pleasure, not least for the tremendous congregational participation in the hymns. However, the visual aspects of this new release add a new and important dimension.

The quality of both the sound and pictures is first rate and the generous booklet offers the sung texts and a fine essay about the music and the background, all in English, French and German.

Dan Morgan summed up his feelings about the DG Archiv CD, with these words: “A refreshing antidote to all those unimaginative festive compilations, this beautifully presented disc demands your attention this Christmas.” I feel his verdict applies just as much to this DVD. It’s an outstanding Christmas release.

John Quinn

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