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Tobias ZEUTSCHNER (1621-1675)
Ehre sey Gott allein a 12 [4:50]
Hosianna Filio David a 6 [6:15]
Die Geburth unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi a 18 [25:46]
Es ist kein ander Heyl a 6 [6:17]
Ecce nunc benedicite a 3 [3:47]
Halleluja - Gelobet seystu Jesu Christ a 15 [7:18]
Magnificat cum rotulis a 18 [17:15]
Weser-Renaissance Bremen/Manfred Cordes
Rec. 2020, Stiftskirche, Bassum, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 368-2 [71:39]

Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio is one of the most popular works of the baroque era. It was not the first of its kind. The best-known oratorio for Christmastide of the 17th century is the one that Heinrich Schütz published in 1664, which ranks among the genre known in Germany as Historia. It is not known exactly when Schütz composed this work, but it is quite possible that he was not the first who wrote a 'Christmas Oratorio'. The central piece on the disc under review here is a Christmas Oratorio by Tobias Zeutschner, which dates from 1660. He is a largely unknown quantity. It seems that only one work from his pen has been recorded to date, included on a disc devoted to 17th-century music from Wroclaw. And that is the town where Zeutschner worked from 1649 until his death.

He was born in Neurode (today Nowa Ruda, Poland), which was part of the county Glatz. In 1622 it was forbidden to practise Lutheranism there; those who refused to convert to Catholicism were expelled from the town. The Zeutschner family went to Bernstadt (today Bierutów), where Tobias probably received a musical education from two representatives of Silesian musical life, Matthaeus Apelles von Löwenstern and Michael Büttner. In 1649 Zeutschner settled in Wroclaw, which was then called Breslau, where he took the position of organist at St. Bernardinus, a church of the third rank in the town. In the early 1650s he wrote his first compositions, among them a Te Deum. A collection of sacred works was published in 1652 under the title of Decas Prima. In 1655 he was appointed organist of St Mary Magdalene, the second main church in Breslau.

Zeutschner's extant oeuvre comprises around sixty works, all sacred. Most of them were printed, but the Christmas Oratorio has been preserved in manuscript. It is one of the few works from his pen which has also been found outside Breslau. It was dedicated to the Duke of Oels, where Zeutschner had worked a few years before his settlement in Breslau. Whereas Schütz set a text put together from the four Gospels, Zeutschner confined himself to two chapters, from the Gospels after St Matthew (ch 1, vs 18-25) and that after St Luke (ch 2, vs 1-20). As a result, there are fewer characters here: in addition to the Evangelist, who recites the storyline in the Gospels, only the angel visiting Joseph, and the shepherds. The latter are represented by the choir. The oratorio is scored for 18 vocal and instrumental voices; the instrumental ensemble comprises two cornetts, two trumpets, three sackbuts, two violins, two viole da gamba and basso continuo. The work opens with a sinfonia, which is followed by the tutti singing "Halleluja". The Evangelist, who throughout the work is accompanied by the viole da gamba, then sings the introduction (the Exordium): "Listen to the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, as the same is described to us by the Holy Evangelists Matthew and Luke". The tutti then sing "Glory be to you, Lord". The choir also echoes the words of the angel to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid! Behold, I proclaim to you great joy, which shall be for all people". It also acts as the chorus of the angels, singing the praise of God: "Glory be to God in the highest and peace on earth and good will to men". Notable is the chorus of the shepherds when they have arrived at the manger. Here Zeutschner has included a traditional song: Ein Kindelein so löbelich (A little child so wonderfully is born to us today). It was originally the second stanza of the hymn Der Tag der ist so freudenreich, dating from the 15th century, and an arrangement of a 14th-century Christmas song. When the shepherds leave, we hear a sinfonia, and then the choir sings again "Halleluja". The Evangelist sings the Conclusio, in the form of a hymn, whose text is probably from Zeutschner's own pen. The choir then concludes with "Glory be to you, Lord".

As far as Zeutschner's setting is concerned, some features need to be mentioned. He makes effective use of a rhetorical device, repeating a statement several times, every time at a higher pitch. This is a way to emphasize the text, underline its importance and call for the attention of the listeners. It is used at the Exordium: "Höret an" (Listen). The same technique is used in the statement of the angel to the shepherds: "[I proclaim to you] great joy". And then once again it is used in the chorus of the angels: "Ehre sei Gott" (Glory be to God). Coloratura is used to illustrate single words, such as "selig" (he shall deliver his people from their sins) and "eilend" (in haste). This is quite an impressive piece, shorter and more straightforward than Schütz's Historia, but making a lasting impression nevertheless. It is a very fine addition to the repertoire for Christmas.

The quality of this work is confirmed by other pieces from Zeutschner's pen.

Ehre sey Gott allein is a piece in 12 parts: six voices, two trumpets, three sackbuts, two violins and basso continuo. It is taken from a collection of pieces that was printed in 1661 in Leipzig. It is a so-called contrafactum: it was originally a setting of a Latin text, Resonent organa, and was likely written for a special occasion. Paulina Halamska, in her liner-notes, suggests the inauguration of a new organ. In a copy preserved in the Stadtbibliothek Leipzig, an alternative text in German has been added, which turns it into a piece for Christmastide: "Glory be to God alone, now do rejoice, large and small; little Jesus is born, so let us be glad". The German text includes references to Luther's hymn Vom Himmel hoch.

From the same collection is Es ist kein ander Heyl, scored for four voices, two violins and basso continuo. The text is a paraphrase of Acts 4, vs 12, with additional lines of free poetry. The opening line takes one-third of the piece, which is a way to emphasize its importance. Again Zeutschner uses the technique of repetition at a higher pitch, here on the words "then the name" [of our Lord Jesus Christ]. At the end the first lines are repeated.

The most simple work by Zeutschner in the programme is the sacred concerto Ecce nunc benedicite Domino, a setting of Psalm 134 (Behold, now bless the Lord) for alto, two violins and basso continuo. It is taken from the collection Decas Prima. It shows the influence of the Italian style, comparable with that in Schütz's Symphoniae Sacrae.

The programme has been extended with pieces which have been preserved without the name of the composer. The are part of a collection of manuscripts which document liturgical practice in St Mary Magdalene church in Breslau. Hosianna filio David is a sacred concerto for six voices and basso continuo; two tenors and a bass act as soloists. The text is the antiphon for Palm Sunday, which in Lutheran Germany was sung in the Advent period. Two words are singled out through imitation: "rorate" (drip dew) and "elevate" (lift up).

Halleluja - Gelobet seystu Jesu Christ is a sacred concerto in 15 parts: five voices, two violins, four sackbuts, a four-part cappella and basso continuo. It is a setting of the first and seventh stanzas of Martin Luther's hymn. The ensemble is divided into four choirs: two violins, five solo voices, four sackbuts and the cappella respectively. The text of the two stanzas is sung by the solo voices, whereas the tutti sing "Halleluja" as a kind of refrain.

The closing piece is a quite interesting one. By coincidence it was discovered that the Magnificat cum rotulis is an arrangement of a setting by the Italian composer Tarquinio Merula. A copy of the Venetian printed edition which includes this piece, was known in Breslau. Merula created an alternatim setting: the verses were to be performed alternately by singers and by the organ. In this arrangement the organ versets have been replaced by traditional Christmas songs. a practice we also know from the Christmas version of Bach's Magnificat. It has its roots in the custom of the so-called Kindelwiegen: singing at the cradle of Christ, a tradition which goes back to the liturgical dramas of the Midle Ages. Among the Christmas songs, we find Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. The last is Joseph, was da? (Joseph, what now?). Here the music includes swaying rhythmic figures on the lines "Then help me cradle the little newborn child". The doxology, which normally concludes the Magnificat, is followed here by the choir of the angels: "Glory be to God in the highest".

Weser-Renaissance Bremen is one of the most interesting ensembles in the realm of German 17th-century music. Time and again it digs up unknown repertoire, often by composers only experts have heard of. That is the case here as well. This disc demonstrates that Zeutschner was a very fine composer, whose oeuvre deserves to be investigated. It is to be hoped that more from his oeuvre will be recorded. The anonymous pieces fit into the programme perfectly. They are impressive specimens of a sophisticated liturgical practice in Breslau. Again, more of that should be performed and recorded.

One can hardly imagine better performances that we get here. Manfred Cordes has clear ideas about how this music should be performed and what kind of singers are required. The result is an ensemble of supreme quality, not just technically and stylistically, but also with regard to text expression. Performances are apparently considered a collective effort, and this may explain why the singers who take the roles of the Evangelist and the angel in the Christmas Historia are not mentioned. I assume they are the tenor Mirko Ludwig and the soprano Marie Luise Werneburg respectively. They both do a brilliant job. The solo part in Ecce nunc benedicite is given a fine performance by David Erler.

In short, this is a most intriguing and musically compelling recording, and a very important addition to the discography of music for Christmastide. It deserves a special recommendation.

Johan van Veen

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