Schütz’s Christmas Story
is one of the composer’s late works, but one those closest to perfection. It comprises a narration of the biblical nativity story by a tenor in a variety of forms of recitative, interspersed with brief interludes depicting scenes including the appearance of angels, the shepherds, the three Magi and King Herod, the whole framed by longer choruses. The variety of textures and character show the sure hand of the master that the elderly composer had become. It is the musical equivalent of an Advent calendar or series of stained glass windows, and is enchanting from start to finish. In under 35 minutes the composer depicts vividly all the main parts of the Christmas story, the final recitative ending with a marvellous passage anticipating Christ’s adulthood followed by a joyous final chorus. As a whole the work is succinct, effective and utterly original in its use of all the styles of both sacred and secular music then current. I first heard it some fifty years ago and have regarded it ever since as probably the greatest and most inspired piece of Christmas music ever written. Curiously, though, it is by no means as frequently performed as its merits and lack of obvious performance problems might suggest.
Listening to the present performance you may well doubt whether any such problems exist. They do, and start with musicological debate over how to deal with the fragmentary state of the surviving material. Curiously the extensive and helpful, if very tiny, notes explain the editorial problems but do not name whose edition is used. Whoever it is, the result is idiomatic and convincing as is the performance. Much of the burden falls on the tenor evangelist. Adam Riis has a fresh and free tone and convincingly conveys the changing course of the narrative. I might have preferred a more extrovert approach, reacting more obviously to the text, but better what we have here than an anachronism more suited to the next centuries. The various singers and instrumentalists in the Interludes are uniformly excellent and the overall result is delightful in every way.
The Resurrection Story is an earlier and, given the subject, an unsurprisingly somewhat more austere work. The evangelist’s part, accompanied by the viols, is more restrained in character although this puts into greater relief the passages where other singers have the words of particular characters in the story. These are usually represented by more than one voice. The words of Jesus for instance are sung by an alto and a tenor, but their manner is that used elsewhere by the composer in his vocal concertos. The overall effect is not as overtly dramatic as the Christmas Story but is certainly compelling and moving.
The evangelist in this work is Johan Linderoth whose subtle freedom and perfect articulation of the text are close to the ideal. The other performers maintain a similar standard. Overall this is a disc which gives immense satisfaction and which is a great credit both to Paul Hillier as director of both works and to the Danish Arts Council for its support of the project.