A German Christmas
Margaretha Consort/Marit Broekroelofs
rec. 2018, Helenakerk, Aalten, Netherlands
NAXOS 8.551398 [78:15]
Anybody who has had a German market sprout up in their town in December would have to admit that the Germans do Christmas very well. That’s not just thanks to their sugary treats and festive traditions, but also their music. The post-Reformation tradition of music for all makes that especially strong in the German lands, and this disc collects a set of 17th century Christmas and Advent music from composers who were close to Luther in sympathy and in musical tradition.
It’s well played and well sung, recorded in an acoustic that manages to flit between intimacy and grandeur, something that the Margaretha Consort’s director explain in the booklet notes. As a summation of the work of key German greats like Jacob and Michael Praetorius or Schütz, it’s a valuable enough document.
I’m not sure it’s much more, though, and, critically, I found it interesting but not particularly enjoyable. My major problem is that little about it is particularly celebratory. The strings sound worthy rather than involving, their somewhat wiry texture feeling a bit spare, despite the warmth of the material they’re playing. The virtuosity is wonderful, but there isn’t much festive cheer to warm you up. The one thing a Christmas collection needs is joy, and I just didn’t find much of that here.
The small scale textures transmute into intimacy every so often, such as for a beautifully sung solo Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, but that’s an exception. Some of the chorales, like Wie schön leuchtet are sung pretty plainly in a way that had me longing for something a bit more special.
It’s only the large scale items that quickened me a little. The congregational singing in Quem pastores or Von Himmel hoch, for example, or the glittering cornetts that decorate the textures every so often. The organ sounds very distinctive, too; a rather chewy texture that I rather enjoyed, even if it doesn’t have that much to do.
I can’t really recommend this too heartily, then, especially when there’s a far better alternative available. If you really want a taste of how 17th century Lutherans celebrated Christmas then go straight to Paul McCreesh’s stupendous recording of Michael Praetorius’s Christmette, a recreation of how a Lutheran Christmas Day service might have sounded around 1620. It’s one of the most dazzlingly joyful liturgical events ever committed to disc, with its colossal forces, multiple choirs and armies of instruments all arrayed in Roskilde Cathedral. Next to that full fat celebration, this Naxos disc is rather thin gruel.
Tunder, Franz, Praeludia No. 3 in G Minor [4:07]
Praetorius, Michael Nun komm der Heiden Heiland [9:09]
Schütz, Heinrich, O Jesu, nomen dulce [3:41]
Gesius, Bartholomäus / Praetorius, Michael, In dulci jubilo [4:59]
Wakelkamp, Frank, Maria durch ein Dornwald ging [3:10]
Praetorius, Michael / Siefert, Paul, Puer natus in Bethlehem [8:52]
Mazák, Alberik, Nobilissime Jesu [3:36]
Schütz, Heinrich, Heute ist Christus der Herr geboren, [3:28]
Praetorius, Michael, Teutsch Et in terra a 6, "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr" [3:32]
Hurtado, Petrus, Illibata ter beata (arr. R.R. Miranda and J.M. Peláez for early music ensemble) [3:05]
Hassler, Hans Leo / Praetorius, Jacob / Steigleder, Johann Ulrich, Vater unser [6:50]
Praetorius, Michael, Quem Pastores [4:34]
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [2:33]
Schein, Johann Hermann / Praetorius, Michael, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [5:11]
Hassler, Hans Leo / Scheidemann, Heinrich, Vom Himmel hoch [4:42]
Wakelkamp, Frank, Veni, veni, Emmanuel [5:09]