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Hugo DISTLER (1908-1942)
Allein Gott In der Höh sei Her (from Jahrkreis, Op 5 -1933) [2:56]
Spangenbergs Grosses Gloria 1545 (from Liturgical Pieces, Op 13 – 1935) [2:48]
Strassburger Grosses Gloria 1525 (from Liturgical Pieces, Op 13 – 1935) [3:52]
Drei Geistliche Konzerte for Soprano & Organ, Op. 17 (1937) [9:20]
Organ Sonata (Trio) Op. 18 No. 2 (1938-39) [11:08]
Dreimaliges Kyrie Nürnberg 1525 (from Liturgical Pieces, Op 13 – 1935) [5:57]
Heinz Werner ZIMMERMANN (b 1930)
Chorvariationen über ein Thema von Hugo Distler (1964) [19:56]
Christina Roterberg (soprano)
Arvid Gast (organ)
Norddeutscher Kammerchor/Maria Jürgensen
rec. 2019, St Jacob’s Church, Lübeck, Germany
German texts included
Reviewed in stereo and 5.1 surround
MDG 902 2156-6 SACD [55:02]

Slender of face, a mop-top of blonde hair flopped casually above Shostakovich spectacles, Hugo Distler’s haunting, haunted visage is not one that’s easily forgotten, not least because those pictures that one can source reveal a figure who seems either implausibly young or impossibly old. His superbly crafted choral music is most accessible; it is perhaps an oversimplification to describe it as a likeable hybrid of Schütz and Hindemith but it is rich in its harmony and often vital in its rhythm. His music remains a staple in Germany to this day although it has fared less well elsewhere. Consequently recordings of his work are de rigeur on labels such as Thorofon and Carus but hard to come by otherwise. Anybody encountering this repertoire would imagine it to be a joy to sing, but in four decades of serious choir involvement I certainly never got the opportunity to test that theory. Distler also produced a couple of hours worth of equally accomplished organ music, as well as a couple of harpsichord concertos, the biggest of which involves a string orchestra and incorporates an elaborate set of variations in its finale -it really should be much better known.

It’s impossible not to conclude that Distler spent his all-too-brief life in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was born in Nuremburg and having been raised as an orphan attended Leipzig Conservatory where he initially studied piano and conducting, before changing to organ and composition on the strength of his teacher’s advice. At 23 he took up the post of organist at St Jacob’s Church in Lübeck (the same instrument features on this disc), and later taught at conservatories in Stuttgart and Berlin. The relationship between the Nazis and the church (Distler was devout – this much is obvious from his music) was ambiguous to say the least, and Distler’s eventual membership of the National Socialists Workers Party from 1933 seems to have been forced by circumstances; resistance would certainly have put a stop to his career, not least since many key figures within the hierarchy viewed his music as ‘Degenerate Art’. These apparently extreme compromises must have imposed an unsustainable moral burden upon him; his suicide in 1942 at the age of 34 seems to have been something of a tragic inevitability.

But his music survives and brims with life as this disc demonstrates most strikingly. It comprises a quartet of all-too-brief liturgical movements for unaccompanied choir, a delightful miniature cycle for solo soprano with organ (the title Drei geistliche konzerte recalls Schütz), and an attractive, rather Hindemithian organ sonata; it concludes with a rather jazz-influenced choral homage to Distler by Heinz-Werner Zimmermann; if the MDG booklet were to be believed would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year – in fact this is an erratum – at the time of writing he is 89 years young.

Distler’s lovely Allein Gott In der Höh sei Her is a richly harmonised ‘mini-Gloria’ for unaccompanied choir. The central verse is sung by the men in unison. The perfection of the North German chamber choir’s ensemble is immediately apparent. This is clearly a crack outfit, and they are wonderfully recorded. The three other unaccompanied Distler pieces are drawn from his Op 13 set of liturgical movements based on early 16th century models. Passages oscillate between austerity and ecstasy. Long-breathed melodies seem to break out of the texture and hover above the sound picture in a state of suspended tranquility. This effect is most apparent in the surround option which is most impressive. In a disc of just 55 minutes duration I wish Dabringhaus und Grimm had found room for more – it’s the most vivid recording of Distler’s choral music I’ve ever heard, yet we are restricted to barely a quarter of an hour of it.

Fortunately, everything else on the disc is of considerable interest. The abrupt vocal leaps in the first of the Drei Geistliche Konzerte (Three Sacred Concerti) of 1937 would present a challenge to any singer, and with much of the writing involving a high tessitura, the soprano Christina Roterberg has her work cut out, not least in such an appealingly resonant acoustic. She is more than equal to the task; her voice is most characterful whilst her projection of the text has bell-like clarity. The vocal stylings required by the longer central piece bring Britten to mind, while the last exudes a yuletide spirit. Nor is the organ part merely perfunctory – Arvid Gast is an equal partner throughout these little concerti and draws some vibrant, unusual colours from the St Jakob’s instrument. These pieces are an unexpected delight – Roterberg and Gast provide radiant, impassioned readings.

Gast is alone in the Organ Sonata Op 18 No 2 which Distler composed a year later in 1937. Its jaunty opening panel veers between the Hindemithian fugato of its opening and a central section of neo-classical elegance. There is nothing anodyne about this piquant, characterful music. The central movement starts with a declamatory cadenza-like passage, before a delightful modal idea hovers above a sustained pedal. The finale is marked by short melodic motifs which interlock pleasingly until a strange canonic idea intercedes. The coda is characterised by florid passagework and luminous coloration. Given the popularity of Hindemith’s three sonatas, the comparative neglect of Distler’s memorable, similarly concise work is inexplicable. It’s hard to imagine a more invigorating and colourful account than Gast’s. MDG tend to set a high bar in their recordings of organ music – this is no exception. The detail that emerges in the surround option reinforces the label’s audiophile credentials.

The last work on the disc is presented as a homage to Hugo Distler. Heinz Werner Zimmermann’s Choral Variations of 1964 utilise a theme from another of Distler’s Op 13 sequence, a setting referred to as the Great Nürnberger Gloria of 1525. It comprises a theme and seven variations for solo soprano and a choir divided variously between four and six voices. Christina Roterberg’s soprano is smokier here - she presents the elaborate, rather intense theme over a homophonic accompaniment – although this gives little hint of the jazzy syncopations which will follow. The first variation presents the theme as a kind of walking strummed bass above which the female voices float a carol-like tune. Rapid triplets dominate the texture of the virtuosic second variation, while the third is more ecstatic and ethereal. These three brief contrasting variations are a testament to Zimmermann’s versatility. Sprechgesang patterns punctuate the sonic haze of the fourth variation which reaches a rapt, calmo denouement before yielding to Roterberg who projects yet another carol-like phrase which now forms the basis of an enigmatic fifth section which blends restlessness with resignation. The sixth variation is richer in texture and pits the text of Allein Gott In der Höh delivered by upper voices against the slower moving psalmody of the men. The extended finale opens with a slower, less obvious manifestation of the walking bass. The textures become more complex until Roterberg enters one last time with more obviously bluesy material. Five jazzy chords put the piece to bed; Zimmermann’s singular confection somehow finds the means to build bridges between Schutz and swing.

Performances on this disc are uniformly impressive; the sound in both layers is everything one might expect from this source. I do think the relatively short playing time is a bit of a drawback given that there’s plenty of other Distler that could have been included without compromising the conceit of a programme which has evidently been carefully planned. Otherwise, the novelty of the music and the high quality of these interpretations merit a fulsome recommendation.

Richard Hanlon

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